Tag Archives: unified government

Timor-Leste – President’s party wins parliamentary elections

Last Saturday parliamentary elections were held in Timor-Leste. Provisional results show that the President’s party FRETILIN, the former resistance party has won the largest share of the votes, albeit not an absolute majority. Most likely and for the first time since independence a FRETILIN president and prime minister will govern the country.

On Saturday morning polling stations opened for 750,000 people to cast their vote on 21 parties, vying for 65 parliamentary seats.[1] Yet, just five parties managed to obtain parliamentary seats. The turnout was 76.74%, slightly higher than in 2012 (74.78%).

Provisional results Timor-Leste 2017 parliamentary election

Party Votes % +/- Seats +/-
Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste FRETILIN 168,422 29.65 -0.41 23 -2
National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction CNRT 167,330 29.46 -7.2 22 -8
Popular Liberation Party PLP 60,092 10.58 New 8
Democratic Party PD 55,595 9.79 -0.57 7 -1
Party of National Unity for the Children of Timor Khunto 36,546 6.43 3.46 5 0

The results indicate that the ruling parties CNRT, FRETILIN and PD have lost ground to the opposition. Dissatisfaction amongst the electorate is related to slow economic growth and alleged government corruption.[2]

Important to note is that in 2015 the CNRT, FRETILIN, PD, and Frenti-Mudança formed a government of national unity, which together held 57 seats in Timor-Leste’s 65-member parliament. This situation virtually eliminated opposition. During this all-inclusive power-sharing arrangement former non-partisan President Taur Matan Ruak acted as a national opposition leader, attacking the government in parliament over accountability issues in early 2016, and vetoed the initial version of its budget.

Timor-Leste’s semi-presidential constitution states that the president appoints and swears in the party or alliance of parties with parliamentary majority after consultation with political parties sitting in the parliament. So, President Lu-Olo Guterres is expected to appoint to a party member to become prime minister when the latter manages to form a majority government. FRETILIN Secretary-General and former Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri has already announced that he is open to form a coalition with the CNRT, led by the popular former resistance leader Xanana Gusmão. “We will do everything to embrace everyone but we will continue to work with Xanana Gusmao, the inescapable figure of this country, in order to respond to the clear message from our people,” he told the Portuguese newsagency Lusa.

If FRETILIN will share power with the CNRT, the key question will be whether opposition parties are willing to join a new unity government. Timor-Leste needs an opposition to hold the government to account. This is especially crucial when the president and prime minister are members of the same party. To be sure, in such a situation the president might be less inclined to act and oppose government policy.

[1] Following the promulgation of a new electoral law on May 5, 2017, the minimum percentage of valid votes that a political party or coalition must obtain to be included in the distribution of parliamentary seats was raised from 3% to 4%.

[2] BEUMAN, L. M. 2016. Political Institutions in East Timor: Semi-presidentialism and democratisation, London, Routledge.

Cape Verde – President Fonseca’s ‘historic victory’

President Jorge Carlos Fonseca called it ‘an historic victory’. The incumbent president succeeded in winning no fewer than 74% of the vote in the presidential election that took place on 2 October 2016. His rivals, independent candidates Albertino Graça en Joaquim Monteiro, gathered just 22.6% and 3.4%, respectively.

The recent presidential election concluded a successful election year for the President’s centre-right Movement for Democracy (MpD). Earlier this year, the party had defeated the socialist African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV) in both the legislative elections and the municipal elections. The MpD and PAICV dominate political life in Cape Verde and have alternated in power since the first multi-party elections were held in 1991.

To many, Fonseca’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections came as no surprise. Fonseca (66) is a lawyer, university professor, and perhaps most importantly, an experienced politician. He co-founded the ruling MpD party and served as Minister of Foreign Affairs (1991-1993). In 1994 he gave up his party membership and founded the Party of Democratic Convergence (PCD), an MpD splinter party. In 2001, he stood as an independent candidate in the presidential election, but finished third, winning only 3.6% of the vote. Ten years later, in 2011, and this time with the support of the MpD party, Fonseca beat PAICV candidate and former foreign minister Manuel Inocêncio Sousa in a runoff with 54.45% of the vote. Compared to Fonseca, university rector Graça and former freedom fighter Monteiro have less political experience and, perhaps more importantly, lacked party support. To be sure, in Cape Verde no candidate has ever won the elections without the open support of either the MpD or the PAICV.

The President partly owed his election victory to a successful first term. In particular, his decision in March 2015 to veto the Statute for Political Office Holders was well received by the people of Cape Verde. The law granted, amongst other things, a 65% wage increase to all elected officials. While the law was unanimously approved by the National Assembly it provoked outrage amongst the Cape Verdeans who considered it as a form of ‘legal robbery’. President Fonseca considered the concerns legitimate and decided to veto and return the law to the National Assembly. In a recent interview, the President said the decision was taken in an environment of great social tension. ‘It was not an easy decision to question a position that had been adopted and supported by virtually all the main political actors. There were long hours of meditation. The fact that the National Assembly did not re-examine the law revealed, indirectly, agreement with the measure adopted,’ he concluded.

It is important to note that the results of Cape Verde’s presidential elections have generally mirrored those of its legislative elections. So, from 1991 to 2001, the MpD held a majority in the National Assembly while its candidate António Mascarenhas Monteiro occupied the presidential palace. From 2001 to 2011, the PAICV controlled the National Assembly while its former leader, Pedro Pires, held the presidency. Cape Verde experienced cohabitation once in 2011. This unique situation emerged when the PAICV won the legislative elections in February and MpD candidate Fonseca the August presidential elections.[1] The emergence of another unified government is thus far from being an exceptional situation in Cape Verde.

Fonseca’s victory was, however, ‘historic’ in that another sense: the presidential election was marked by record low turnout (36%), the lowest since 1991. Several factors may account for the high abstention rate. First, most PAICV supporters abstained from voting given that no PAICV candidate had joined the presidential race.[2] The low turnout may also have been caused by voter fatigue. To be sure, it was the third time Cape Verdean had been asked to cast their votes in a period of less than half a year. Finally, it has been argued that the high abstention rate is a symptom of the people’s dissatisfaction with and distrust of the country’s ruling elite. Turnout in the parliamentary elections this year fell to just 66% from 76% in 2011. Political commentators have accused both the MpD and the PAICV of putting party loyalties above national interests.

Although the country is considered to be one of the most stable democracies in Africa, the 2014 survey by Afrobarometer concludes that more than 50% of citizens are distrustful of key institutions and the political system in general. Likewise, Cape Verde’s performance in the 2016 Ibrahim Index of African Governance worsened.


[1] Yet, it has been argued that Fonseca won the elections because the PAICV vote was split between two party-affiliated candidates.

[2] The PAICV decided not to nominate a candidate following its landslide defeats in the legislative and municipal elections of this year.

Who fires ministers in semi-presidential systems?

This post summarises the main arguments in Cristina Bucur’s article, “Cabinet ministers under competing pressures: Presidents, prime ministers, and political parties in semi-presidential systems”, Comparative European Politics, 23 February 2015, advance online publication, doi:10.1057/cep.2015.1.

How much control do presidents, prime ministers (PMs) and political parties exercise over cabinet members in semi-presidential systems? This is a challenging question, as the formal and informal powers of presidents and PMs vary considerably among the countries included in the semi-presidential category.

One way in which this variation can be systematized is Shugart and Carey’s (1992) differentiation between premier-presidential and president-parliamentary forms of semi-presidentialism, depending on whether the president can dismiss the cabinet. In president-parliamentary regimes, both parliaments and presidents have the formal power to dismiss the government. In premier-presidential systems, presidents are not granted any constitutional powers to dismiss individual ministers or the cabinet collectively and PMs are formally in charge of the government’s operation.

Whether the executive is unified or divided, in other words whether the president is a member or an opponent of the parliamentary majority during cohabitation situations (Duverger 1996), can also make a difference for ministerial durability and the relative influence of presidents, PMs and political parties over cabinet composition.

A strong presidency can loosen the party–government relationship in semi-presidential systems (Schleiter and Morgan-Jones 2009). According to Samuels and Shugart (2010), this course of action is more likely to take place during periods of unified government, provided that the president is a de facto party leader. Under these circumstances, the prime minister becomes an agent of the president. This argument is supported with consistent evidence that presidents who lacked formal dismissal powers have been able to fire PMs from their own party or coalition. However, principal–agent relations change during cohabitation, when the president opposes the parliamentary majority. Under these circumstances, the president lacks both formal powers and partisan authority over the cabinet.

The article extends this argument for the case of cabinet members. Two tests are carried out. The first one asks whether the president’s apparent ability to reverse the agency relationship between parties and their minister-agents during unified government strengthens his or her control over cabinet composition. The second one looks at whether the shift from a presidential to a prime-ministerial model of government during cohabitation increases the ability of PMs and parties to fire cabinet members.

Empirically, the article focuses on ministerial turnover in the Fifth French Republic across two governments: the 1997–2002 cohabitation government led by PM Lionel Jospin and the 2007–2012 government formed under PM François Fillon after Nicolas Sarkozy and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) won the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections.

France is a good case for this study for several reasons. First, the French convention of ministerial autonomy reduces the individual ministers’ accountability to the parliament while making their position highly dependent on the president and the prime minister (Thiébault 1994). Second, the 1958 Constitution provides conditions for both presidential and prime-ministerial leadership (Elgie and Machin 1991). Although a shift from presidential to prime-ministerial leadership does occur from one scenario to the other, constitutional experts argue that both actors participate in decision-making about cabinet composition, albeit to much varying degrees under unified government and cohabitation (Carcassonne 2011). Third, although ministers-party links have weakened considerably under the Fifth Republic compared to the Fourth Republic, cabinet members are expected to be less autonomous from their parties during periods of cohabitation. One can therefore test the extent to which the expected increase in party influence over the government under cohabitation affects the length of ministerial tenure.

The data on the tenure of ministers draws on personal characteristics and political experience at the moment of appointment and on individual indicators of performance while in office. Three categories of events are used as measures of individual performance. The first one consists of resignation calls. The second one records public evidence of conflicts between ministers, presidents, PMs, and party principals. This data is collected from over 23,000 newspaper articles selected from LexisNexis. The third category of events experienced by ministers is that of individual reshuffles.

The analysis confirms some of the initial expectations. Presidential pressure is strongly associated with a decrease in the length of ministerial tenure during unified government but not under cohabitation. Prime-ministerial and party control over cabinet composition increase during cohabitation. However, prime-ministerial influence over ministerial removal varies less than expected across the two executive scenarios. This result supports the view that intraparty ties become more restrictive under cohabitation, when the prime minister acts as a party agent, than during unified government, when parties have no ex-post control mechanisms for a directly-elected president (Samuels and Shugart 2010). Moreover, ministerial durability strengthens during cohabitation, confirming the veto-player theory’s expectations that the increase in the number of actors involved in executive decision making should gear the system towards the status quo (Tsebelis 2000; Leuffen 2009).

These findings highlight two aspects of executive decision making in semi-presidential systems. First, intraparty politics is shown to influence considerably the extent of prime-ministerial control over cabinet composition. Future work could examine how party leadership positions and different ways of selecting party leaders affect the agency relationship between parties and their agents in government and the accountability of cabinet members to presidents and PMs.

Second, the variation in ministerial durability under conditions of unified government and cohabitation draws attention to the asymmetrical relationship between voting behaviour and executive decision making in semi-presidential systems. Voters assign executive decision-making responsibility to the president during unified government, while holding the prime minister responsible during cohabitation (Lewis-Beck 1997). Thus, cohabitation occurs as a result of voter dissatisfaction with the president’s status quo. However, the increase in the number of actors involved in executive decision making during cohabitation may limit the prime minister’s ability to change the status quo markedly. Conversely, a vote in favour of the status quo during unified government may be followed by cabinet instability as executive decision making is concentrated in the hands of the president. More research on the factors based on which voters assign decision-making responsibility to the president and the PM under unified government and cohabitation could clarify the relationship between voting behaviour and outcomes of executive decision making in semi-presidential systems.


Carcassonne, G. (2011). La Constitution. 10th ed. Paris: Seuil.

Duverger, M. (1996). Le système politique français. 21st ed. Paris: PUF.

Elgie, R., and Machin, H. (1991). France: The Limits to Prime-ministerial Government in a Semi-presidential System. West European Politics 14(2): 62–78.

Leuffen, D. (2009). Does Cohabitation Matter? French European Policy-Making in the Context of Divided Government. West European Politics 32(6): 1140–60.

Lewis-Beck, M. S. (1997). Who’s the chef? Economic voting under a dual executive. European Journal of Political Research 31(3): 315–25.

Samuels, D., and Shugart, M. S. (2010). Presidents, parties, and prime ministers: how the separation of powers affects party organization and behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schleiter, P., and Morgan-Jones, E. (2009). Party government in Europe? Parliamentary and semi-presidential democracies compared. European Journal of Political Research 48(5): 665–93.

Shugart, M. S., and Carey, J. M. (1992). Presidents and assemblies: constitutional design and electoral dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thiébault, J.-L. (1994). The Political Autonomy of Cabinet Ministers in the French Fifth Republic. In M. Laver and K. A. Shepsle (eds.) Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentary Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 139–49.

Tsebelis, G. (2000). Veto Players and Institutional Analysis. Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration 13(4): 441–74.

Romania’s third cohabitation: old habits die hard

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” – the famous line in Giovanni di Lampedusa’s celebrated novel seems to illustrate well political practices in Romania’s successive periods of cohabitation.

The election of Klaus Iohannis, the leader of the National Liberal Party (PNL), as Romania’s new president in November 2014 meant that the cohabitation between a centre-right head of state and the centre-left coalition government led by PM Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) could continue at least until the 2016 general election.

Following the high level of institutional conflict that characterized the relations between the head of state, the government, and the parliament during the two periods of cohabitation that occurred during outgoing President Băsescu’s time in office, the onset of the third cohabitation was met with high hopes for a smoother relationship between state institutions. A constitutional reform has also been suggested as a necessary step for the clarification of the roles and powers that the two members of the Romanian executive possess.

So far, though, apart from a different style of communication, few changes seem to have marked the relationship between political actors and their use of constitutional powers and political strategies. Three aspects related to the head of state’s relationship with the prime minister and his party, and the practice of variable parliamentary majorities lend support to this early conclusion.

President-prime minister relations

First, President Iohannis’ account of intra-executive relations bears out his preoccupation for the institutionalization of communication channels between the presidency and the government during cohabitation. In a recent interview, he underlined quite thoroughly the administrative boundaries which separate the institutional collaboration between the presidency and the government during cohabitation from the political role that the head of state is called on to play when a new majority forms in the parliament.

The interview followed shortly the president’s decision to nominate a political ally and PNL MEP as the new chief of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). While the proposal still needs to be formally approved by the parliament, Klaus Iohannis used it as an example of the compromises, negotiations, and formal approval that such appointments require from both the President and the Prime Minister. In this context, he emphasised the purely administrative character of this kind of institutional relations, excluding any political collaboration with PM Ponta because of their different ideological differences.

President Iohannis’ careful distinction between the administrative and political nuances of the president-prime minister relationship may be explained by the failure of previous mechanisms designed to foster intra-executive cooperation during cohabitation.

The “Agreement of Institutional Collaboration between the President of Romania and the Prime Minister of the Government”, signed by President Băsescu and PM Ponta after the 2012 general election, is a case in point. More details about this unusual document can be found here and here. While lacking any constitutional or legal basis, this agreement represented the two parties’ commitment to respect the rule of law and safeguard their institutional collaboration following the 2007 and 2012 constitutional crisis that resulted in the president’s suspension by the parliament. One of the reasons why the “cohabitation pact” failed to take root and was condemned by allies of both parties alike had to do with its perception as a tool of political bargain that threatened to blur the lines of political and ideological rivalry. Hence the new head of state’s distinction between administrative channels of communication within the dual executive and the political role that the President can resume playing as soon as he has the parliamentary majority on his side.

President-own party relations

Second, President Iohannis seems in a good position to maintain control over his former party. Following his resignation as PNL leader, Klaus Iohannis successfully promoted his preferred successor to the leadership of the National Liberals. Afterwards, he has been able to designate political allies to key positions in state institutions, such as the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Recently, the president criticised in no ambiguous terms the upper chamber for refusing to grant anti-corruption prosecutors permission to officially indict a PNL senator.

Changing parliamentary majorities outside general elections

Third, unlike the first two periods of cohabitation, which began as a result of changing parliamentary majorities outside general elections, the latest cohabitation started with an election but looks certain to conclude before the end of the legislature.

The sequence of cohabitation periods in Romania illustrates the impact that presidential elections may have on the balance of forces in parliament, despite their disconnection following the 2003 constitutional revision.

In 2004, the pre-electoral coalition formed by the ruling PSD and the Conservative Party won a plurality of votes and seats. However, the Conservatives switched sides to participate in a centre-right coalition after Traian Băsescu won the presidential race and nominated the leader of the National Liberals as prime minister.

President Băsescu’s time in office was marked by the occurrence of two periods of cohabitation that were triggered by changing majorities outside general elections: first in 2007, when President Băsescu’s Democratic Party walked out of the coalition government with the National Liberals; and second in 2012, when the ruling coalition, which included the president’s party, lost a no-confidence vote and was replaced by a PSD-PNL coalition government.

Finally, 2015 looks likely to see a social-democratic splinter group supporting a no confidence motion against the incumbent PSD-led cabinet in exchange for participation in the next coalition government with the National Liberals and the Hungarian minority party (UDMR). These are the circumstances President Iohannis referred to when he highlighted the political role the head of state is called on to play when a new majority is formed in the parliament. When these conditions are met, the President noted, he will be ready to appoint his government, led by the National Liberal Party.

Therefore, despite differences in time sequencing, the practice of changing legislative majorities outside general elections remains the driving force behind the alternation of unified government and cohabitation in Romania. Moreover, despite changing the style of institutional collaboration within the dual executive, President Iohannis seems well adapted to the practice of manufacturing ideologically heterogeneous parliamentary majorities outside elections. Overall, taking into account his current authority over the PNL, there is little to suggest a decrease in the Romanian president’s influence over the political system in the short run.