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

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

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.

Germany – Former Foreign Minister and vice-Chancellor elected new federal president

On Sunday, 12 February 2017, the German Federal Convention elected two-time Foreign Minister and former vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the new German Federal President. Given that Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party – SPD) was the joint candidate of the ‘grand’ government coalition of SPD and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), his election with almost 75% of votes is not surprising. What is more interesting about this election is its potential signalling power for the Bundestag (general) election in autumn 2017 and discussions about the role of the German president.

Plenary of the 16th Federal Convention, 12 February 2017 | photo via bundestag.de

Following the announcement of president Joachim Gauck, elected with  in February 2012 following the resignation of Christian Wulff in the wake of corruption allegations, selecting a candidate was a tricky issue for the coalition government. German parties have generally been cautious about who to support in the Federal Convention as the coalition patterns are seen as indicative of future (or continued) coalitions on the federal level. SPD and CDU/CSU have only infrequently supported the same candidate (exceptions are the re-elections of Theodor Heuss [Free Democratic Party] in 1954, Heinrich Lübke [CDU] in 1964, and Richard von Weizsacker [CDU] in 1989, as well as the election of Joachim Gauck [non-partisan] in 2012). During all previous ‘grand coalitions’ between Social and Christian Democrats, both parties rather supported different candidates in alliance with either Free Democrats (FDP) or Greens with a view of forming the next federal government together with them. The joint nomination of then Foreign Minister and previous vice-Chancellor Steinmeier is thus a novelty in so far as it is not the re-election of a popular president or election prominent non-partisan (such as Gauck who a majority of Germans would have already preferred to Wulff in 2010). At the time, Chancellor and CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel as well as CSU leader and minister-president of Bavaria Horst Seehofer may have agreed to Steinmeier’s candidacy hoping that this would eliminate a strong and popular rival in the next federal elections. However, with the recent nomination of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament (2012-2017), as candidate for Chancellor and party chairman, the SPD has recently experienced a increase in popularity which could now interact favourably with the prestige of Steinmeier’s election. Although the SPD is still far from beating the CDU/CSU, it could gain a significantly larger vote share than initially expected. Both Steinmeier and Schulz have also been outspoken critics of US president Donald Trump and the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), while Merkel has had to maintain a more stateswoman-like attitude towards the new president and may still hope for some CDU-turned-AfD-voters to return.

The fact that Steinmeier’s first round victory was not surprising aside, the voting results for other candidates and discussions accompanying the election were almost equally as interesting. Contrary to many other European parliamentary systems, the German president is not exclusively elected by parliament and the Federal Convention – the electoral college only convened to elect the president – is not dominated by the members of the federal parliament. It consists of the members of the Bundestag and the same number of electors nominated by the 16 state parliaments in accordance with the population size (thus, the Federal Convention does not practice the same asymmetry as the Federal Council, Germany’s quasi-upper chamber and representation of state governments at federal level). Electors do not need to be members of state parliaments, so that parties also regularly nominate various VIPs – this time including football coach Joachim Löw, actress Veronika Ferres and well-known drag queen and activist Olivia Jones (aka Oliver Knobel). In the past, these elections were usually the time for editorials and opposition politicians to call for a popular election of the president. Yet this year, hardly any such proposals were voiced, likely in connection with the recent experiences in the United States, but also (and likely more prominently) Austria and the high support for Marine Le Pen in France. In fact, it was the fear of the rise of another populist leader that led the authors of the German post-war constitution to institute an indirect election of the president.

Thanks to the the inclusion of state representatives, Steinmeier was not the only candidate. Leftist party Die LINKE (also represented in the Bundestag) nominated well-known political scientist and poverty expert Christoph Butterwegge, the Alternative for Germany nominated its deputy leader Albrecht Glaser and the Free Voters from Bavaria nominated laywer and TV judge Alexander Hold. Although not represented in any German state parliament, the satirical party “Die Partei” also had its candidate in the running – Engelbert Sonneborn, 79-year old father of party leader and MEP Martin Sonneborn. This was thanks to the fact that the endorsement of a single member is sufficient for nominating a candidate, in this case the endorsement of a single Pirate Party deputy of the state legislature in North-Rhine Westphalia. Neither of these candidates came even close to endangering Steinmeier’s victory, yet notably all of them – except Sonneborn – received more votes than those of the parties supporting them. Furthermore, 103 (or 8.2%) electors abstained – while these likely came from CDU/CSU electors, it is difficult to point and may also include a number of SPD, FPD and Green electors who were disappointed with the lack of options (when all but Die LINKE and far-right National Democratic Party did not support the election of Joachim Gauck in 2012, the number of abstentions even reached 108).

Last, the address of Bundestag president Norbert Lammert, who chairs the proceedings of the Federal Convention ex-officio, received almost as much attention as Steinmeier’s acceptance speech. Lammert used the traditional opening statements for thinly veiled criticism of the policies of US president Donald Trump and the populist rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany, triggering discussions among legal experts whether he had violated his duty to remain neutral (see here [in German]; interestingly, this incident shows some parallels to discussions about statements by House of Commons speaker John Bercow in the UK).

The election of Steinmeier will not change the generally harmonious relationship between the presidency and the coalition government. However, Steinmeier may either try to assume a more internationally visible role than his predecessors – or he might be coaxed into doing do. Only recently, Steinmeier was still involved in negotiating major international treaties and he is well-connected and respected. While this may lay the foundation for more independent political action, the German constitution and established political practice (to which he can be expected to adhere) limit the potential for unilateral action and require him to coordinate intensively with the Chancellor and Foreign Ministry. The latter two might therefore also be tempted to use the new president to some degree – have criticism of Trump and other populist leaders delivered through the president while remaining neutral themselves.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 14 February 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.

Austria – Green candidate Van der Bellen beats far-right Hofer in repeat of runoff election

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 6 December 2016

On Sunday, 4 December, Austria finally held the do-over of the second round of presidential elections after the constitutional court voided the first attempt due to irregularities. Green party veteran Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, had won the first run-off on 22 May with only a razor-thin margin of 31,000 votes, but was now able to claim a more decisive victory. While national and international observers may be relieved by the fact that controversial far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) was defeated, the election has already spelled an end to business as usual in Austrian politics and may even have greater signalling power for (presidential) elections across Europe next year.

results-of-the-austrian-presidential-election-2016-presidential-power-com

The Austrian presidential elections 2016, more precisely its runoff, will likely go down in history as an example of all the things that can go wrong when organising an election. The Constitutional Court found numerous violations of procedures in its ruling on the first runoff elections, ranging from the deliberate destruction of unaccounted ballots, early opening of postal ballots and the accidental inclusion of 14 and 15 year-olds on the electoral register. The do-over of the election – first planned for 4 October – was riddled with problems, too, and had to be postponed due to faulty glue application on envelopes for postal ballot.

The subsequently stretched out electoral campaign showed great variations and intensity and approval for the two candidates which can otherwise only rarely be observed (hardly any country around the world leaves more than one month between first round and runoff). At first, these variations and particularly the voiding of the first runoff seemed to play in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer whose approval ratings put him several percent ahead of his challenger. Nevertheless, while politicians from the dominant parties SPÖ and ÖVP (whose candidates failed to enter the runoff for the first time since the end of WWII) were still reluctant to declare their support for either candidate in anticipation of a FPÖ victory and the need to form a coalition after the next general elections, the vast majority of public figures and intellectuals now supported Van der Bellen (a fact criticised by Hofer’s campaign as a conspiracy of the establishment). Yet Hofer also fell victim to his aggressive rhetoric and his failure to criticise the vicious attacks on Van der Bellen by his followers via social media.

Hofer also continued to advertise his vision of a more active president who would make more frequent use of the ample constitutional powers of the office which include dismissal of the Chancellor at will (see also Robert Elgie’s interview with Die Presse here). The prospect of a new government and/or early elections – which may still happen – may have turned voters towards Van der Bellen who promised to continue within the current political practice and limit his activism to more frequent interpellations and statements in political debates.

Increased international attention and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, has been another factor working in Van der Bellen’s favour. Similarly to the French presidential election in 2002, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen surprisingly relegated Social Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to third place and entered the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, the potential of a far-right victory and subsequent ‘slide to the right’ mobilised voters for the left-centrist Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, the stark difference between electoral results (Chirac beat Le Pen with 82:18 margin), highlights the considerably greater support for the far-right in Austria (although the French presidential contest 2017 may change the perspective on this).

The latter example naturally leads to the question of what consequences the Austrian elections have nationally and internationally. The result of the first round already led to the resignation of Werner Faymann as Chancellor and SPÖ leader. Both SPÖ and ÖVP have lost greatly in public support, whereas the FPÖ – which already governs some of the Austrian federal states – is now on track to become the strongest party in the next election. Although a continuation of the grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP may remain arithmetically possible, politically it will be difficult to exclude the FPÖ from government much longer – an option which will likely find the same amount of resistance among Austria’s neighbours as when it was first part of a coalition government with the ÖVP 1999-2003. The election has rung in the end of the traditional dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP and highlighted their eroding support in the electorate. The fact that Hofer still won the first round of presidential elections and received more than 35.1% of votes in the run-off, will have encouraged far-right leaders across the European continent and may – as mentioned above – have signalling effect for the French presidential elections. Looking towards elections in other European countries, the influence of the result is less clear. Hofer’s FPÖ is a long- and well-established far-right party and panders quite openly to those with questionable views of the Nazi-regime and Austrian involvement in it. In Germany, where general elections will be held in October 2017, the challenger from the far-right comes in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’. Although it only narrowly missed the 5% threshold in the 2013 elections and has recently won mandates in the European Parliament state legislatures, it is far from being as deeply anchored and widely accepted in society as the FPÖ.

Last, the Austrian elections highlights a potential emerging trend in (presidential) elections – the rise of establishment figures running anti-establishment campaigns. Despite being clearly part of the political establishment, Hofer (deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament) and Van der Bellen (former leader of the Green party and long-standing deputy) presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates. One could argue that support for Miloš Zeman (also a former party leader and Prime Minister) in the Czech Republic as well as for long-time senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election elections are expressions of the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this means that (far-right) populists can only be defeated by other (centre or left-wing) populists, or if there is another way in which established parties can counter the erosion of their support.

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.

Austria – Alexander Van der Bellen wins presidential runoff with razor-thin margin

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 24 May 2016

On Sunday, 22 May, Austrian went to the polls for the second round of presidential elections which – for the first time in Austrian history – did not include the candidates of SPÖ and ÖVP. Alexander Van der Bellen (independent/Greens) narrowly beat his opponent, Norbert Hofer (FPÖ), with a razor-thin margin of just 31,000 votes (0.6%) in a neck-and-neck race that was only decided on Monday afternoon after all postal votes had been counted. While a victory of the far-right Hofer, widely feared by international and a majority of national commentators alike, has thus been averted, the election marks without doubt a pivotal moment in Austrian politics. It spells the end of the dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP, the manifestation of ever stronger political divisions between the far-right and the remainder of the political spectrum, and seems to fall within a larger trend in support for right-wing parties and candidates in European politics.

Results of the Austrian presidential elections - Van der Bellen + Hofer

Already the results of the first round had shaken up Austrian politics. First, neither candidate of the governing parties SPÖ and ÖVP – who have dominated the Austrian presidency and government since the end of WWII – made it into the run-off. Both only polled a combined 22.4% of votes – far below their worst combined result yet. Following the election debacle and repeated calls for consequences, Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) eventually resigned, citing a lack of support in his party. There have not been any consequences yet in the the ÖVP, yet it is likely that the party will, too, try to reinvent itself at least partially before the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Analysts were unsure of whether Van der Bellen, a veteran Green politician (though formally independent), would be able to catch up to Hofer, who serves as one of the speakers of Austria’s federal parliament. Already shortly after the exit polls for the first round had been announced, parties categorically declined to make any kind of recommendations – only the third-placed candidate Irmgard Griss (independent) indirectly came out in support for Alexander Van der Bellen shortly before the second round, saying that she had given him her (postal) vote. The campaign of the two candidates was overshadowed by their widely panned performance during an experimental TV debate in which they went head to head without any TV presenter to moderate the discussion. Regardless, voters turned out in larger numbers to the polls on Saturday – turnout increased by 4% to 72.7% (the highest value since 1998).

During the election night (or afternoon, to be precise) tensions were running high after a first exit poll suggested a victory for Hofer, yet too narrow to exceed the margin of error. Subsequently, projections quickly suggested a stalemate between candidates and it became clear that the race would only be decided after counting the postal vote on Monday. Although Hofer had the majority of votes cast in ballot offices across the country (among these Van der Bellen only received a majority in Vienna and the state of Voralberg), Van der Bellen eventually won the election thanks to an overwhelming majority 61.7% among postal votes (with 746,110 they represented 16.6% of all votes). While some commentators suggested that parties might try to challenge such a narrow victory by either candidates, Hofer acknowledged his defeat on Monday afternoon.

Van der Bellen’s election introduces an unknown intro Austrian politics which – with regard to both chancellery and presidency – has hitherto been dominated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Although Van der Bellen formally ran as an independent, he is still formally a member of the Green party (which also supported his candidacy logistically and financially). While the Green party is part of the parliamentary opposition, it would be incorrect to speak of the advent of a period of cohabitation. Despite his general opposition to the dominance of the two mainstream parties voiced during the campaign, Van der Bellen’s relationship with the government is likely to be neutral and even if not unified at least supportive. Van der Bellen will have to show some moderate activism to please his electorate and while this could be markedly more than his predecessors (who largely refrained from interference in day-to-day politics) it will be far from the dramatic steps promised by his defeated contender Hofer (who signalled he would dismiss the government and dissolve parliament).

Irrespective of the fact that Hofer lost the runoff, he – and his party – will play a much more prominent role in Austrian politics from now on. Since January this year, opinion polls see the FPÖ at 32-34% which would make them the largest party in the next federal election (on overage, SPÖ and ÖVP only poll around 22% each). Hofer’s success also seems to fit in with a larger trend of gains by far-right parties across Europe. While these have partly been able to feed on anti-immigrant sentiments amidst the influx of refugees into (Western) Europe, in Austria the success of the FPÖ also seems attributable to an anti-establishment mood which is not sufficiently and/or successfully articulated by other political parties.

Austria – Political earthquake as candidates of far-right and Greens win first round of presidential elections

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 26 April 2016

On Sunday, 24 April, Austrian were called to the polls for the first round of presidential elections. Norbert Hofer, candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), was the surprise winner with 36.4% of votes and thus 15% more than predicted by opinion polls. Hofer will now enter a run-off with Alexander Van der Bellen, a formally independent candidate supported by the Greens. Candidates of the government parties SPÖ and ÖVP which dominated Austrian federal politics since 1949 failed to make an impression on the voters and only polled a combined 22.4%, signalling a potential end to the politics of grand coalitions in Austria.

Results of the first round of presidential elections in Austria, 22 April 2016_presidential-power.com

The latest opinion polls before the election had predicted a relatively secure lead for Alexander Van der Bellen and a closer race for second place between Hofer and independent candidate Griss. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the election it was clear that Hofer had gained significantly more votes than expected and would enter the run-off while Van der Bellen and Griss would compete for second place. Although Van der Bellen eventually finished 2% ahead of Griss, her third place is still remarkable. Griss, a former president of the Austrian Supreme Court, was largely unknown to the Austrian public only a year ago and is not connected to any party (she received some indirect backing from the liberal NEOS party). Her result is also the best ever won by an independent candidate in Austrian presidential elections, surpassing previous record-holder Gertraud Knoll and her 1998 result of 13.6% by almost 2%. As expected, support for Andreas Khol (ÖVP) and Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ) as candidates of the governing parties remained low and both eventually received considerably less votes than predicted. After the combined vote share of SPÖ and ÖVP candidates averaged 89% 1951-2010 and never dropped below 63.4%, their combined vote share of just 22.4% is a clear signal that voters have become tired of the parties’ political dominance. The construction entrepreneur and Viennese socialite Richard Lugner (independent), whose campaign was widely ridiculed (or least not taken seriously), only received 2.3% of the vote – 7.6% less than in his first candidacy in 1998.

votes for candidates by voters' party support in the 2013 parliamentary elections

Source: Austrian Press Agency

A look at voters’ party support in the 2013 parliamentary elections shows the reasons for the weakness of candidates of established parties and the success of others. Both Khol and Hundstorfer were not able to mobilise a significant amount of voters beyond their core electorate and many ÖVP and SPÖ voters instead turned to other candidates. Hofer’s votes, too, mainly relied on the FPÖ electorate; however, he was also able to get votes from a number of other parties. A similar picture emerges for Van der Bellen – although 46% of his votes came from voters who already voted Green in 2013, he otherwise received support from voters of almost all other parties. The distribution of 2013 preferences among the voters of Irmgard Griss underscores her appeal across the political spectrum (despite generally centre-conservative policy positions). Although votes for Lugner also came from voters of a variety of 2013 preferences, he seems to have gathered the non-constructive (because inconsequential) protest vote.

All three front-runners tried hard in their campaigns to present themselves as anti-establishment candidates. For Griss, the success of this strategy is hardly surprising as she lacks a party affiliation and clearly differed from candidates in her rhetoric. It is much more surprising that Hofer, a prominent representative of the FPÖ, was able to make the same strategy work for him. A post-election survey showed that his youth (with just 45 years he is the youngest candidate) played in his favour. Furthermore, the ostracization of his party on the federal (and international) level aided his success. Van der Bellen, too, is a veteran politician and very much part of the political establishment, yet due to the marginal position of the Greens (they have not been part of any municipal, state or federal government so far) this seems to have mattered less for his voters. Van der Bellen also managed to mobilise the greatest absolute number of previous non-voters – 84,000 voters who did not vote in 2013 came out to vote for him while Hofer and Griss only mobilised 49,000 and 44,000 respectively.

After the announcement of results, all parties and candidates who failed to advance to the second round (except Griss who is still consulting with her team) declined to make a voting recommendation for the run-off. SPÖ and ÖVP, clearly shaken by the miserable performance of its candidates, thereby appears to try and keep their options open for a (further) decline in support at the next parliamentary elections in 2018, the strengthening of the FPÖ and the resulting necessity for forming different coalition. Although the possibility of early elections was mentioned regularly during the election night, this seems generally unlikely – a major reshuffle in the cabinet and at the helm of both parties on the other hand will likely take place soon. Neither Hofer nor Van der Bellen can be sure to win the run-off and need to continue campaigning hard.

Last, both candidates promise different ways of how they will behave in office (for a slightly different assessment, see here). Although both will be in cohabitation with the SPÖ-ÖVP government, Hofer is more likely to a more active president and use the formally considerable powers of the office (which includes the right to dismiss the government at will). Particularly in the run-up to the next parliamentary elections, Hofer could try to highlight perceived failings of the coalition parties and openly campaign for his party  – something office-holders have so far refrained from doing. Although analysts highlighted last night that in the past Austrian voters were reluctant to vote for either SPÖ or ÖVP when they already nominated the president (implying a reversed tailcoat effect), the days when voters could make such strategic decisions are now over – electoral fragmentation has risen steadily over the last decade and will most likely continue to do so in 2018. In contrast to Hofer, Van der Bellen is much less likely to be active. First, the electoral potential of the Green party is limited (particularly in rural Austria) and seems to have reached a natural ceiling in the last elections when it gained 12.42%. Second, Van der Bellen is clearly opposed to a strengthening of the FPÖ. While he might decline to swear in a government after the elections that includes the far-right, he would need to be very careful not to lose too much of the ‘independent image’ created during this campaign and become the target of FPÖ’s anti-establishment campaign.