Tag Archives: president

Presidential Influence over Government Formation Process: Towards a Classification

This post is based on the article by Lubomír Kopeček and Miloš Brunclík, which has just been published in East European Politics and Societies (L. Kopeček and M. Brunclík, “How Strong Is the President in Government Formation? A New Classification and the Czech Case.” East European Politics and Societies (2018).

In this article we focus on the influence of formally weak presidents over the outcome of the government formation, which is often neglected in scholarly literature. However, as contemporary Czech or Slovak presidents have shown, weak presidents may still become key players in the process leading to appointment of government, i.e. a collective body headed by prime minister, who can be considered to be the chief executive in most European countries. The task of assessing the role of presidents in the government formation process (GFP) is tricky. One can take account of formal presidential powers enshrined in constitutions, but as many researchers have shown[i], formal powers may not tell us much about the real influence presidents exert over the GFP. It should be borne in mind that the actual influence of presidents varies from case to case. It is contingent on a number of circumstances, such as the president’s relationship with the parliamentary majority, the president’s political orientation, the degree of fragmentation of the party system, the organizational capacity of parties, historical precedents, the public’s expectations of the president, the president’s popularity and informal authority, the mode of election of the president, the timing of the presidential election, etc.[ii]

In order to assess the degree of influence presidents have over the GFP, we developed a classification of the roles of presidents in the GFP reflecting real practice, moving beyond comparing formal constitutional rules. We believe that this simple qualitative framework enables us to compare the degree of presidential influence within single presidencies (the degree of influence may vary significantly from one government formation to another), within a polity as well as across polities.

When analyzing the GFP,[iii] it is necessary to examine formal-constitutional rules regulating the GFP, as well as the actual course of the GFP in terms of real politics. An analysis of the GFP in European states in formal terms, e.g. studying constitutional texts, shows that government formation is the result of negotiations between parliamentary parties (and also among them) and the president (although the former is usually stronger than the latter)[iv]. Hence, it is logical to distinguish between parliamentary and presidential cabinets. The parliamentary cabinet largely results from an agreement between parliamentary parties. The president’s role in the GFP is rather formal: he/she formally confirms the cabinet determined by the parliamentary parties. On the other hand, the presidential cabinet primarily reflects the will of the president, whereas the parliamentary parties’ role in the GFP is only secondary. In political practice we can find a number of examples which are somewhere in between the two above-mentioned cases: these cabinets are formed as a compromise between the parties and the president, with each holding a varying degree of influence. The whole process can be seen as a trade-off: the greater the influence a president has over the GFP, the less influence the parliamentary parties exert and vice versa. For this reason, we define more subtle categories, which are presented below from the perspective of the president. The categories mainly reflect the real influence of the president in the GFP. Our classification categories are compiled inductively, i.e. on the basis of a generalization of knowledge about the GFP in particular European countries:[v] 1) observer, 2) notary, 3) regulator, 4) co-designer and 5) creator (see table below).

Table: Presidents’ influence over the GFP

  Control over the GFP Political preferences Level of activity
Observer no irrelevant no
Notary limited irrelevant low
Regulator medium relevant medium
Co-designer main relevant high
Creator exclusive relevant very high

This classification is further based on the assumption that the activity level of parliamentary parties may differ significantly from that of the president. While weaker heads of state (observer or notary) are rather passive and let the parliamentary parties take the initiative, stronger presidents (co-designer and creator) tend to be more active and play a more important role in the GFP. The extent of the actors’ activity is also linked to the relevance of their political preferences as to the government and its shape. While weaker heads of state do not display their preferences (as they are irrelevant anyway), stronger presidents tend to reveal their preferences in an effort to defend the steps they take in the course of the GFP.

Let us explore the categories in more detail. The observer, unlike any of the following patterns, has neither a formal nor an informal role in the GFP. In this case, the GFP is exclusively in the hands of the parliament. However, in European republics we cannot find any president that would fit the observer pattern (nevertheless, the observer type can surely be identified in some European monarchies: Sweden since 1975 and the Netherlands since 2012).

The regulator plays a relatively important role in the GFP. S/he is involved (directly or through mediators) in parties’ bargaining over a new cabinet. The regulator reveals his/her political preferences, which are thus relevant to the outcome of the GFP. S/he does not necessarily come up with his own government alternative. However, s/he may set some conditions for the new cabinet, e.g. a preference for a majority cabinet; a preference for a cabinet that includes/excludes a certain party or some candidates for prime ministers, ministers etc. The role of the regulator is no longer passive, but rather reactive. S/he expects that parties will propose their alternatives for the future cabinet within the limits set by him/her and s/he reveals his/her preferences for a certain alternative. Good examples of this situation come from Austria in the 1950s.[vii]

The co-designer is a strong player in the GFP and his/her overall influence over the outcome of this process is greater than that of the parliamentary parties. Unlike the regulator who does not usually propose governmental alternatives on his/her own, nor does s/he assert them, the co-designer promotes his/her own idea and composition of the future cabinet, and his/her opinion largely, but not completely, determines the outcome of the GFP. The co-designer is typically a powerful president, who however lacks majority support in parliament and who cannot afford to push his/her idea completely independently and against the will of the parliament. Instead, s/he needs cooperative parliamentary parties to set up the new cabinet. The co-designer can also be identified in situations in which a president has fewer constitutional powers in the GFP, but the parliamentary parties are unable to generate a cabinet on their own and thus encourage the president to step significantly into the process, so that an originally weak president becomes a co-designer. It follows from our observations that co-designer is rather infrequent pattern. Still, we can identify some examples[viii].

The creator clearly dominates the GFP. S/he forms the cabinet alone, in line with his/her ideas and political preferences. Parliament’s role is either limited to a minimum (e.g. formalizing the president’s choice in a vote of confidence) or parliament is out of the game altogether (in countries were the new cabinet is not obliged to ask for confidence). The designer creates so-called “presidential cabinets”, i.e. cabinets that are created primarily at the will of the president, while the parliament is sidelined.[ix] The creator is typical for countries where the president is usually responsible for the executive and has a wide range of executive powers. S/he is at the same time the leader of the parliamentary majority, and it is generally expected that the president will actually determine the government. French presidents during the Fifth Republic are a classic example. Of course, with the exception of the periods of cohabitation, when president faces a parliamentary majority from a different political camp. However, a creator might be also a president who is formally strong enough to appoint his/her own presidential (usually technocratic) cabinet, even though s/he lacks the support of the parliamentary majority, and the continuation of such a government in power and pursuit of its program may be extremely problematic.[xi] Good examples of this practice might be three short-lived technocratic cabinets appointed by the Portuguese president António Eanes in 1978 and 1979.[xi].

The classification can be applied almost to both republics and monarchies, indeed all cases where the government is a separate executive body from the head of state. Our classification rests on the qualitative assessment of individual cases of the GFP and requires detailed information about each GFP. Yet, it allows us to compare heads of state with different formal powers in different countries and different periods of time, thus making it a useful tool for comparative analysis. It may help us demonstrate that even extremely weak heads of state may occassionally significantly affect the outcome of the GFP, which cannot be reduced only to inter-party bargaining and coalition theories.

Notes

[i]  E.g. M. Duverger, “A new political system model: semi‐presidential government.” European Journal of Political Research 8(1980);

[ii] O. Protsyk, “Prime Ministers’ Identity in Semi-Presidential Regimes: Constitutional Norms and Cabinet Formation Outcomes”; O. Neto and K. Strøm, “Breaking the Parliamentary Chain of Delegation: Presidents and Non-partisan Cabinet Members in European Democracies.“ P. Köker, “Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe.”; S. G. Kang, “The influence of presidential heads of state on government formation in European democracies: Empirical evidence.”

[iii] In line with the literature, we analyze the GFP when a new cabinet is to be formed after one of the following situations: 1) parliamentary elections, 2) PM’s resignation, including the fall of the cabinet following a successful vote of no-confidence, or rejection to pass a vote of confidence in the cabinet, 3) cabinet is recalled by the head of state, 4) change of partisan composition of the cabinet. Cf. J. Woldendorp, H. Keman and I. Budge. Party Government in 48 Democracies (1945-1998): Composition –Duration –Personnel (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publisher, 2000).

[iv] R. Carroll and G. Cox, “Presidents and their Formateurs”; cf. S. Choudhry and R. Stacey. Semi-Presidentialism as Power-Sharing (IDEA, 2014).

[v] E.g. T. Bergman, “Formation rules and minority governments.” European Journal of Political Research 23(1993); J. Blondel and F. Müller-Rommel, Cabinets in Eastern Europe (Gordonsville: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); K. Strøm, W. Müller and T. Bergman, Delegation and accountability in parliamentary democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[vi] This pattern can be also found in parliamentary monarchies where the sovereign is equipped with formally great powers but, in accordance with constitutional traditions, does not fully use them and lets the parliament decide on the future cabinet. The monarch only formalizes such decisions (e.g. Great Britain).

[vii] Wolfgang C. Müller, “Austria. Tight Coalitions and Stable Government”, in Coalition Governments in Western Europe. eds. W. C. Müller and K. Strøm, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 90.

[viii] I. Jeffries, Eastern Europe at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century: A Guide to the Economies in Transition (London: Routledge, 2002); . Bilefsky, “Serbia approves pro-Western government.” New York Times, 7 July, 2008.

[ix] Cf. A. Kuusisto, “Parliamentary crises and presidial governments in Finland.” Parliamentary Affairs 11(1958); E. Kolb, The Weimar Republic (London: Routledge, 2005); M. Needler, “The Theory of the Weimar Presidency.” The Review of Politics 21(1958).

[x] H. Bahro, B. Bayerlein and E. Veser, “Duverger’s concept: Semi–presidential government revisited.” European Journal of Political Research 34(1998).

[xi] P. Manuel, The Challenges of Democratic Consolidation in Portugal: Political, Economic, and Military Issues, 1976-1991. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996); J. Magone, “Portugal. The Rationale of Democratic Regime Building,” in Coalition Governments in Western Europe. dd. W. Müller and K. Strøm, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lithuania – President Grybauskaite on an extended “vacation”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s White House Merry-Go-Round: Is Kelly The Next To Go?

Is White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about to be fired? Last week President Donald Trump removed his national security adviser H.R. McMaster, replacing him with former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. McMaster’s firing is the latest in a series of changes to Trump’s inner circle, and it immediately prompted speculation that Kelly is the next to go. Rumors regarding Trump’s dissatisfaction with Kelly have circulated for months, with the president reportedly openly speculating about his replacement. However, the difficulties Kelly has faced as chief of staff are not solely a function of Trump’s mercurial temperament. They also reflect a more fundamental tension that inheres in his particular role running the White House on the president’s behalf. Most chiefs see their primary purpose as conserving the most precious asset a president possesses – his time. To do so, chiefs try to centralize managerial authority in their own hands. But this assertion of power can create a backlash. Under powerful chiefs, presidents frequently chafe at what they see as their increasing isolation, a lack of exposure to differing viewpoints, and a sense that the chief is usurping their prerogatives. Reportedly, Trump has repeatedly expressed exactly these sentiments.

The irony is that Kelly is doing exactly what Trump hired him to do last July in response to a series of policy fiascos, including a controversial travel ban mired in legal disputes, the failed Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, reports of White House staff infighting, historically low approval ratings, and an overall sense that his presidency was failing. In the ensuing eight months, Kelly has asserted his administrative control through a major overhaul of White House staff people and processes. One result is the unprecedented rate of turnover among Trump’s White House aides, much of it purportedly with Kelly’s blessing. According to media reports, McMaster is but the latest victim of Kelly’s purge.

In addition to the staff housecleaning, Kelly has tried to impose greater discipline over White House decisionmaking and messaging. On this score, however, he has been less successful, in part because Trump seems unwilling, or incapable, of sticking to organizational routines or exercising self-discipline. Indeed, the President bristles at any perception that Kelly is “managing” him. The result is a recurring pattern of high profile disputes between the President and his chief of staff: Trump tweets or states a controversial position or belief, Kelly walks backs or clarifies Trump’s statement, and the President responds by implicitly or publicly rebuking his chief of staff. Two months ago, for example, Kelly reportedly told legislators on Capitol Hill that Trump’s campaign statements on immigration were “uninformed,” and described the President’s views on building a border wall as “evolving.” The next morning Trump responded by tweeting “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it.” The exchange fueled rumors that Trump would replace Kelly. However, Trump then publicly reaffirmed his support for his chief of staff.

To be sure, some of Kelly’s wounds are self-inflicted, evidence that his years in the military left him ill-prepared to address the political dimension of his job. Examples abound, such as when he accused undocumented immigrants of being too lazy to sign up for protections afforded by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and appeared to back Staff Secretary Rob Porter after accusations of abuse by Porter’s two ex-wives. As former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta remarked: “John is a great Marine . . . but he is not a politician, and one thing he lacks is the ability to look at the big political picture and understand what you should and shouldn’t say as chief of staff.”

However, the combustible relationship between Trump and Kelly is not simply a function of their personal idiosyncrasies. Barack Obama’s buttoned-down approach to the presidency was the antithesis of Trump’s in terms of impulse control and adherence to organizational routine. And yet Obama went through five chiefs during his two terms as president, including three during his first four years in office. George W. Bush is perhaps an exception to this pattern – his first chief, Andrew Card, served for six years before leaving of his own accord, and Card’s successor finished out Bush’s second term. But Bush’s predecessor Bill Clinton also had high turnover, with four chiefs across his eight years as president. Both George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan White House experienced similar rates of change.

In part this frequent turnover reflects a mismatched skill set. As Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and I show, presidents often initially choose their White House aides, including chief of staffs, from individuals who have proven their mettle on the campaign trail. However, the skills that prove so useful during campaigns tend not to translate well into the process of governing. Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign strategist who briefly reprised that function in Trump’s White House, exemplifies this tendency. After being appointed to the White House to insure that Trump’s campaign promises were fulfilled, Bannon was fired shortly after Kelly’s appointment as chief of staff. Bannon later conceded that “In many ways, I think I can be more effective fighting from the outside for the agenda President Trump ran on. ”

But while the mismatch in functions may explain White House staff turnover more generally, there is a more fundamental reason for the instability in the chief of staff’s position. As my Middlebury College colleague Amy Yuen and I demonstrate formally in our ongoing research program [gated], it is very difficult for a chief to organize the White House staff to simultaneously maximize efficiency and insure that the range of information and advice necessary for effective decisionmaking reaches the President’s desk. In the modern era, White House staffs have expanded in size and internal complexity, prompting chiefs to centralize power in order to achieve administrative efficiency. Carried too far, however, such efforts can isolate presidents from much needed input and advice. Moreover, presidents may worry that their decisionmaking authority is being usurped by their chief White House aide. This clash in expectations is what contributes to the high turnover among chiefs.

How might Kelly avoid the fate that so frequently ensnared his predecessors? It depends first and foremost on Trump properly understanding his organizational needs. The large size and internal complexity of the modern White House make it imperative to designate one individual to coordinate the flow of paper and people in and out of the Oval Office. However, this does not mean Trump should grant that individual primus inter pares status within the White House organization. Instead, as Yuen and I show, presidents gain informational advantages by allowing multiple White House power centers, and giving each equal access to the president. Ideally, this entails distributing White House staff authority across two or more political and policy advisers, and pitting them against each other in a competitive advising process, rather than placing specialists in distinct functional silos reporting separately to a dominant chief of staff. A competitive advising structure, we argue, forces policy and political disputes to the president, where they should be resolved, rather than allowing them to be settled by a chief of staff or worse, by lower-level aides.

This approach undoubtedly has costs. Most notably it requires a president who is comfortable dealing with dissent among his advisers, and who can tolerate the unavoidable negative media coverage that staff disagreements will produce, particularly when aides use the press to take on rivals and to pressure their boss to choose their side. For their part, chiefs must be willing to manage this open competition, rather than stifle it, even at the risk of creating the perception that they are not fully in charge of the White House structure. Eight months into his tenure, it is an open question whether Kelly is willing and able to manage this type of competitive advising structure. It is even less clear that his President will let him. But the fate of Trump’s presidency rests in large part on whether he, and Kelly, grasp the impact of organization on presidential success. If they cannot, Kelly’s days as chief of staff are likely numbered, and Trump will almost certainly experience a recurrence of the organizational dysfunction that has afflicted his presidency for much of his first year in office.

Ukrainian Presidents and NATO

Will President Poroshenko be able to take Ukraine into NATO? This is the question experts of the Ukrainian foreign policy are asking today. A bit over a year ago, in February 2017, Ukrainian President promised to hold a referendum on the country’s membership in NATO before leaving office. A few days ago, Ukraine reached another important milestone in its quest for the NATO membership. On March 10, President has declared that Ukraine is officially seeking to enter into a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a formal step toward joining NATO. As a result, Ukraine has been granted a status of “aspirant country.”

According to the NATO website, the Alliance may invite aspirant countries to participate in the MAP “to prepare for potential membership and demonstrate their ability to meet the obligations and commitments of possible future membership. Participation in the MAP does not guarantee membership, but it constitutes a key preparation mechanism.”

The first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk (1994-1999), was in favor of joining the Alliance, a position which he advocated during his presidency as well as long after. He considered membership in NATO to be the best guarantee of the security of Ukraine. Today, he still continues to publicly support Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance. In August 2017, Kravchuk was quoted that given the international situation and conflict with Russia, Ukraine “will not be able to survive” without an alliance and accession to NATO.

Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004), on the other hand, never openly declared any intention to join NATO. He usually listed three main reasons for leaving it off his foreign policy agenda: (1) NATO was not willing to let Ukraine in; (2) Ukraine was not ready and (3) attitudes Russia, which categorically rejected NATO’s presence in Easter Europe and the former Soviet Union [1]. Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010), on the other hand, was a strong supporter of Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance and expressed country’s readiness to join the Membership Action Plan in 2006. However, the plan for NATO membership was completely abandoned in May 2010 under President Yanukovych (2010-2014).

This brings us back to the present day. In July 2017, as we reported on the pages of this website, President Poroshenko announced that he would seek an opening of negotiations on MAP as well as promised to hold a referendum on the membership in the Atlantic Alliance. Furthermore, for the first time Ukraine undertook the necessary domestic reforms to back up its claim for the membership.

There are, of course, two sides to the question of NATO membership. It is not only the Ukrainian presidents who matter in the membership decisions. Since president Trump took office, the US has sent contradictory messages on NATO and the country’s leadership of the Alliance has been uncertain. President Trump, however, has been largely supportive of Ukraine. He has recently approved sales of weapons to the country as well as deployed more tanks to NATO’s Eastern flank reassuring both Ukraine and his European allies. Whether NATO will accept a country with an on-going military conflict is also in question. It has not stopped West Germany from joining the Alliance in 1955 when GDR was under the USSR occupation. Whether the Alliance would be willing to do it again, however, remains to be seen.

Note

[1] Kuzio, Taras. 1998. “Ukraine and NATO: The evolving strategic partnership,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 21 (2): 1-30.

Moldova – The president, necessary judicial reforms, and the European Union

In late February 2018, Radio Free Europe (Jozwiak 2018) reported on a draft recommendation by the European Union Foreign Affairs Council. In this draft, the Moldovan Government was urged to increase its fight against corruption and, in particular, to restore the public trust in the judicial system. It was not the first time the European Union has tried to influence the government in Chișinău in this regard. As far back as 2002 the Council of Europe (Council of Europe: Parliamentary Assembly 2006) raised the issue of judicial autonomy and suggested modifications of the nomination procedure for judges – a process that is equally important for the functioning of the rule of law as well as the influence of the president on the judiciary. In the following, two issues with judicial autonomy in Moldova will be discussed – the process of seating the judge (appointment) and the presidential involvement and the ability of the president to unseat or remove the judge (tenure): both processes are vulnerable to presidential meddling. This meddling is also one of the main points of criticism, but as will be discussed, this criticism is probably only an easy way out of a more complex situation.

In any democracy, the judiciary plays a major part in the development of democracy and its resilience against autocratic backsliding. Yet, judicial institutions are also political institutions that undergo the same pressures of self-interested political actors as other political institutions (Magalhaes 1999). At the same time, research shows that judicial independence is of utmost importance to democracy (Helmke 1998). Constitutional and statutory regulations are a first step, but “(i)ndividuals whose judicial careers are not secure are more susceptible to outside influences” (Herron and Randazzo 2003: 425). Hence, the intertwined relationship between the president and the judiciary is not a new problem the European Union has just discovered.

Several scholars pointed to the role of tenure for impartial decisions (Helmke 2002; Herron and Randazzo 2003). Moreover, various international actors emphasize the importance of the tenure of judges for a functioning rule of law in the Republic of Moldova. In theory, the appointment or reappointment of a judge should limit as much as possible the political pressure placed on them. Legal reforms have taken up this challenge in recent years. But like other countries, the provisions in the Moldovan Constitution regarding the president’s role in the nomination procedure of judges is insufficient and does not clearly state any provisions in case a conflict arises.

All ordinary judges in Moldova are directly appointed by the president on the basis of the recommendation of the Superior Council of Magistrates (Consiliul Superior al Magistraturii), the president has 30 days to decide and request information on the candidates. The president can refuse the appointment, but after Superior Council of Magistrates put the candidate forward for a second time with a 2/3 majority, the president must agree to the appointment. Furthermore, the 1994 Moldovan Constitution stipulated a 15-year period between the appointment of a judge and the tenured position; this was shortened to 5 years (Art. 116) in 1996. It was widely considered that this amendment (initiated by then-President Snegur) was an important step towards the strengthening of the independent and autonomous position of judges and therefore the rule of law.

Yet, it is also clear that the general idea of allowing the president to appoint judges or to grant tenure threatens the basic judicial autonomy and freedom of partisan influences of those judges. After President Voronin came into power in 2001, the threats against the political autonomy of judges increased. Reports on the political pressure on the judiciary became more serious (Freedom House 2003), the president increasingly used his power and refused to prolong the mandate of judges (Freedom House 2003). In 2012, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova decided on a judicial reform concerning in particular the appointment and tenure of judges (for a detailed overview of the individual reform laws see Hriptievschi et al. 2015). Since then – theoretically – clear criteria for the appointment and career of judges as well as “mandatory performance evaluations [] (and) the establishment of the Judges’ Selection and Career Board” (Hriptievschi 2017, 3) should guarantee an independent judiciary. Yet, several judges appointed since then face severe accusations against their integrity. They were appointed nevertheless, in some cases with the support of the president, but also after he (in this case Timofti) rejected the proposed judges (Hriptievschi 2017). Furthermore, the Superior Council of Magistrates is itself controversial, in particular because of a missing transparency in its decisions and ignoring the recommendations of the Judges’ Selection and Career Board (see e.g. Hriptievschi 2017).This is by no means a problem only observable in Moldova, similar conflicts can be found in Slovakia and Poland (see the blog post on Poland and on Slovakia).

In 2016, the Moldovan Parliament discussed a constitutional amendment draft regarding the reform of the judiciary. Also, the Venice Commission proposed an amendment that would allow the president to reject a nomination by the Superior Council of Magistrates only once and specifies that the appointment and tenure decision has to be based on objective criteria, merit and a transparent procedure (Council of Europe 2018). These institutional criteria were already stipulated in the 2012 reform but putting them into the constitution could be an important step for a more serious judicial reform in the Republic of Moldova.

To sum, the experience since the reform in 2012 shows that not only the involvement of the president but also the questionable decision making by the very instances endowed with guaranteeing judicial independence are a major problem. In addition, judicial behavior depends on more than institutional features: for a high degree of independence of the judiciary and its judges, a constitutional amendment only focusing on the presidential role will not suffice.

References

Council of Europe (2018) Republic of Moldova Draft Law on the Modification and Completion of the Constitution.

Council of Europe: Parliamentary Assembly (2006) Functioning of Democratic Institutions in Moldova: 10931, available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/44c4d7e74.html, accessed 10 April 2015.

Freedom House (2003) Moldova Country Report, available at http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2003/moldova#.U-CY-aMd0X8, accessed 5 August 2014.

Helmke, G. (1998) Toward a Formal Theory of an Informal Institution: Insecure Tenure and Judicial Independence in Argentina, 1976-1995.

Helmke, G. (2002) ‘The logic of strategic defection: Court–executive relations in Argentina under dictatorship and democracy’, American Political Science Review 96(2): 291–303.

Herron, E.S. and Randazzo, K.A. (2003) ‘The relationship between independence and judicial review in post-communist courts’, The Journal of Politics 65(2): 422–438.

Hriptievschi, N., Gribincea, V., Chirtoaca, I., and Guzon, I. (2015) Selection and Career of Judges, available at http://crjm.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/2015-01_DP-Selection-of-Judges_CRJM-EN1.pdf, accessed 10 March, 2018.

Hriptievschi, N.(2017) Independence and Accountability of Moldova’s Judiciary under Threat, available at http://crjm.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/2017-04-Hriptievschi-judiciary.pdf, accessed 18 March 2018.

Joswiak, Rikard (2018) EU presses Moldova on judicial reform, fighting corruption, available at https://www.rferl.org/a/eu-presses-moldova-judicial-reform/29057286.html, accessed 18 March 2018.

Magalhaes, P.C. (1999) ‘The politics of judicial reform in Eastern Europe’, Comparative Politics: 43–62.

Kenya – President Kenyatta does a deal …

For the past year, Kenya has been on a worrying political trajectory. Following disputed elections in August – which were nullified by the Supreme Court in September – the political system has been on an uneven keel. Having boycotted the “fresh” elections in October, opposition leader Raila Odinga refused to recognise the legitimacy of president Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory that, in the absence of his main rival, was inevitably won in a landslide.

For his part, Kenyatta, having won the repeat poll and sensing that international donors had little appetite to support Odinga’s claims to power, demonstrated no inclination to compromise. Instead, government rhetoric suggested that while the president might be willing to sit down and talk to the opposition about how to achieve development, the 2017 elections, and the quality of Kenyan democracy, was off the table.

This political impasse had begun to generate considerable political instability. Over 100 people died in protests and clashes relating to the election controversy, significantly increasing the political temperature. Moreover, while an opposition ceremony to swear Odinga in as the “People’s President” passed without incident once the government made the decision to remove the security forces from the streets, the aftermath of the inauguration demonstrated that this was not part of a broader process of reconciliation.

Instead, the ruling party quickly moved to criminalise the National Resistance Movement that Odinga had launched to contest Kenyatta’s victory, and deported Miguna Miguna, the controversial opposition leader who had presided over the ceremony. Although these steps were triggered by the inauguration, they were part of a wider pattern of democratic backsliding that has included:

  • Verbal attacks on judges following the nullification of the 8 August election, and continued political pressure on the judiciary to rule in favour of the government.
  • Ignoring court orders relating to the detention and deportation of Miguna Miguna – which the High Court has now ruled was illegal.
  • The further politicization of the media, including threats to journalists writing stories that would embarrass the government and pressure on newspapers to cancel the contracts of critical columnists.
  • Forcing three TV stations– KTN, NTV and Citizen TV – off-air so that they could not cover Odinga’s swearing-in ceremony, and then keeping the broadcasting ban in place for almost a week.

Against this backdrop, a prolonged political crisis appeared to be a genuine risk. Instead, backroom negotiations – in part spurred by the efforts by the international community to negotiate a compromise ahead of the visit of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – led to an unheralded breakthrough. Following months of bitter disputes, on 9 March 2018 President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga announced that they had made up and were now “brothers”.

However, while the agreement was welcomed by many Kenyans as it promised to give rise to a period of greater political stability and cohesion, it raised as many questions as it answered. Although it is clear what President Kenyatta has gained through the deal, most notably recognition as the country’s legitimate executive and an end to opposition protests, it is unclear exactly what the deal will deliver for Raila Odinga. The agreement that has been circulated is low on details and includes no firm commitments that would bind Kenyatta’s hands when it comes to media freedom, respect for the judiciary, or even electoral reform.

In turn, this has raised questions about whether the deal between Kenyatta and Odinga is based on a compromise about the reforms needed to strengthen Kenyan democracy, or represents a personal deal between the two leaders to work together to protect each other’s political interests. Those close to Kenyatta and Odinga have suggested that the agreement is rooted in their concern for their legacy and desire to avoid conflict. But a more cynical interpretation is possible, namely that one of the main gains the two men have realised by joining forces is to outmanoeuvre rival leaders from their own alliances who hope to replace them as presidential candidates come the next election in 2022.

For Kenyatta, the potential of a longer-term political alliance with Odinga reduces his dependence on two of his potential successors within the Jubilee govermment – Gideon Moi and Willian Ruto. Similarly, the deal benefits Odinga by easing his reliance on Musalia Mudavadi, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula – three supposed allies within the National Super Alliance (NASA) who failed to turn up to support his inauguration, prompting widespread rumours that the opposition coalition had fragmented.

As Kenyan political leaders begin to adjust to the latest in a long line of reconfigurations, there is only one thing that can be said for certain: further political realignments are likely, and the parties and alliances that contest the next elections will not be those that competed in the last ones.

Wouter Veenendaal – Suriname’s Desi Bouterse: A Leopard Who Doesn’t Change His Spots?

This is a guest post by Wouter Veenendaal of Leiden University

After the watershed parliamentary elections of 2010, Suriname’s former military dictator Desi Bouterse was installed as the country’s president. While his rise to power in 1980 occurred by means of a military coup, this time Bouterse was democratically elected, receiving the two-thirds parliamentary supermajority required to indirectly elect a president. Upon the termination of his military regime in 1987, when multiparty elections were reintroduced in the small South American country, Bouterse established the National Democratic Party (NDP) to maintain his power base in the democratic system. While the NDP lingered in opposition for most of the subsequent decades, Bouterse gradually constructed a professional political movement that ultimately was able to defeat the traditional Surinamese parties.

As a result of the colonial legacy marked by (forced) migration, Suriname is a profoundly multicultural society, composed of four or five cultural segments, none of which constitutes a majority. Upon the extension of the suffrage in 1948, the first political parties were formed on the basis of ethnic identification and mobilization, with the aim to emancipate, represent, and cater to specific ethnic groups. While the 1980 coup and subsequent military regime aimed to bring an end to ethnic politics, after the return of democracy the old ethnically-based parties reemerged, and won elections in a coalition named New Front. In contrast to the New Front-parties, Bouterse’s NDP was established as an avowedly multi- or pan-ethnic party, claiming to be the only ‘national’ party of Suriname because it seeks to represent all different groups living in the country.

Bouterse’s election to the presidency in 2010 cannot be seen separately from the legal process relating to the so-called December Murders, in which he is the main suspect. During Bouterse’s military regime, on 8 December 1982, fifteen prominent Surinamese men who criticized the dictatorship were murdered by the military. After a lengthy legal investigation by the Surinamese judiciary, in November 2007 – twenty-five years after the crimes were committed – a criminal proceeding against Bouterse and twenty-four other suspects was initiated by Suriname’s military court. According to many observers, this murder trial actually constituted the main motivation for Bouterse to run for president in 2010, anticipating that the presidential office would bring him legal protection and the power to influence the judicial process. Since his election to power in 2010, Bouterse’s NDP has repeatedly attempted to frustrate or bring a halt to the murder trial, most prominently by the adoption of an amnesty law in 2012 and an instruction to the public prosecutor to stop the prosecution in the interest of state security in 2016. Both challenges were dismissed by the military court, which considered these as illegitimate interventions in an ongoing legal process.

Concomitantly to its attempts to undermine the December Murders process, the ruling NDP has in various ways endeavored to weaken the position of Suriname’s judiciary as well as other (semi-) public institutions. High-ranking politicians within the party have argued that unelected judges should not have such wide-ranging powers, and that more mechanisms to control the judiciary should be embedded in the constitution. Moreover, the Surinamese judiciary suffers from a severe lack of government funding, and Bouterse has so far refused to appoint a new President to Suriname’s High Court of Justice. The administration has also sought to challenge the position of the Surinamese media, most recently by the foundation of a well-funded National Information Institute (NII), which officially communicates government information to the public, but largely functions as a propaganda machine that allows politicians to ignore other media outlets. And while corruption has always been a problem in Surinamese politics, under this administration numerous corruption scandals have unfolded and have gone by unpunished. The government’s connections to transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking networks have in fact led some observers to consider the country as a “criminalized state” in which such groups use the international sovereignty of Suriname as a cover for their criminal activities.

In short, therefore, while Bouterse’s current administration operates under the veneer of a nominally democratic system, its ruling style has been decidedly authoritarian in character, and in several ways disturbingly comparable to the military regime he spearheaded in the 1980s.

France – Emmanuel Macron as the new ‘fast’ president

During the early days of his presidency, Emmanuel Macron was sometimes compared with the classical gods Hercules and Jupiter. The metaphor of Macron as Jupiter was intended to celebrate a return to authority and leadership at the heart of the State, a posture deliberately contrasted with the perceived failings of his three immediate predecessors: Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. Is Macron a regal figure? Or a republican monarch? Such labels are the usual metaphors of French Presidents In fact, Macron’s presidential style has a syncretic quality, drawing on practices and symbols of past French and foreign presidents.

There is a conscious and continuing reference to the practices, routines and gestures of his predecessors, with the nine Presidents of the Fifth Republic providing a rich empirical pool for developing a repertoire of presidential action. De Gaulle is the most obvious model, as the General’s return to power in May 1958 was followed by a six month period of governing by decrees (‘ordonnaces’), and calling on high civil servants (rather than politicians) to govern the country. There are many similarities between Macron and the first six months of the Gaullien period, not least in the negation of party politics and the creation of a presidential movement to support the action of the provident individual; in sum, the de Gaulle heritage for Macron signifies in part a leader against parties and the old cleavages. Next, in terms of significance, from President Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81), Macron demonstrates a youthful modernity and calls to reform blocked France that aspires to be governed in the national interest beyond left and right. From President Mitterrand, Macron proclaims a grand European design, eloquently presented in speech to the Sorbonne, following in the steps of Mitterrand over three decades earlier. The counter-models are the two ‘radical-republican’ Presidents Chirac (who held a hazardous referendum on the future of the EU) and Hollande, the deliberate anti-model. Beyond France, the most influential model and source of inspiration is the US President Barack Obama (‘Yes, we can’) and, at a distance once-removed, J-F. Kennedy. There is nothing entirely new under the sun, but Macron’s leadership goes beyond a careful cultivation of – and respect for- selected predecessors and comparators.

More recently, there have certain parallels with Sarkozy (2007-2012). The speed of Macron’s reforms bears some similarities with the early Sarkozy period. I argued elsewhere that in 2007-2012, the personal governing style of ‘speedy Sarko’ combined with a changed set of rules of the presidential game (the quickening rhythm of the quinquennat) to create the fast presidency, an evolution of the traditional presidential office . The Sarkozy presidency was inaugurated with a discourse of rupture –a break with existing political practices and established interests, a skilful political construction that captured the reform theme for the French right. A clearer presidential mandate gave rise to a more explicitly assumed policy leadership. Most of the key reforms of the 2007-2012 were directly associated with Sarkozy; from the reforms to the 35 hour week and flexible working ( 2007), through the detailed interventions in the field of state reform (RGPP, 2007-2012), the universities (2007), the environment (2008), local government (2009-2010) and the pensions reform (2010). The rhythm of the early period could be explained because the incoming President was fully vested with the legitimacy of a decisive electoral victory. The overall evaluation of Sarkozy’s reformist record, tempered by the impact of economic crisis, was rather paradoxical. If Sarkozy’s presidency was a reformist one, almost all of the key reforms introduced in 2007-08 had been modified or abandoned by 2012. The economic crisis of 2008 recast the dice and gradually the memory of the early reform period receded.

Fast forward ten years, and leaving aside the natural bombast involved in comparisons with Greek and Roman gods, the Jupiterian phase of the Macron presidency was intended to give a new sense of purpose to political choices, in the register of transformative political leadership. The Jupiter metaphor allowed Macron to announce clearly the reforms that would be undertaken during the course of the quinquennat, to guide the way. It would be an act as bad faith to accuse Macron of not putting into operation his campaign promises. The Macron presidency has, thus far, revealed itself to be one of the most ambitious and reformist in the history of the Fifth Republic. Around a dozen major fields were opened in the first few months, with clear sequences intended to give meaning to political action throughout the five year period. After a shaky start (the sacking of the chief in staff of the Army, the poor reception of cuts announced across governmental budgets without prior negotiation [and specifically of the housing benefits], the obvious inexperience of several new ministers and members of the governing LREM party), the early months of the presidency followed, fairly clearly, the roadmap announced by the President. The law on the moralisation of French politics forbad the practice of employing family members as staffers, and placed limits on expense claims. The decrees reforming the Labour Code (enhancing firm-level bargaining, limiting severance pay, reforming the operation of trade unions, especially in the smallest firms, simplifying and unifying staff representative committees in the workplace) were intended to modernize France’s system of industrial relations and encourage investment; any analysis of their impact is premature.

The speed and rhythm of the reform programme cast Macron as a new ‘fast President’, announcing multiple reforms in a blitzkrieg designed to destabilize the opposition, rather reminiscent of the early Sarkozy (2007-08) or Blair (1997-98) periods. The 2017-18 reform programme was an ambitious one, and few sectors were absent: the moralization of politics, the reform of labour law, a new internal security law, the abolition of the wealth tax, the changing rules for university entrance, the reform of the unemployment insurance and training regimes, immigration reform, prison reform, civil service reform, the overhaul of school examinations (the Baccalaureate) and even the sacred cow of the special statute for national railway workers.

In both cases, Sarkozy and Macron, a clear presidential mandate was followed by a vigorous programme of social and economic reforms. In both cases, also, an active presidential leadership was framed as the antithesis of an earlier period of stasis; the immobile Chirac, for Sarkozy, or the compromised Hollande, for Macron. In both cases, finally, the speed of reforms was designed to destabilize adversaries and exploit to the maximum the window of opportunity opened by precise concatenations of circumstances.

There are also contrasts, naturally. First, in relation to the strategic use of time. The image of the Duracell president under Sarkozy implied action and energy, rather than deep strategic reflection. Macron can claim to have integrated a more strategic use of time. Reforms have been closely sequenced, designed to underline that the President alone is the ‘timekeeper’ (le maître de l’ horloge). The first six months were an economic sequence, designed to set France on a course of economic reform and competitiveness (standing on the right-leg); the next period was intended to re-balance, to offer a social counterpart to economic reform (standing on the left leg).

More generally, the management of time forms a key part of Macron’s agenda. The strategic dimension of time management can be illustrated with the 2018 budget. The headlines of the 2018 budget concerned the powerful symbolic abolition of the wealth tax, along with the adoption of a 30% ‘flat tax’ to encourage investment in the ‘real’ economy and risk taking. The main novelty, however, was to move towards a five-year budgetary logic. Announcing spending priorities and commitments across the five year period (2018-2022) was intended to modify the meaning of the annual budget cycle, with a view to ensuring fiscal and policy stability over the medium term and encouraging investment. In the case of Macron, an overarching strategic timeframe (the budget, the quinquennat) is coupled with a clever tactical use of time; involving social partners in consultation, floating ideas subsequently to be watered down, and forcing deadlines on negotiations.

Second, in terms of style and method, Sarkozy’s presidency was based on a transgression of the key personal and institutional codes, most notably on a deeply political reading of the office, whereby the political leader dispensed with the discourse of national unity, slated opponents and invited unpopularity in response to detailed interventionism in politics and policy-making. Notwithstanding Macron’s double or triple language, and the tendency to ‘speak the language of the people’ when faced with controversy (see the recent Salon de l’Agriculture), there is more method. The announced reforms have followed a similar pattern: the promise of consultation (but not negotiation) with social partners and other interested parties; a strictly controlled government timetable; the announcement of ambitious targets to be achieved; a stated preference for the procedure of decrees and limited parliamentary oversight, and a strong investment in new instruments of central steering (the creation of a territorial agency for local government, a new training agency etc.).

Thus far, there is little practical opposition to Macron; the veteran left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon was forced to admit that Macron had ‘won the first round’ as attempts to mobilise against the reform of the labour code fell flat; the Socialist Party (PS), a shadow of its former self, is engaged in a process of introspection and leadership selection; the National Front (FN), having already suffered a split, is about to engineer a name change in the hope of recapturing its dynamism of the 2012-17 period; the Republicans are reviving somewhat under Laurent Wauquiez, but the inheritor party of the UMP has been deserted by its centrist and centre-right elements and electors; finally, the trade unions are more divided and ineffective than ever. The window of opportunity for reform remains open, but the Sarkozy comparison points to the dangers of managing reform in the medium and long term. The real test of time will be in 2022.

Latvia – President Vējonis uses suspensive veto power for the 11th time

Latvia is a parliamentary democracy. Members of Parliament (MPs) elect the President. The President of Latvia is Raimonds Vējonis, who was elected in July 2015 for a four-year term.

One of the president’s legislative powers is to require the parliament to reconsider a law (suspensive veto power). Within ten days of the adoption of a law by the Saeima, the president can require it be reconsidered. If the Saeima passes the law again without amending it, the President cannot then raise an objection a second time. Should, though, the Saeima, by not less than a two-thirds majority vote, determine a law to be urgent, the President cannot request the reconsideration of a law, it may not be submitted to national referendum, and the adopted law shall be proclaimed no later than the third day after the President has received it [1].

President Raimonds Vējonis has used his suspensive veto power 11 times since being elected in July 2015. This is from a total of 654 laws and amendments, including laws determined as urgent, that have been proclaimed from July 8, 2015 until March 6, 2018.

In Latvia there is a standard procedure that the president’s request should be returned to parliament within a period of ten days of the adoption of a law by the Saeima. If the President, in accordance with the provisions of Article 71 of the Constitution of Latvia (Satversme), has requested a law be reconsidered, the Saeima at its next sitting, without holding a debate, forwards the President’s reasoned objections to the responsible committee and to other committees and sets the deadline by which proposals may be submitted and the law reconsidered [2]. When the law is being reconsidered, only the objections raised by the President and the proposals related to these objections are considered. When the law has been passed by the Saeima, the President signs it not earlier than the tenth day and not later than the twenty-first day after the law has been adopted.

During the Presidency of Raimonds Vējonis these procedures have been taken into account. Laws have been passed to the responsible commission within 5 to 13 days of the President’s request. In two cases, laws were then reconsidered within 18, 19 days, in four cases within just over a one month, in two cases it took two months, two cases were reconsidered three to four months, and the latest one, requested on February 9, is still in process.

Eleven written and reasoned requests [3] regarded amendments to laws:

  1. Amendments to the Electronic Media Law were prepared by a Saeima commission.  The  Saeima overrode the President’s request.
  2. Amendments to the Immigration Law were prepared by MPs. Amendments were partly accepted by the Saeima.
  3. Amendments to the Marine Code were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  4. Amendments to the Microenterprise Tax Law were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  5. Amendments to the Law “On Land Privatization in Rural Areas” were prepared by a Saeima commission. Amendments were partly accepted by Saeima.
  6. Amendments to the Alcoholic Beverages Circulation Law were prepared by a Saeima commission. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  7. Amendments to the Law on Credit Institutions were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima overrode the President’s request.
  8. Amendments to the Law on State Administration Structure were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  9. Amendments to the Law on Financial Instruments Market were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  10. Amendments to the Law “On Judicial Power” were prepared by a Saeima commission. The Saeima accepted the President’s request.
  11. Amendments to the Public Procurement Law were prepared by a Saeima commission. The Saeima will evaluate the request on April 19, 2018.

This leads to a conclusion of the importance of cooperation between the President and Parliament. The more the president influences decision-making during the legislative process, the less the President needs to use a suspensive veto.

References:

[1] Constitution of Latvia, Satversme. 1922. (with amendments)

[2] Rules of procedure of Saeima. 1994. (with amendments) Article 115.

[3] President’s Raimonds Vējonis written and reasoned requests, 2015–2018. https://www.president.lv/lv/darbibas-jomas/likumdosanas-un-tiesibu-akti/otrreizejai-caurlukosanai-nodotie-likumi