Slovakia – Perils of semi-presidentialism?! Independent Andrej Kiska inaugurated as new president

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 17 June 2014

On 15 June 2014 independent Andrej Kiska was inaugurated as Slovakia’s new president, succeeding Ivan Gašparovič who had served as president since 2004. Kiska is the country’s first truly non-partisan president and while his lack of any partisan affiliation was one of the main reason for his electoral victory against Prime Minister Robert Fico, it will also be his greatest obstacle to exerting political influence.

Andrej Kiska giving his inaugural address in the concert hall of the Slovak Philharmonic | photo via nrsr.sk

Since 1993, Slovakia has experience three different presidents – indirectly elected Michal Kovač (1993-1998; indirectly elected), Rudolf Schuster (1999-2004) and Ivan Gašparovič (2004-2014; both directly elected) – all of which declared to stand above parties and act as presidents of all people. Kiska, too, declared his ambition to be a president above parties, yet in contrast to his predecessors he is – in his own words – “the first president without political or partisan past”. Non-partisan presidents are not an unusual phenomenon and given that constitutional stipulations or constitutional practices in most European republics foresee that presidents give up their party membership a number of presidents could be classified as such. Nevertheless, Kiska is exceptional in so far as he never served in any other political office and has never been member of a political party. His predecessors were all experienced politicians and (at least up until their inauguration) party members. In a European context, the only real point of comparison for such apolitical and non-partisan candidate even entering the second round of a popular presidential election would be Stanislaw Tyminski, a Polish-Canadian businessman who surprisingly advanced to the second round in the 1990 Polish presidential elections but eventually lost against Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

Kiska’s lack of a political past together with his background as a self-made man proved to be his most important asset and unique selling point in the presidential campaign. However, Kiska’s independence will now likely be an obstacle to his success as a president. The political left, almost exclusively represented by the governing SMER-party of Prime Minister Robert Fico, sees Kiska as a representative of the right and will generally be hostile towards the new president (not only because he defeated Fico). While this might not lead to open conflict between government and Prime Minister, the refusal of outgoing president Gašparovič to meet with his successor is reminiscent of the way the semi-authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar (1992-1998) tried to sabotage the work of president Michal Kovač and shows how the government could try to prevent Kiska from becoming an effective check-and-balance. The fragmented political right on the other hand is wary of the new president and despite the support Kiska received from the third- and fourth-placed centre-right candidates, Radoslav Procházka and Milan Kňažko, he can hardly count on any party to act as his support base.

With the next parliamentary elections still two years away and SMER holding a majority of 55% in the assembly, Kiska is in a difficult situation. On the one hand he is in cohabitation with the government and should therefore be more active to show his closeness to and build alliances with the centre-right in parliament. On the other hand, although SMER’s approval ratings have been falling since their victory in the snap elections of 2012, it is currently unlikely that an alliance of centre-right parties will emerge that can topple the current government. Furthermore, if Kiska wants to play at least some role in everyday politics in the next two years, he needs to stay on neutral terms with the government and parliamentary majority. Although the contents of Kiska’s inaugural address should be interpreted with caution, his announcement to support political ideas from whichever political side they come from appears to be a signal in this direction.

Kiska’s campaign poster [slogan reads: ‘The first independent president’] | image via andrejkiska.sk

In their discussion of presidentialism, Linz (1990) and Mainwaring and Shugart (1997) agree that popular presidential elections are more likely to bring political outsiders into power which can have negative consequences for political stability and presents one of the theoretical perils of presidentialism. Due to the limited powers of the Slovak president, a destabilisation of the political scene is unlikely – even the extremely frequent use of vetoes by president Rudolf Schuster who vetoed more than 10% of all legislation did not affect the parliamentary character of the system. Rather, the outsider status appears to have a negative effect on the president’s ability to influence policy and thus represents a peril for the president, not democracy.

For now, Kiska’s most likely course of action appears to be to continue stressing his philanthropic activities – he is founder of the “God Angel” charity, declared that he was willing to give his salary to the poor (see also here) and invited a number of socially disadvantaged people to the first dinner he hosted as president – while looking for a viable political partner. The new centrist formation ‘Sieť’ (Net) of third-placed presidential candidate Radoslav Procházka (the only of the centre-right candidates to unequivocally support Kiska in the second round) could be an option. According to a recent poll, its approval stands at 13% and is thus only second to Prime Minister Fico’s SMER (34.6%). Nevertheless, Kiska will likely remain cautious in affilliating himself with any political party (even inofficially) and probably wait how ‘Sieť’ fairs in local election in autumn before deciding on further steps.

Kiss of death? – The failure of president-endorsed parties in Central and Eastern Europe

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 6 November 2013

In a recent article in the Prague Post titled ‘Presidents give parties “kiss of death”’ Daniel Bardsley draws attention to the fact that parties backed by former or current Czech presidents failed to succeed in parliamentary elections (president Zeman’s ‘Party of Citizens’ Rights – the Zemanites (SPOZ)’ only received 1.51% and the ‘Heads up’ party backed by former president Václav Klaus 0.41%). Motivated by the subsequent discussion between Seán Hanley, Robert Elgie and me on Twitter (click here to read) this post looks at the success and failure of parties affiliated with current and former presidents in Central and Eastern Europe.

This post will be the first post in an irregular series in which the contributors to this blog explore the relationship between presidents and their parties.

A seemingly common phenomenon
At first glance, the failure of parties affiliated with former or current presidents to gain significant electoral support appears to be a common phenomenon across Central Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. In addition to the Czech Republic (where one might additionally refer to Václav Havel’s half-hearted and subsequently unsuccessful backing of the Green Party), there are several other cases. In neighbouring Slovakia, the newly-formed ‘Party for Citizens’ Understanding’ (SOP) led by Rudolf Schuster won 8% in the 1998 elected, entered the government and saw its chairman elected president in the country’s first popular presidential elections. However, already four years later the party did not run again and dissolved a year later. The ‘Movement for Democracy’ (HZD) of Schuster’s successor, Ivan Gašparovič, fared even worse. Founded in 2002, the party never gained parliamentary representation, yet was surprisingly able to have its chairman elected president. While Gašparovič’s re-election campaign in 2009 was successful (not the least thanks to the support from the parties of the government coalition), HZD did not run again in the 2010 and 2012 parliamentary elections and recommended to vote for SMER-SD instead. In Poland, the ‘Non-partisan bloc for Support of Reforms’ (BBWR) founded to create a parliamentary representation for president Lech Wałęsa gained only 5.41% in the 1993 elections and received barely more than 1% of votes in 1997 (admittedly, Wałęsa’s presidency had ended in 1995 and he had no involvement in the subsequent campaigns). Further north in Latvia, there is another example of a failed president endorsed-party. Having served as president from 1993 to 1997, Guntis Ulmanis returned to politics in 2010 as chairman of the party alliance ‘For a Good Latvia’. The alliance won only 8% seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections and dissolved before the 2011 snap elections. One of the constituent parties ran again yet failed to win any seats.

Common problems?
Concluding that presidents are the key factor in causing a party’s demise based on the examples above would certainly not be a good idea. We have not yet looked at the successful examples of president-endorsed parties (more on these below) – or for parties not endorsed by presidents for that matter – and there is thus no variation on independent and dependent variables. But already a closer look at the mentioned cases shows that presidential endorsement is hardly the reason for the parties’ lack of success. In the case of the recent Czech parliamentary elections, the failure of SPOZ and ‘Heads up’ to succeed was interesting but – given previous opinion polls – not too surprising. Even though in existence since 2006 and having run under different names, ‘Heads up’ had never been a successful party (in fact, they failed to win seats in all national and European elections in which they participated). In addition, opinion polls never suggested that there was a chance for the party to succeed and reported it under the ‘other’ column. SPOZ on the other hand had had a greater chance of entering parliament (polls still showed it at 7.2% in August 2013) but only had a very limited policy programme (its most important point – the introduction of popular elections – had already been realised in 2012/2013). Similarly in Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis’ ‘For a good Latvia’ consisted of parties that already did not fare well in public opinion so that the meagre result in the 2010 elections and the subsequent failure to gain representation in 2011 (at this point Ulmanis had also already declared that he would not run for parliament again) was no surprise.

In the case of Lech Wałęsa’s BBWR, Schuster’s SOP and Gašparovič’s HZD, the reason for the party’s success seems to be rather neglect than outright endorsement. In Poland, the BBWR had been founded without formal involvement of Wałęsa and – in a very Wałęsa-typical whim – he retracted his official endorsement shortly before the elections (nevertheless, he managed to install two of its representatives in government). Gašparovič and  Schuster both quickly distanced themselves from their parties after their election as president. While Gašparovič remained at least formally faithful to the HZD while building new connections with SMER and a few other parties, Schuster almost immediately abandoned the SOP so that president-government relations from only two years after his election onwards can be described as cohabitational.

Success stories
It appears that the main problem for parties affiliated with presidents is thus that presidents chose to support (or continued to support) parties whose chances were – for whatever reason – already slim or  withdrew their support before the (next) electoral contest. To stay in the ‘kiss of death metaphor’, presidents chose to kiss a party that was already dead or made their exit before it died.

Nevertheless, there are also success stories of parties endorsed by former presidents. In Lithuania, the ‘Liberal Democratic Party’ founded in 2002 by former prime minister Rolandas Paksas not only managed to get Paksas elected president in 2004 but has also since been represented in parliament with a moderate contingent of deputies (2004-2008: 11 seats, 2008-2012: 15 seats, 2012-present: 11 seats) and is currently part of the governing coalition. In Latvia, the ‘Reform Party’ (initially ‘Zatler’s Reform Party’) of former president Valdis Zattlers (2007-2011) won 22 seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections making it the second largest party in the legislature (it has since lost 6 deputies and is only the third largest party group). It also participates in the government coalition.

Nevertheless, both cases also share a similarity that makes the drawing of definite conclusions difficult: by a significant share of voters both Paksas and Zatlers are likely seen as having been unrightfully removed from office. In the case of Paksas – who was impeached in 2004 – this is relatively self-explanatory as the constitutional court later ruled that his removal from office was unconstitutional. Zatlers on the other hand was simply not re-elected for a second term by parliament. Nevertheless, the main reason behind this was that Zatlers had initiated a referendum on the dissolution of parliament after the parliamentary majority refused to lift the immunity of an MP under investigation for corruption. While citizens greatly supported the dissolution (94.5% for dissolution, 44.5% turnout), MPs did subsequently not re-elect Zatlers.

While it is not clear which current and former presidents across the region will lend their support to parties future, at least one interesting case of a president-endorsed party is already on the horizon. Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski (1995-2005) is currently involved in building a coalition of left-wing parties for the 2014 European parliament elections under the name ‘Europa Plus’.

Zeman wins at home but Schwarzenberg abroad: Differences in voting results in the Czech presidential election

In the recent Czech presidential election – the first direct election of the head of state in the country’s history – it was reported that Czechs abroad predominantly voted for foreign minister and runner-up Karel Schwarzenberg instead of voting for the eventual winner, Milos Zeman. However, visualisations of this difference have been rather crude and concerned only the second round of elections on 25-26 January. For this blog post I have therefore re-worked the data from the Czech Electoral Commission website and created some new diagrams showing the patterns of this difference. In the end of this article I also provide a tentative explanation for why these differences exist.

Results of the second round of the Czech presidential elections, 25-26 January 2013 – Map from Eric Maurice (@er1cmau) Editor in chief of Presseurop.eu

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