Germany – President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the unofficial foreign minister

After more than seven years as Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier stepped down from his cabinet post to become the country’s 12th Federal President in early 2017. Despite his new role and the limited prerogatives of the office, Steinmeier remains the most prominent voice in German foreign policy – almost as if he had never left the foreign ministry.

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier | © German Presidential Office / Henning Schacht 2018

The constitutionally prescribed role of the German president is generally limited to representative functions, although it affords office-holders with some leeway in times of crisis. The representative function extends to foreign affairs and as head of state the president signs international treaties on behalf of the German Federal Republic. Nevertheless, contrary to other countries the president does not take part in substantive foreign policy decision or represent the country at intergovernmental meetings.

Steinmeier was elected by the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in early 2017 and it can arguably be credited to his exceptionally strong leadership that parties renewed their coalition following the autumn 2017 legislative elections (in particular, persuading the Social Democratic leadership to make themselves available as junior coalition partner once again). Already shortly after his inauguration, Steinmeier harshly criticised developments surrounding the Central European University in Hungary during his speech to the European Parliament and his criticism of the far-right Alternative for Germany has likely been noted internationally. He furthermore made no efforts to retract or soften any statements he had made during his ministerial tenure (most prominently his assessment of U.S.-president Donald Trump as a hate preacher and danger to democracy).

Having just conceded his post as party leader and designated Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, his immediate successor in the foreign ministry – vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel – had a more difficult start and only slowly came into his own. However, Gabriel already lost his post less than a year later in the cabinet reconfiguration following the renewal of the grand coalition. His successor, former minister of justice Heiko Maas, has only formally been in office since March this year and is still trying to make his mark. His open criticism of Vladimir Putin’s re-election and arguments in favour of ongoing sanctions as well as his opposition to tariffs introduced by the U.S. against car imports were widely noted. Nevertheless, he still lacks the reputation and gravitas that enabled Steinmeier to assert German interests on the European and international level.

In contrast, president Steinmeier has been able to maintain a much more influential voice in Germany’s foreign policy. During his recent state visit to the United States (notably yet unsurprisingly lacking an invitation to visit the White House), although once again largely representative in character and not an event that would usually make the front pages of any newspaper, he articulated more clearly than ever his vision of Germany as a leader in promoting democracy and becoming an antipole to the politics of the current U.S. administration.

However, the reason Steinmeier has been able to maintain such a vocal role in Germany foreign policy is not merely the result of his own strength and political opportunity. Appearances by the president are closely coordinated with the Chancellor’s office and the the foreign ministry (a few years ago, government MPs even sought to find legal means to ‘muzzle’ the president with regard to foreign policy). Thus, at least partly Steinmeier is taking an active role because he is allowed to do so. Yet at the same time, the Federal government is currently caught up in discussions about refugee policy (any European solutions are regarded as remit of the Chancellor, so that the foreign ministry does not play a role here) and the respective conflict between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Coalition parties (including Steinmeier’s own Social Democrats) may thus also benefit from Steinmeier’s activism in foreign policy given that they currently lack the resources to set the tone in this area and the president has not majorly deviated from their preferences. Yet, the more the president is afforded freedom, the more difficult it will be to rein him in once government priorities change. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has already set a precedent through his active involvement in government formation; he may set one in the formulation of German foreign policy as well.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 28 June 2018

Poland – President Duda pushes forward with constitutional referendum idea

Earlier this month, Polish president Andrzej Duda once again pushed his idea of writing a new constitution and holding a referendum to consult the population on the most important details. Although 10 & 11 November 2018 (centenary of the declaration of the Second Polish Republic) has already been announced as a potential date and Duda has said that the referendum would include ten questions, neither the content of these questions nor his exact strategic motivation for pursuing this idea are known. Furthermore, the PiS government seems to have its own plans for constitutional reform that may clash with the president’s initiative.

President Andrzej Duda (middle) attends a sitting the Polish Senate – image via wikimedia commons

Poland has one of the more complicated recent constitutional histories in comparison with other countries. Following the roundtable negotiations in 1989, the old Communist constitution was first amended in two steps (among others by creating the office of a president and laying the foundations for the first semi-democratic elections). After the drafting of a new constitution was stalled by parliamentary fragmentation and political polarisation, politicians agreed on the so-called “Small Constitution” in 1992 that set out the relations between the major institutions, yet was far from a full-fledged constitutional document. It was only in 1997 that Poland received a full new constitution that lived up to the name. Since then, there have been no major amendments that would have substantively affected the working of the political system.

The idea of a new constitution is nothing new among politicians of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to which Duda belongs as well. Already in 2005, when the party campaigned on the promise of building a “4th Republic”, a new constitution was proposed but due to the lack of a constitutional majority and fragility of the government this idea was never put into practice. Given the great number of changes to the political and legal system introduced by PiS since they returned to power in late 2015 and the fact that some of these were thwarted by their incompatibility with the current constitution, it is not surprising that this idea has been reactivated. A new constitution (or major changes) would help to both legalise and legitimise the government’s controversial reforms and take wind out of the sails of its critics. Last, both in 2005 and now, the 1997 constitution has been denounced as being the work of “post-communists”, meaning that it was drafted by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as the successor to the Communist party (who PiS, having originated from the Solidarity movement, naturally oppose). Thus, it is relatively clear why PiS politicians want a new constitution. However, it is not entirely clear why the president (not the government) would push this idea. While there are several potential explanations, they are not all mutually exclusive and may only together paint the full picture.

Referenda (or the promise thereof) are a staple in the populist toolbox of political leaders in Europe and beyond. Thus, Duda may simply be preparing for his re-election campaign in early/mid-2020 and use his activism to gain greater supporter among the electorate. By promising a range of 10 questions, this approach differs from that of the government, which has hitherto introduced all changes without consulting the public and rather justified its moves ex-post. Duda may also try to save the position of the presidency within the Polish institutional structure (it has been rumoured that at least one referendum question will concern this issue). The president will be keen to keep the powers of his office, whereas the government is allegedly planning a greater concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (similar to the German system) after consulting with a number constitutional lawyers and academics. Nevertheless, such plans were already mooted under the governments of Donald Tusk (2007-2014) but eventually dropped due to a lack of support among MPs and the public.

The referendum could also be a way for presidency and government to test out public attitudes towards changes without endangering the re-election of the government next year or merely. However, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree they coordinate their actions. Although it is clear that president and government generally agree on the direction of further political reforms, there have been a number of public conflicts that may or may not be genuine.

Irrespective of the fact that using the procedures of a constitution that is portrayed as illegitimate to legitimise a new document is bizarre, president Duda now has to send a request to the Senate (second chamber) and ask for the referendum to be scheduled. The speaker of the Senate and the president’s plenipotentiary for the referendum have already met several times, but it appears that more negotiations need to be completed before the actual request is made. Yet even then it is difficult to predict whether a majority of the public would support any changes to the current constitution. Although the PiS government continues to be relatively popular and the president’s plenipotentiary claims that 80% of Poles want a constitutional referendum, Poles are not particularly keen on politically motivated referenda and may simply not turn up at the ballot box. The last referendum – held on request of then president Komorowski in an attempt to thwart a second-round victory in the presidential elections by Andrzej Duda – concerned the electoral system, political party financing and tax law, but turnout was just 7.8%.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 24 May 2018

Estonia – Reforming the presidential election: A neverending story?

Estonia has debated the way in which the presidency should be elected since its creation by the constitutional convention in 1991-1992, After several unsuccessful initiatives and cosmetic changes throughout the years, the failure to elect a president in 5 rounds of voting in 2016 finally appears to have given the reformers sufficient momentum. Nevertheless, to date neither the new system nor the way it will be introduced is clear and there is still a minor chance the process will come to naught, thus continuing the ‘neverending story’ of presidential election reform in Estonia.

Election of the Estonian president 2006 in the electoral college | © Riigikogu 2006

The Estonian constitutional assembly debated the presidency at length. After many drafts for the new constitution included a powerful and popularly elected presidency, the assembly eventually chose a strongly parliamentarian draft that included an indirect presidential election by parliament and an electoral college. To appease the public and some critics of the constitution, the first presidential election was however held by semi-popular vote: The public voted on candidates in the first round and the Riigikogu (the unicameral parliament) then decided between the two frontrunners. Since 1996, Estonian presidents have been elected through an entirely indirect process. There are three rounds of voting in the Riigikogu in which an absolute two-thirds majority (68/101 deputies) is required to elect a president (n.b. the third round just includes the two frontrunners from the second round). Failing that, the election is handed to the Valimiskogu (electoral college) consisting of the 101 members of the Riigikogu and roughly 2.3 times as many representatives of local councils (sending 1-10 councillors each based on population size). The Valimiskogu then has two rounds to elect a winner with an absolute majority. Thereby, the first round automatically includes the candidates from the third round in the Riigikogu and can include newly nominated candidates; the second round once again only includes the two frontrunners.

Since the constitutional assembly, there has been sizeable support in the Estonian population to introduce popular elections. Former presidents Lennart Meri (1993-2001) and Arnold Rüütel (2001-2006) called for popular elections and proposals were floated again and again. However, they were never supported by a majority of parties and were regularly voted down or shelved given more pressing political problems. One of the most important factors in this appears to be politicians’ idea of Estonia as a parliamentary republic which would be thrown out of balance by introducing a popularly elected president. To date, the only successful change to presidential election procedures happened in 2010, yet had little substantive effect. Up until then, local council did not follow a coherent set of rules when selecting their representatives for the Valimiskogu. The amendment supported by all parties bar the Centre Party (which stood to lose the most) now stipulated that there was only to be a single round of voting on the representatives. Officially, this was to ensure that larger parties would not be able to claim a disproportionate share of electors. Nevertheless, as only the city councils of Tartu and Tallinn send more than two electors (4 and 10, respectively), this was rather an attempt to curb the Centre Party’s traditionally large influence in these councils.

The failure to elect a successor for president Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016) in five rounds of voting – the election had to be handed back to the Riigikogu after voting in the Valimiskogu remained inconclusive – finally gave reformers sufficient momentum, albeit only in combination with an impending territorial reform that would reduce the number of local councillors by half if the current system was kept. However, two reform attempts were necessary to start the process. An initiative to introduce direct presidential elections with a two-round run-off was proposed by the Centre Party in early 2017 but was withdrawn soon after. Only after further negotiations between government parties were new proposals worked out and are currently debated in coalition working group.

Should a reform in fact take place, then a direct presidential election appears out of the question – despite the Centre Party’s insistence, its coalition partners just cannot be persuaded to even consider the proposal. Likewise, it appears that the ratio of local electors vs Riigikogu deputies will remain the same if not increase (ratios of 2:1 to 3:1 are currently debated). This would of course mean that local municipalities would send more electors than before – likely a minimum of two (instead of one). Furthermore, there seems to be more and more support to transfer the whole election to the Valimiskogu (only one out of five elections was completed in parliament in any case). The latter proposal was already once presented by president Lennart Meri in the late 1990s, yet was torn apart by media and politicians alike. The voting procedure, too, is likely to change – a preliminary draft foresees a maximum of five rounds of voting with the worst performing candidates being consecutively eliminated and a relative majority requirement in the last round (n.b. this is similar to the Latvian system).

These proposals for change go above and beyond the simpler solutions suggested after the 2016 election debacle, e.g. merely removing the absolute majority requirement from the last round of voting in the Riigikogu. Apart from the fact that all proposals are still at a draft stage (and include some controversial changes unrelated to the election procedure, e.g. a limitation of incumbency to a single seven-year term instead of two consecutive five-year terms), there are still some hurdles facing their implementation. An absolute majority of votes is necessary to the change the constitution and it is not guaranteed that the government coalition will be able to persuade the rest of the Riigikogu (including some of its own deputies) of the reform proposals. Furthermore, the presidential election law will need to amended as well. Thus, it remains to be seen whether there will be a substantive change after all or whether this will simply be another chapter in the neverending story that is presidential election reform in Estonia.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 10 May 2018

Hungary – Legislative vetoes by president Áder: Irrelevant activism?

There is no doubt that Hungarian president Janos Áder is a close ally and supporter of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his illiberal politics. Interestingly, however, he has used and continues to use his legislative veto power with surprising frequency. Overall, this runs counter to existing explanatory approaches and might thereby shed new light on the functioning of Hungary’s illiberal democracy.

Hungarian president Janos Áder – image via wikimedia commons

When Janos Áder was elected president, he promised to depart from the rubber stamp-attitude to legislation exhibited by his co-partisan precedessor Pál Schmitt (who not only failed to use his veto power during his two years in office, but has also publicly declared he would sign every bill the Fidesz majority in parliament passed). Opposition politicians welcomed (albeit cautiously) his declaration that if parliament passed a hundred good bills he would all sign them into law but if parliament passed a hundred bad bills he would use his veto against all of them. Nevertheless, given that the Hungarian president’s veto can be overridden by simple majority (unless the original bill required a higher majority to be passed, e.g. organic law) and presidents are obliged to sign bills that were passed again (even if changes were introduced during the veto/reconsideration process), it was clear that such activism would need to be amplified by use of the personal ties between Áder and his long-time friend Orbán.

Already early on in his first term, Janos Áder seemed to follow through on his promise – in his first year in office alone, he sent 11 bills back to parliament for reconsideration. Even his predecessor Lászlo Sólyom, who found himself in cohabitation with all governments during his five year-term in office and vetoed almost frantically in comparison to his own predecessors, took almost three years to veto as many bills. Although clearly in friendly relations with the government and parliamentary majority, Áder had vetoed 28 bills by the end of his first term last year (only four less than Sólyom who – as mentioned above – was in cohabitation the whole time) and vetoed three more since his re-election.

These number may not be high in comparison to other presidents in the region, particularly those elected by popular vote, yet they present a challenge to established explanations of presidential activism that others and myself have proposed. If presidential activism is primarily determined by the institutional structure (most prominently direct/indirect elections) and the political environment (the partisan composition and strength of parliament and government vis-a-vis the presidency), we should see comparatively fewer vetoes in the case of Janos Áder.

Additional explanatory variables that I found to be important in the case of president Lászlo Sólyom (2005-2010) also do not seem to apply here. For once, there is no personal antipathy between president and prime minister and more than two thirds of bills vetoed were prepared by ministries (i.e. not private members bills which have typically been of lower quality). Furthermore, after the government initially incorporated changes proposed by Áder into bills as part of the review process, all 12 vetoes issued since the 2014 parliamentary elections were overridden. Thus, presidential vetoes are not (or are no longer) an easy way to let the government fix problems with bills that were previously overlooked.

At the same time, Áder’s veto activity does also not quite fit into the pattern (if one can speak of such) of democratic window-dressing in the Polish case. Despite international outcry and serious flaws in bills Áder has not used his veto to stop (at least temporarily) the crackdown on public media, the ‘Lex CEU‘ or legislation that benefitted Fidesz politicians and their associates in other ways. While he used his veto on a number of other bills that were controversially discussed domestically, his opposition appears to be lacking in enthusiasm.

Thus, Áder’s use of presidential vetoes remains somewhat enigmatic. The fact that neither existing explanatory approaches nor the logic of presidential activism visible in other regimes can account for it should prompt a re-examination of how we imagine the functioning of Hungary’s illiberal democracy. Áder’s (ostensibly) irrelevant activism could point towards a further concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister and/or to the fact that his actions are directed towards other constituencies that have yet to be uncovered.

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A full list of presidential vetoes in Hungary is available here (in Hungarian).

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 15 March 2018

Poland – Is the presidency going down the Hungarian path?

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

Photo via prezydent.pl

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

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

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

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

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 15 February 2018

Germany – The unexpected leadership role of president Steinmeier in coalition talks

The results of the German federal election of 24 September 2017 shook up the country’s party system more than ever before. Both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic and Social Union (CDU/CSU) and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), registered significant losses, while four smaller parties – polling between just 8.9% and 12.6% – also entered the Bundestag. While far from unexpected, this result has created a particularly difficult bargaining environment for coalition talks. Amidst the new parliamentary arithmetic, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has taken on an expected leadership role and could influence the formation and party composition of the next German government more than any of his predecessors.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) meets with SPD leader Martin Schulz | image via bundespraesident.de

Already hours after the first results were announced, SPD leader Martin Schulz declared that his party – having achieved the worst result since 1949 and without possibility to form a left of centre coalition with Greens and LINKE – would not renew its coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and become part of the opposition. Given that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered the Bundestag for first time after just missing the 5% threshold in 2013, is universally shunned by the other parties, the ‘Jamaica’ option seemed the only possibility to form a majority government. Named after the combination of parties’ traditional colours (CDU/CSU = black, Green Party = green, FDP = yellow) this would have created a coalition which has hitherto only existed on local level. While CDU/CSU and FDP have governed together on both federal and state level and CDU/CSU and Greens have recently (if only sporadically) started to cooperate on state level, the economically liberal FDP and left-leaning Greens seemed unlikely bedfellows. Formal coalition talks between the three parties only started a month after the election, yet collapsed two weeks ago after the FDP withdrew its participation. Since then, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier (formerly SPD) has taken an unusually active role in managing the coalition talks and encouraging parties to find a solution to avoid snap elections.

Since 1949, coalition formation in Germany has been exclusively dominated by parties. While the president formally proposes a candidate for chancellor to parliament after elections, presidents have always proposed the candidate chosen by parties once coalition talks were concluded. Only if the president’s candidate fails to gain a majority can the Bundestag attempt to elect its own chancellor with a majority. If in the end parliament fails to elect a majority candidate (which the president has to appoint), a final vote is held and it is at the president’s discretion to appoint a candidate who has only gained a relative majority of votes.

As leader of the largest party, Angela Merkel appears to be the only serious candidate for chancellor. However, she has repeatedly voiced her opposition both to leading a minority government and to triggering snap elections (a likewise complicated process; see below). In the aftermath of the collapse of the Jamaica talks, president Steinmeier unusually strongly appealed to parties to act responsibly and continues to hold publicised meetings with leaders of all parties. Especially his meeting with former co-partisan Martin Schulz seems to have had an effect as the SPD leader has now softened its stance on retreating to the opposition benches. However, he faced an immediately backlash from the party’s youth wing; the SPD is also likely to once again hold a ballot on any new coalition among its members.

There is no deadline for president Steinmeier to nominate a candidate for Chancellor, yet once he does the pressure is on parties to build a functioning (majority or minority) government. It is unlikely that Steinmeier will start the process before parties have made significant progress towards a new coalition, yet this possibility – together with the German constitution’s obsession with stability – gives him the upper hand. Once appointed, a chancellor can only be removed by the ways of a constructive vote of confidence (i.e. when a new Chancellor is elected with a majority) – even if a chancellor loses a vote of confidence and asks the president to dissolve the Bundestag, the dissolution remains at the president’s discretion (the Bundestag cannot dissolve itself). After previous dissolutions were heavily criticised due to the fact that sitting chancellors only feigned a loss of confidence, It is unlikely that Steinmeier will readily agree to such a move. Last, Steinmeier is in the rare situation that his five-year term only ends after the next regular federal elections and he is thus less bound by considerations about his re-election (which will partially rely on electors from the German states in any case).

It is thanks to this combination of factors that president can currently take on this (unexpected) leadership role in party coalition talks. While the old government is only provisionally still in post, he almost has a legitimacy advantage over the yet unformed government and can use his position to actively shape public opinion as well as increase pressure on political parties.

Overall, this sheds a new light on the role of the German president and highlights the value of the office. While scholarship (including my own) have so far rather focussed on the interference of presidents in day-to-day politics and resulting complications and ineffectiveness, the example at hand shows how presidents – even if only vested with reserve powers – can become guarantors of stability.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 7 December 2017

Presidential politics in Central and Eastern Europe – drawing lessons in the age of Trump

The election of Donald Trump may have once again focused our attention on the American president, yet studying presidential politics in Central and Eastern Europe gives us equally if not more fascinating insights, argues Philipp Köker.

 

The majority of countries in the world is now organised in some variety of a republican political system with a president at its helm. Not only since the election of Donald Trump popular and scholarly attention have focused most strongly on the president of the United States, spawning the creation of a whole discipline of ‘Presidential Studies’. In comparison, we only have a relatively poor understanding of presidential politics ‘closer to home’ – particularly in comparative perspective.

Since the fall of communism, newly and democratically elected presidents in Central and Eastern Europe have played an active role in shaping the politics of their countries. Although strong and prominent personalities, including Poland’s Lech Wałęsa and Estonia’s Lennart Meri, ascended to the highest office and thanks to their often controversial actions left an undeniable imprint on their countries’ political systems, there are also clear patterns that emerge across the region.

Most prominently, we can see a strong positive relationship between presidents’ popular election (in contrast to an indirect elections by parliament or electoral college) and their activism. Directly elected presidents have their own electoral mandate that allows them to act independently and without fear of punishment by parliament and government. At the same time, they rely on public support for re-election and thus must be more active to fulfil electoral promises.

This logic most recently played out in the case of the Polish president Andrzej Duda’s vetoes of controversial judicial reform bills. Although Duda was initially characterised as a marionette of Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, his personal electoral mandate meant he had the opportunity to diverge from the government and its parliamentary majority. Concurrently, he could react to public and international pressure and his vetoes thus served the purpose of appealing to a wider range of voters by in a bid to secure his re-election.

Now contrast the above example the with the silence of the – indirectly elected – Hungarian president Janos Áder on the Lex CEU or other controversial legislation introduced by the government of his co-partisan Viktor Orbán. Áder’s successor Pál Schmitt likewise failed to stand up against the widely-criticised constitution of 2011.

As my new book shows, this pattern can be observed since the creation of the new political systems in the early 1990s and office-holders perceived that they were more legitimised by a popular mandate. However, the mode of election is not the only influence on presidential activism. Irrespective of the nature of their electoral mandate, presidents across Central and Eastern Europe used their powers more often when they were in opposition to the government or exploited instable government majorities for their purposes. Interestingly enough, even the activism of presidents with ‘strong personalities’ whose behaviour has otherwise been described as idiosyncratic or erratic falls largely along those lines.

In this context it is also important to note that – despite lower levels of activism – indirectly elected presidents are not mere figureheads that can easily be equated with (nominally) a-political monarchs. They still play an active role in politics (albeit less so than their directly elected counterparts) and are a vital check-and-balance on government, parliament and the legislative process. A very current example of this is German president Steinmeier’s active management of coalition talks and public appeals to party to come together to avoid snap elections.

Naturally, patterns and associations as found in my study of presidential activism in Central and Eastern Europe are not perfect (remember for instance the refusal of Czech president Vaclav Klaus’ refusal to sign the Lisbon treaty despite being indirectly elected). Nevertheless, it appears that presidents behave similarly in similar context.

What does this all mean for the study of presidents? My study showed, among other findings, that it is possible to successfully transfer and apply approaches originally developed for the US president to the explanation of presidential activism in a country as different as Estonia. Presidents may occupy the only single-member executive office at national level, but this does not mean that they need to be studied in isolation. In fact, presidents share a number of characteristics that make them comparable and help us draw wider conclusions.

Donald Trump may dominate the news cycle, but we would do well in seeking to understand his actions from a comparative perspective. The answer may not lie in Central and Eastern Europe (although did you know that Slovakia elected a politically conservative, multi-millionaire president without previous political experience in 2014?), but studying presidential politics comparatively still holds a plethora of yet untapped insights that are worth exploring.


  • Philipp Köker is Senior Research Fellow in Politics & IR and deputy director of the Centre for European Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University.
  • The UCL European Institute will co-host the launch of Philipp’s new book ‘Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Palgrave, 2017) UCL SSEES on 8 December 2017, 6-8pm.

This post first appeared on the UCL European Institute Blog on 6 December 2017

Estonia – After one year in office president Kersti Kaljulaid still needs to make her mark

On 3 October 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid was elected the first female president of Estonia. Following  the failure of both the Riigikogu (parliament) and the Valimiskogu (electoral college) to agree on a successor to Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016), Kaljulaid was elected as the all-party compromise candidate when the election returned to parliament. Kaljulaid follows a three very different different presidents who – despite being consecutively less active politically – all left their mark relatively early on in their term. Since taking the oath of office on 10 October 2016, Kaljulaid has remained largely in the background. So far, she has mainly followed in the footsteps of her predecessor, yet her recent speech at the opening of parliament could be the first step in carving out an independent profile.

Official portrait of president Kersti Kaljulaid | image via president.ee

Given the circumstances of her nomination, Kaljulaid was relatively unkown to the public when she was elected. The (comparatively rare) Estonian opinion polls showed only a very moderate increase in public trust during the first months in office (48% in October 2016 to 66% in April 2017), staying behind the popularity of her predecessor and hitherto least trusted among Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Contrary to her predecessors, Kaljulaid was not a professional politician before taking office. As a former Estonian Auditor at the European Court of Auditors and one-time economic adviser to the Prime Minister, she nevertheless possess some relevant, albeit limited political experience.

To date, Kaljulaid has only had few opportunities to prove herself in her new role, yet likely the most important occured only a month after her inauguration. After a no-confidence motion forced Prime Minister Taavi Roivas to resign, the government of Reform Party, Isaama and Res Publica, and the Social Democrats collapsed, paving the way for a government led by the Centre Party. President Ilves had still publicly declared his mistrust in then party leader and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar and the party – despite often finishing first or second in parliamentary elections – had long ostracised by its competitors due to its sympathies with the ethnic Russian population and Russia’s leadership, Kaljulaid invited all parties for consultations, yet was not involved in the actual negotiations for a new coalition. Although Estonian presidents only have little control over the government formation process and appoint those governments that emerge from parliamentary arithmetic, previous presidents still had some indirect influence on the nomination of individual ministers. Kaljulaid seems to have remained entirely passive and merely accepted the new coalition, although some friction was foreseeable early on (e.g. on the introduction of popular presidential elections – the project forced by the Centre party was however shelved indefinitely in January this year).

A second opportunity for came in December 2016, when Kaljulaid signed off amendments to a number tax laws despite protest by the opposition and a number of large interest groups, which not only criticised the contents of the law but also the procedure in which in had been passed (that did not allow full participation by the opposition). Kaljulaid defended her decision stating that she did not have the power to challenge individual paragraphs of the amendments [the Estonian president only has a block veto] and that these would better be checked by the Chancellor of Justice. This highlights a major difference to her predecessor Ilves; while Ilves too mainly relied on the Chancellor of Justice to ensure the constitutionality of legislation and generally remained uninvolved in the content of legislation, he did in fact veto bills because the correct procedure had been violated and liaised with lawmakers through his staff to pre-emptively tackle potential problems of constitutionality. Kaljulaid however vetoed a law on the so-called sugar tax that would have introduced an – arguably unconstitutional – exception for a Tallink Group cruise liners

Since then, Kaljulaid only rarely voiced her opinion and remained very cautious in public statements. The problem with finding her voice and handling situations such as the tax law amendments might also lie in the turnover of staff in the presidential administration that followed her inauguration. Since the mid-1990s, key staff in the Estonian presidential office has been remarkably stable, thus preserving institutional memory and contacts. Kaljulaid managed her first international visits without any hiccups and largely followed in the footsteps of predecessor Ilves in promoting Estonia as a leader in digital technologies, yet her other public statements have otherwise been criticised as too vague or missing the mark.

In this context, her recent speech at the opening of parliament appears to be a promising exception and potential attempt to carve out an independent profile. In particular, she highlighted the responsibilities of politicians towards the public and the need for political parties to make their finances transparent (a veiled criticism of the Centre party that has been at the centre of a number of allegations and investigations over the past year). Furthermore and most strikingly, Kaljulaid explained “that being proud of being an Estonian cannot be monopolised by anyone” and that “[t]here is no blue, black and white gene pool”. Thereby, she addressed on the of the most long-standing issues in Estonian politics and society – how to deal with the ethnic Russian minority (about 25% of the population are ethnic Russians, many of which hold Russian but not Estonian citizenship).

Both issues would lend themselves well to establishing Kaljulaid as a moral leader – they are timely and relevant, yet general enough to develop over the course of her term in office. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, both are largely within the remit of the role of the presidency as it has developed over the last 25 years. Kaljulaid will be able to launch some concrete initiatives (first president Meri for instance instituted a roundtable on minorities) which can bear fruit merely by raising public awareness rather than through the use of her (limited) formal powers.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 12 October 2017

Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe

This post summarises the new book by Philipp Köker ‘Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). The book is the inaugural volume in the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics (edited by Robert Elgie and Gianluca Passarelli) and is based on Philipp’s PhD thesis which won the ECPR Jean Blondel PhD Prize 2016.

Presidential powers feature prominently in academic debates. Paradoxically, until now only few scholars have tried to analyse and explain how presidential actually use them. This book tries to fill this gap in the academic literature, but is also rooted in a real-life encounter with presidential activism. As an undergraduate intern in the Polish Sejm I witnessed first-hand the negotiations between President Lech Kaczyński and Gregorz Napieralski, newly elected leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), on blocking an override of the president’s veto of the media law in July 2008.The aim of this book is map and analyse such patterns in the activism of presidents and explain when and why presidents become active and use their powers. Thereby, it focuses on 9 Central and East European democracies (i.e. those that joined the EU in 2004/2007) during the period 1990-2010. Given that their political systems were created during the same, comparatively short period of time, share a common trajectory of development and were confronted with the same challenges, they are particularly suited for analysis. With regards to presidential powers, I concentrate on two of the most prominent presidential powers:

  1. the power to veto legislation and return it to parliament
  2. the appointment and censure of governments and cabinet ministers

The central argument is that presidential activism can best be explained by the institutional structure – including the mode of election – and the political environment, particularly the relative strength and level of consensus between president, parliament and government. Thereby, I argue that popular presidential elections matter fundamentally for presidential activism – directly elected presidents are agents of the public rather than parliament and lack the constraints and potential for punishment faced by their indirectly presidents elected counterparts (which challenges Tavits 2008). Furthermore, presidents should be more active when they find themselves in cohabitation with the government, when parliamentary fragmentation is high, and when the government does not hold a majority in the legislature.

To test these and additional hypotheses, my book uses a nested analysis research design (Lieberman 2005) that combines the statistical analysis of an original cross-section time series data set on the use of presidential vetoes with carefully selected case studies based on numerous elite and expert interviews in four most-different countries. The analysis of presidential activism in government formation and censure is thereby deliberately left for the qualitative analysis as there is no adequate quantitative data yet.

Patterns of Presidential Veto Use in Central and Eastern EuropeMy regression models generally confirms the majority of my hypotheses. In line with the table above, my model results clearly show that presidents used their veto power significantly more often than indirectly elected presidents. Furthermore, presidents were more active during neutral relations with the government and cohabitation and the effects of the governmental and presidential seat shares, too, showed the expected effects. Echoing findings from the study of presidential veto use in the United States, president also vetoed more frequently the more bills were passed by parliament. Based on the predictions of the statistical models, I then select 12 president-cabinet pairings in four countries (Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) for further in-depth analysis. Thereby, I make sure to select both strong/weak and directly/indirectly elected presidents and one pairing per office holder to control for institutional variations and individual presidents.

Presidential Activism in Practice

The in-depth analysis of presidential veto use also confirms my hypotheses and provides strong evidence that the hypothesised mechanisms actually insist. In particular, the mode of presidential election emerged as one of, if not the most important factor in explaining presidential activism. The popular mandate gained through direct elections gave presidents significantly more freedom in their actions but also required them to be more active to ensure their re-election – this was not only confirmed through my interviews with high-ranking presidential advisors but also evidenced by a number of presidents’ public statements. Indirectly elected presidents on the other hand acknowledged their dependence on parliament and therefore used their powers less often as not to interfere in the work of their principal. The relationship between president and government as well as the government’s strength in parliament were equally shown to be key determinants in presidents’ decisions to use their powers. Yet the qualitative also demonstrated that the size of presidents’ support base in parliament only becomes relevant when their party participates in government or when high thresholds are needed to override a veto. In addition, the qualitative analysis suggested an additional explanatory factor for presidential activism not included in my theoretical and statistical models – divisions within and between government parties provided additional opportunities for activism and could explain vetoes under otherwise unfavourable conditions.

My analysis of presidential activism in the appointment and censure of governments then takes a more exploratory approach and covers the entire period of observation (rather than just specific president-cabinet pairings). The results show some support for existing hypotheses in the literature but also call for re-thinking the use of non-partisan cabinet ministers as a proxy for presidential involvement. In particularly, non-partisans were not only often appointed without presidential involvement, but presidents were also more actively involved in placing co-partisans in the cabinet.

Studying Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond

Presidents still belong to the group of less-studied political actors. Yet even though countries differ greatly in how much power is vested in the presidency, presidents always possess at least some power and even the least powerful presidents play an important functional and procedural role in their political systems apart from ceremonial duties. Thus, studying presidential politics has a very strong practical relevance for any republican political system.

My book shows that theoretical approaches developed for presidents in other contexts (i.e. mostly the United States) ‘travelled’ almost effortlessly to Central and Eastern Europe. Several mechanisms of effect could be observed irrespective of institutional structure, highlighting the enormous potential of ‘comparative presidential studies’ beyond national contexts. Thus, I hope that my book is – together with the work of the Presidential Power blog and the recently formed ECPR Standing Group on Presidential Politics – will help to further develop this sub-discipline of political science to the extent that it becomes en par with long-established scholarship on the presidency of the United States.

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References & Notes:
Lieberman, E. S. (2005). Nested Analysis as a Mixed-method Strategy for Comparative Research. American Political Science Review, 99(3), 435–452.
Tavits, M. (2008). Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter?. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Find out more details about the book and the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics is available on the Palgrave website.

Supplementary data for the book is available here at presidentialactivism.com/data

CCCU Expert Comment: The deterioration of Poland’s democracy

Following the announcement of Polish President Andrzej Duda to veto two bills that are part of the governments controversial plans to reform the judiciary, I wrote a brief commentary for the CCCU Expert Comment blog. You can find the whole text below:

THE DETERIORATION OF POLAND’S DEMOCRACY

Dr Philipp Köker explains that the President’s veto is unlikely to stop the deterioration of Poland’s democracy.

The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, has announced that he will veto two highly controversial bills aimed at reshaping the country’s judicial system.

At first glance, this may appear as a success for thousands of Poles who protested for weeks across the country and abroad. However, even though the president’s veto can only be overridden by a 3/5 majority in the Lower House of parliament, the veto alone is unlikely to stop the deterioration of Polish democracy.

Since taking office, the Law and Justice Party – whose leader Jarosław Kaczyński has publicly expressed his admiration for the policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – has taken it upon themselves to reshape the country’s political system by bringing state media and judiciary under their control.

Shortly after their election in 2015, their government overruled nominations for five constitutional judges that had still been made by the last parliament and later refused to publish a ruling of the Constitutional Court that demanded three of these had to be sworn in by president Duda. Yet Duda, a member of Law and Justice himself, refused.

Subsequently, the government effectively cleansed state media of critical editors and journalists who the party had long accused of biased coverage.

Since then, objective coverage and commentary has been largely absent from public channels. The reform of the judiciary, already at the heart of the party’s programme during its first government in 2005-2007, is now a further step towards an ‘illiberal state’ modelled on the Hungarian example.

One of the two bills now vetoed by the president would have given the justice minister the right to fire the heads of lower courts, while the other would have allowed the government to replace all Supreme Court judges.

President Duda has been complicit in all these changes and so far failed to provide an effective check-and-balance on the government. However, presidential action was inevitable after it emerged over the weekend that the Polish Senate had passed bills in different versions than the lower chamber. Nevertheless, the veto alone is unlikely to put a halt to the Poland’s descent into illiberalism.

The president has only temporarily halted a reform that will inevitably be implemented unless other countries stand together and oppose this attack on democracy.

The EU, which has already threatened Poland with a suspension of its voting rights, will thereby play a key role. However, individual states and their parties also have an important role to play. Although the UK is headed for Brexit, Theresa May must not be indifferent to these developments – in particular because both the Conservatives as well as the DUP have a long history of cooperation with Law and Justice in the European Parliament.

Dr Philipp Köker is Senior Research Fellow in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is an award-winning expert on presidential politics in European democracies. His new book ‘Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe’ has just been published with Palgrave Macmillan.