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

Czech Republic – Parties and candidates gear up for the 2018 presidential race

The second direct presidential elections in the Czech Republic are still about seven months away, yet already an illustrious field of candidates has assembled to oust the controversial incumbent Miloš Zeman. While the recent government crisis has delayed the nomination plans of some parties, the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2017 could speed up the process and either secure or endanger Zeman’s re-election.

‘Zeman Again 2018’ – Poster of President Zeman’s re-election campaign | zemanznovu.cz

Since coming to office as the first directly elected Czech president in early 2013, Miloš Zeman has been far from uncontroversial. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government (which had no majority in parliament), he subsequently interfered in the formation of the current government of Bohuslav Sobotka (and continued to quarrel with the prime minister), was criticised for his uncritical attitude towards the Russian annexation of Crimea and various gaffes, rose to international prominence due to his xenophobic and islamophobic statements in the wake of the refugee crisis and is now known to many as the ‘European Donald Trump’ (whether this is a correct assessment or not is another question). As Zeman’s approval ratings have also fluctuated heavily since coming to office, this would appear as a great opportunity for a credible challenger to oust him from Prague Castle. However, given many national and international unknowns, the equation is not that simple.

To date, 12 individuals – including Zeman – have announced their plans to run for president, or at least their willingness pending support of parties. Only three candidates have gained the formal endorsement of parties represented in parliament so far, although this is necessary to stand for election. Similarly to the last election in 2013 and direct presidential election in neighbouring Slovakia (which introduced direct elections in 1999), there is a large number of intellectuals and writers – some of which derive their presidential credentials from their affiliation to the resistance against the former communist regime – and other independents. Some of these will surely fail to collect the required 50,000 signatures in support for their candidacy, yet their candidacy holds (if approved) at least the power to force the front-runners into a runoff. Czech voters have a penchant for unusual candidates – in 2013, composer and painter Vladimír Franz whose face is entirely covered by a tattoos, received a notable 6.84% of the vote.

At the moment, there are only two candidates that would appear to present a credible challenge to Zeman’s re-election: Jiří Drahoš, Chairman of the Czech Academy of Science who is not affiliated with any party but supported by the liberal-conservative TOP09, and Michal Horáček, an entrepreneur and writer who could receive backing from the Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-ČSL). In recent polls, both candidates achieve support similar to Zeman. Furthermore, contrary to other, independent candidates in the race they appear to promise a relatively well-formulated and comprehensive vision in their campaign. While both display a moderate level of euro-scepticism and could thus present themselves as a more centrist alternative to Zeman, Drahoš’s overall more socio-liberal views set him visible apart from Horáček, who like Zeman is opposing refugee quotas and has voiced his opposition to the building of mosques in the country.

Nevertheless, the governing Social Democrats (ČSSD) as well as the ANO 2011 party of recently dismissed Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš have yet to present their candidate. Interestingly, both parties have promised to hold primaries to select their presidential candidate and ballots are also going to include the option of supporting president Zeman. ANO 2011 leader Babiš has long had a positive relationship with the president while Prime Minister Sobotka (ČSSD) has more often than not struggled to come to an agreement with him Zeman (who once led the ČSSD himself). A decision is supposed to be taken before the parliamentary election, but was recently delayed due to the recent government crisis. If both parties are re-elected, they could attempt to enforce a more cooperative attitude of the president in exchange for their re-election support.

ANO and ČSSD are currently predicted to win ca. 40-45% of the vote and might once again form the government, although in reversed roles with Babiš as prime minister. As this would promise a more consensual style of government-president relations, even voters skeptical of Zeman may be tempted to vote for him over an opposition candidate. From the perspective of a political scientist, an unlikely alternative option would however be most interesting: Should another coalition of parties win the elections and form the government, these parties would have strong incentives to back a joint candidate and argue that only the election of their candidate would ensure a stable government without presidential interference, i.e. they could try to get a president into power on their parliamentary coattails.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 6 July 2017.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 11 January 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Czech Republic – National and international dimensions of president Zeman’s controversies

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 3 November 2016

Czech president Milos Zeman has not shied away from controversy since taking office in spring 2013. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government which lacked support in parliament from the start and threatening interference in the formation of the current government, Zeman has drawn criticism for expletive-laden radio interviews, his support for Vladimir Putin and his comments on the refugee crisis. Especially the latter has put an international spotlight on the president so that gaffes and conflicts with the government increasingly create not only national controversies but also international repercussions.

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

President Zeman has long been a vocal opponent to accepting any of the refugees who have been coming into Europe during the last years. Although he is not alone in his general position among the presidents of the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), his recent proposal to send refugees to uninhabited Greek islands and send back all s-called ‘economic migrants’ was met with such international backlash that the Czech foreign minister saw itself forced to publicly state that these remarks did not represent the country’s policy.

Zeman has so far largely ignored the constitutional provisions and practice that put the government, rather than the president, in charge of foreign policy and has shown little tact on both the national and international stage. In a latest gaffe, Zeman prematurely announced Hynek Kmonicek as the new Czech ambassador to the United States. Kmonicek, who currently still serves as Zeman’s foreign policy advisor, had however not been approved by the United States yet. Zeman is already engaged in a personal feud with the US ambassador to the Czech Republic, Robert Shapiro, since Shapiro criticised the president’s pro-Putin stance (Zeman subsequently failed to invite the ambassador to a number of events at the presidential palace). Given that the current administration also disapproves of Zeman’s blanket criticism of the EU and most likely does not look favourably upon his openly voiced support for presidential candidates Donald Trump in the US and far-right Norbert Hofer in Austria, the president’s actions have put the entire appointment process in jeopardy. Zeman similarly revealed the name of yet another of his aides poised to become ambassador (Jindrich Forejt as Czech representative in the Vatican; yet given the Czech Republic’s reputation as [one of] the most atheist country in Europe this caused less friction internationally).

In another controversy, Zeman decided not to award a medal to Holocaust survivor and remembrance campaigner George Brady after his nephew, Culture Minister Daniel Herman, met with the Dalai Lama. The official position of the Czech Republic is to accept China’s claims on Tibet, but no punitive action has ever been taken against public officials who met with the Tibetan leader. Zeman on the other hand, has been an avid support of Chinese investment in the country and seems to have taken matters into his own hands after he was unsatisfied with the government’s response – in fact, it was the presidential office that released a statement distancing the government from minister Herman – who Zeman had previously personally requested not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Both the (potential) appointment of a Zeman allies to ambassadorial positions and the passivity in the Dalai Lama-episode highlights that the government does not possess the power to curb the president’s activism. After a slump in public opinion in late 2014, the Zeman has once again gained in popularity (not the least due to his populist stance in the refugee crisis) while the government’s support has been stagnant. Furthermore, a survey showed that following losses in local elections, many members of the main governing party CSSD look to Zeman (who was its chairman 1993-2001) for leadership rather than to Prime Minister Sobotka. Nevertheless, until now Zeman’s support base in the party is limited to grassroots members, rather than members of parliament so that his influence is still limited to some degree. Yet particularly looking forward to the next parliamentary elections in 2017 (to be held half a year before Zeman’s first term in office runs out) and the taking into account that Zeman has no official partisan representation in parliament, attempts to influence CSSD policy and strategy may increase and Zeman could try to use his popularity with CSSD members as leverage to assume an unofficial co-leadership role in the future and make sure the party supports his re-election bid in 2018.

Czech Republic – President Zeman and the ‘Czexit’ referendum question

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 12 July 2016

The result of the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the United Kingdom on 23 June has created waves across and beyond the British Isles and the European continent. As many still tried to come to terms with the UK’s (almost) inevitable withdrawal from the European Union, several representatives of populist and fringe parties across Europe already called for similar ‘exit’ referenda for their own countries. The Czech Republic is particularly interesting in this regard as it was Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka who was first credited with floating the possibility of a ‘Czexit’ in February this year but then publicly distanced himself from the possibility. Now, president Miloš Zeman has reignited the debate by calling for a public vote on EU (and NATO) membership of the country.

President Miloš Zeman (left) meets Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament | © hrad.cz

President Miloš Zeman (left) meets Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament | © 2013 by hrad.cz

The UK referendum on EU membership has given rise to many calls for a similar votes in other countries. Far-right and populist leaders and presidential hopefuls, such as Marine Le Pen, have already called for a ‘Frexit‘ referendum in France and other variations of ‘-xit’ referenda in their countries. Although the anti-EU sentiment is most strongly represented in parties of the (far) right, demand for referenda has also come from the left and ideologically less defined populist actors, most prominently from Czech president Milos Zeman.

Shortly after the results of the UK vote broke, Zeman declared that – although in favour of EU membership – he would do everything for citizens feeling otherwise ‘to express themselves’, also with regard to NATO membership (a demand already made in February 2016 but quickly forgotten). Support for EU membership and trust in the EU institutions in the Czech Republic tends to be below average in comparison to other member states, yet is far from ranking lowest in the table. In the last year, criticism of and dissatisfaction with the EU has primarily been associated with the refugee crisis and the EU’s decision to impose quotas on its member states. The populist movement ‘Dawn’ recently submitted a motion to debate the possibility of a Czexit referendum in parliament and the election of an MEP of the eurosceptic fringe Party of Free Citizens (SSO) in 2014 indicates that there is a part of the electorate that responds to anti-EU rhetoric.

Nevertheless, the Czech president does not possess any power to call referenda at will (a power reserved for only few presidents around the world) – the Czech constitution also only mentions referenda in a clause inserted to allow for the EU accession referendum in 2003 (in which case a special organic law was passed to allow for the referendum – the only one held in the Czech Republic to date). Furthermore, the government has made it clear that it opposes any public vote on EU membership. A Czexit or even a referendum on the Czech Republic leaving the European Union thus seems unlikely. Nevertheless,  EU membership (and to a lesser degree NATO) membership presents a political cleavage which could be successfully mobilised in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections (2017 and 2018, respectively), particularly in conjunction with the refugee crisis. After Zeman’s approval had dropped sharply a year ago due to his position in the Ukraine crisis and a series of gaffes, his ratings have since improved and stabilised once again around 57-58% over the last months. By calling for a EU referendum yet supporting membership at the same time, Zeman could thus try to dance at two weddings at once – attract Eurosceptic voters (who will probably vote for a fringe candidate in the first round but could prove decisive in a potential runoff) while not losing too many mainstream voters.

The do-over the Austrian presidential election might provide a first test of how such a tactic might work out. Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer initially suggested that the Austrian people should be given a say over further EU integration and in his campaign greatly benefited from anti-EU sentiment related to the refugee crisis. Following statements by his decidely pro-EU challenger, Alexander Van der Bellen (independent/Greens), last week he was however forced to acknowledge that it would disastrous for Austria if the country left the EU. In order to maintain the momentum of his campaign and keep the anti-establishment vote, Hofer must nevertheless try to balance pro- and anti-EU voters which could – if successful – provide a template for Zeman and the Czexit referendum question.

Czech Republic – President Zeman vs Prime Minister Sobotka once again

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 9 February 2016

Czech president Milos Zeman and his remarks about refugees (including those in his Christmas message) have made continuously made headlines over the last months, earning him the reputation of  being ‘Europe’s answer to Donald Trump‘. At the same time and relatively unnoticed by international media, the ongoing conflict between Zeman and Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (with whose coalition government Zeman is in cohabitation) has recently bubbled up once again. After Zeman’s activism was previously less than well-received by the public, he is now using the opportunities created by his recent rise in popularity and upcoming local elections to launch another effort to weaken the Prime Minister and his government.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (l.) and President Milos Zeman

The refugee crisis continues to dominate not only European but also Czech politics, creating a divide within both the public and politics on how to deal with it. On the side stands president Zeman whose notorious anti-refugee and anti-Islam rhetoric find resonance in a significant parts of the population (in a recent opinion poll ca. two thirds agreed with his stance) and has contributed to the rise of a number of anti-immigration groups. Anti-immigration protests and attacks on a refugee centre culminated in a new climax over the weekend.  Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka from the Social Democratic CSSD (which Zeman incidentally chaired 1992-2001 but left in 2007) finds himself on the other side of the conflict. Although his government – just like his Polish and Slovak counterparts – also rejects the suggested quota system (the Czech Republic currently has so far only offered to shelter 400 refugees) and Sobotka is wary of the effects public opinion, he has so far presented the voice of reason, condemning any violence and accusing Zeman of destabilising society.

The refugee issue is still gaining in momentum, yet have not yet translated in an increased leverage for Zeman or sufficient political pressure on the government to resign, not the least due to the fact that coalition partners (and even some opposition parties) have so far been relatively united in fending off Zeman’s attacks and criticising his remarks.  President and Prime Minister clashed on recalling the country’s ambassador to Norway as a reaction to the ongoing discussions with the Norwegian government about the decisions of its child welfare service ‘Barneverent’ (which has placed several children of Central East European parents into foster care, allegedly without sufficient justification or examination). Although the issue triggered a few demonstrations, it has not had much of an additional impact in Zeman’s favour (who already excluded the Norwegian ambassador from some events in the past).

It appears that Zeman is therefore attempting another strategy alongside of attacking the government on its policies (see also below). Specifically, CSSD insiders talk about the possibilityof a second ‘Lany coup’ (Lany is the president’s summer residence) – a renewed attempt to topple the Prime Minister with the help of Sobotka’s CSSD-internal opponents. A similar plan failed in autumn 2013 after the last parliamentary elections, but as Zeman is now apparently supported by Michal Hasek – first deputy chairman of the CSSD one of the regional governors that the party would like to see re-elected later this year – the situation has changed. Furthermore, Sobotka and his government currently face accusations of incompetence after hispersonal email account was hacked by a far-right group who have now started to publish the emails – primarily those relating to the government’s response to the refugee crisis.

It is crucial to note here that Zeman himself has no representation in parliament and thus lacks one of the crucial means for presidents to indirectly exert political influence. The ‘Party for Citzens’ Rights – Zemanites’ (SPOZ) which he founded in 2009 failed to enter parliament in 2013 and does not play an important political role (it has also since rid itself of ‘Zemanites’-suffix). As a former member and chairman of the CSSD, he maintains good contacts to some parts of the party and is still admired by some but there are no ‘natural allies’ for him among the governing or opposition parties. His strategy therefore appears to weaken the CSSD to the point that he is granted some degree of influence (which would likely include the removal of Sobotka to whom Zeman still attributes blame for not becoming president in the indirect elections in 2003). The fact that regional assembly and Senate elections will be held in October hereby plays out in Zeman’s favour. Should he continue to gain popularity at the expense of the government, Sobotka and the CSSD will have to find new ways of dealing with the president – which may include some compromises with Zeman – or risk an even greater electoral defeat in the ‘mid-term’ elections.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 4 January 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al.Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

Voice of dissent or singing in tune? Visegrad presidents and the refugee crisis

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 1 October 2015

The refugee crisis facing Europe continues to make headlines as more and more refugees arrive at the South-Eastern borders of the EU and European leaders still battle to find a common position, let alone a solution to this problem. This is not my first post about presidents and the refugee crisis, having written about Austrian president Fischer’s intervention in a coalition conflict over managing influx of refugees into the country from Hungary two months ago. In recent months, the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán has been particularly vocal in rejecting further acceptance of refugees and recently even closed its borders with neighbouring Serbia (having already built a fence along the border). Orban was joined by heads of governments in other Central and East European states, particularly other members of the Visegrad Group (consisting of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) in a refusal to agree on an EU-wide quota system. While the countries’ Prime Ministers have naturally been the dominant actors with regard to the crisis so far, it is worth looking at presidents’ reactions as well given their that their position – irrespective of constitutional powers – also entails the role of moral authority. In this post I contrast and compare the public statements and positions of presidents with regards to the refugee crisis.

visegrad presidents prespow

Presidents of the Visegrad group countries (from left to right): Janos Áder (Hungary), Andrej Kiska (Slovakia), Milos Zeman (Czech Republic) and Andrzej Duda (Poland).

In stark contrast to Prime Minister Orbán, Hungarian president Janos Áder has by far been the least active with regards to the refugee crisis. Apart from stressing that Hungary would only accept refugees fleeing from war and persecution but not those migrating in search of work as well as a joint statement with Slovenian counterpart Borut Pahor calling for a – rather undefined – European solution, Áder has been relatively silent on the issue in public appearances. While addressing the issue once again during his speech at the UN general assembly in September where he called for global refugee quotas that would involve the US, Canada, Australia and China, his visit was dominated by the news that UN general secretary Ban Ki Moon expressed concern about the Hungarian response to the crisis in a meeting with him. Overall, Áder has aligned himself with the government and has given no indication that he disagrees with its policies. Given that Áder belongs to the governing Fidesz party and is a long-time ally of Viktor Orbán, this should not be surprising – Áder has generally not publicly shown himself to be an active check-and-balance on the government (see also my post ‘Hungary – Presidency lost?!‘ from last year). While a significant portion of public opinion disagrees with the government’s policies, they are not part of Fidesz’ electorate. Furthermore, being indirectly elected Áder relies on the parliamentary majority for re-election in 2017 – becoming too active not supporting the government in the current situation would mar his chances to remain president.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his government, similarly to his Hungarian counterpart, has been very vocal in opposing a European quota system. Although Slovakia temporarily accepted 500 refugees to ease the pressure for neighbouring Austria and refusing to accept a significant number of refugees. One government spokesperson even declared that the countrywould only accept Christian refugees as Muslims ‘would not feel at home’ given the lack of mosques or local Muslim population. In contrast to other Visegrad presidents, Slovak president Andrej Kiska’s position comes much closer to that of Germany and some other Western European countries. Kiska expressed support for temporary quotas to distribute the burden among EU member states and stressed the EU’s moral duty to help the refugees. Although his call for doing more about the causes of the crisis in the countries of origin chimed with the argumentation of other Visegrad leaders, he notably refrained from making any reference to cultural issues/religion and stressed that more needed to be done to gain the trust of the Slovak population and make them understand why it is necessary to help. Given that Kiska is popularly elected and not affiliated with any political party (although he can generally be classified as belonging to the centre-right), he has more leeway in contradicting the government than Janos Áder. Nevertheless, national elections are due to be held next spring and taking a position that is ‘too Western’ might put him at odds with some of the centre-right parties on whose support he is planning to build in the next legislature.

The position of the Czech government on the refugee crisis deviates only minimally from that of its Visegrad partners. In early September, Prague hosted the meeting of Visegrad Prime Ministers which resulted in a joint statement for “preserving the voluntary nature of EU solidarity measures” and stating that “any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable”. Yet here it is the president whose statements have dominated the headlines. Milos Zeman, who once said Islam was the “enemy of euro-Atlantic civilisation” and likened it to Nazi ideology, recently described the refugee crisis as a “tsunami that was going to kill him“. In his speech at the UN general assembly, he avoided mentioning the topic of refugees directly, yet focussed on the need to military strikes against ISIS. Although Zeman’s comment do not put the Czech Republic in the best light internationally (an issue the government has faced since taking office), the government currently has little motivation to oppose them. Apart from the fact that public opinion in the Czech Republic is on their (and Zeman’s) side, individual members of the government have – at least indirectly – provided similarly controversial commentary on the crisis.

Poland is in a special situation among the Visegrad states as is features not only the most recently elected president but also a government facing re-election in just a month’s time. Although the government has so far shown the same position as other Visegrad members, the governing Civic Platform generally pro-European stance during its time in office and close cooperation with Germany might now – in addition to poor approval ratings which will see it losing the upcoming election regardless – be another factor contributing to its demise. President Andrzej Duda who is affiliated with the right-wing and EU-sceptic ‘Law and Justice’ party which is currently set for electoral victory has so far not produced the best track record in foreign policy. However, by speaking out against the quota system and blasting the “EU dictate of the strong” he has hit a nerve among the Polish electorate and found another way to play a strong role in the election campaign. Furthermore, Duda’s argument against accepting more refugees coming to the EU from its south-Eastern borders has been that Poland was already accepting refugees fleeing the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This points the traditionally Russo-sceptic Polish electorate (even more so the core electorate of Law and Justice where many still blame Russia for the tragic death of president Lech Kaczynski in the Smolensk air crash) to another point where he and his party can score points.

In conclusion, while the governments of the Visegrad states stand relatively united with regards to the refugee crisis, presidents exhibit some more variation. Nevertheless, apart from Slovak president Andrej Kiska they are all basically still singing to the same tune to play to public opinion and appeasing their electorate (be it the public or parliament) or that of their parties.

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 5 January 2015

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

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Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.

Czech Republic – President Zeman under fire

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 19 December 2014

Since coming into office, president Miloš Zeman has not shied away from controversy. He made headlines early on in his presidency when he appointed the Rusnok government despite an evident lack of support in parliament and a parliamentary counter-proposal. While this had only little impact on his public standing so far, he recently had to face increasing criticism for his statements and behaviour in office, and experienced a dramatic drop in public approval.

Protesters show president Zeman symbolic red cards during the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution | photo via wikimedia commons

Since Vaclav Havel, Czech presidents have given live radio Interviews from their residence in Lany. On these occasions they discussed current political developments and used the opportunity to highlight issues close to their heart. During an interview in early November, Zeman was asked about the Russian dissident punk group ‘Pussy Riot’ while talking about the policies of Vladimir Putin. Yet rather than discussing the latter, Zeman provided Czech translations of the band’s name and a number of their songs using a wide range of profanities. Following the interview, the radio station not only received hundreds of complaints but Zeman’s words were also strongly criticised by politicians across the political spectrum as being inappropriate for a head of state. While Zeman and a number of other prominent Czech politicians have been known to use a more ‘colourful’ language at times, the incident is so far unique.

Following the incident, Zeman and his statements came under closer scrutiny by media and the public, leading to further dissatisfaction and criticism. During his trip to China only a few days prior to the controversial interview, Zeman had declared that he believed Taiwan to be part of China (which contradicts the government’s stance) and said on Chinese TV that he had ‘come to learn how to stabilise society’. Furthermore, he returned from his trip using the private jet of a Czech businessman rather than an official aircraft. While the latter might not seem too controversial for the outsider, the fact that the Czech Republic has long battled with political corruption and flights sponsored by businessmen also played a (admittedly less important) role in the resignation of German president Christian Wulff due to corruption allegations highlights that this was more than just a ‘faux pas’ (which Zeman – as a former Prime Minister – should have known to avoid).

Another part of the public discussion of Zeman’s behaviour was (and still is) his stance on the Ukrainian crisis. Among others, Zeman appeared on Russian TV to criticise the EU sanctions, proposed the ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine (subordination of foreign & defence policy to Russia),invited Russian president Vladimir Putin to Prague, and spoke up against the prospect of Ukrainian NATO membership. While the latter is also the German position, Zeman’s attitude is not shared by the generally very Russo-sceptic Czech population. It is therefore no surprise that protests against Zeman erupted at celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the ‘Velvet Revolution’. During his speech, he was greeted by a chorus of whistles and booing, and protesters threw eggs at him (one of which hit German president Joachim Gauck who was there as an honorary guest). During a recent trip to Southern Moravia, Zeman was similarly greeted by protesters.

trust in Zeman

According to a recent recent poll by CVVM trust in the president has been falling sharply and to the lowest level since Zeman took office (with his previous low occurring after the 2013 parliamentary elections). Furthermore, the poll was conducted during mid-November and does not take into account the subsequent events and protests. Analysts therefore expect a further drop in the next poll which is being conducted at the moment. The government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (with which Zeman is in cohabitation) benefits from the protests to some degree. Nevertheless, the fact he openly contradicts government policy has become a problem and threatens the government’s credibility abroad. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has therefore asked Zeman to coordinate his speeches with the government (in this context see also my recent post about presidential speeches Germany). It is unlikely that Zeman will bow to the government’s pressure in this regard. Nevertheless, once the end of his term comes closer (he still has more than three years in office left), he might have to change his behaviour to please his voters and be elected for second term.