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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latvia – Party conflict and presidential initiative in government formation

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 25 February 2016

On 11 February 2016, the Latvian parliament voted in a new government under the leadership of Maris Kučinskis. Over the last years, I have written about Latvian president Andris Berzins’ activism in government formation on several occasions (see my previous posts on Latvia). Today’s blog post discusses the process of formation of the most recent government as well as the president’s role. While it differs from previous posts in so far as with Raimonds Vējonis there is a new president, there are some interesting similarities in the president’s response to party tactics and the preference for a prominent position of his (former) party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZSS).

President Raimonds Vējonis (right) announces nomination of Maris Kučinskis (left) as candidate for Prime Minister | image via president.lv

After heading two Latvian governments since the beginning of 2014, Prime Minister Lajmdota Straujuma (Unity) resigned from office on 7 December 2015 after. A decrease of support for her leadership among parties and potential government reshuffle had been rumoured since late October following her dismissal of non-partisan transport minister Anrijs Matiss (and failure to quickly reappoint a successor), but intensified in the week preceding her resignation in conjunction with discussions about the 2016 budget and the upcoming congress of her Unity party. President Raimonds Vējonis was clearly dismayed by the developments and openly criticised government parties for failing to work to together better and avoid a collapse of the government.

Immediately after Straujuma’s resignation, parties and media began to speculate about potential successors. Although president Vējonis met with all parties to discuss proposals for the new government, it was universally acknowledged that Unity as the largest coalition party would lead the next government (the social-democratic Harmony Centre party holds the largest share of seats parliament, yet it is routinely shunned by other parties due to its affiliation with the sizeable ethnic Russian minority in the country). Even though Unity chairwoman Solvita Āboltiņa was part of her party’s delegation to the talks with the president and had even suggest herself as the new prime minister weeks before Straujuma’s eventual resignation, it soon became clear that she lacked sufficient support among Unity’s previous coalition partners. Both the National Alliance and – more significantly – the ‘Greens and Farmers Union’ (ZSS), which is not only the second largest coalition party but also the former party of president Vējonis, signalled that they would not be happy with Āboltiņa as prime minister. Thus, her party colleague, interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis – who had also been endorsed by Straujuma as a potential successor – emerged as Unity’s new potential candidate. However, as divisions within Unity widened, Kozlovskis announced only two days later that he would not be available for the role. Tensions between coalition parties increased when Unity refrained from offering any other candidates for prime minister except Āboltiņa (albeit only unofficially) and National Alliance and ZSS repeated their opposition to a government led by the Unity chairwoman.

Towards the end of December, particularly the ZSS was able to maneouvre itself into an advantageous position as it announced that it would not be in a coalition with either of the two smaller opposition parties, ‘Latvia from the heart’ and ‘Latvian Association of Region’. Either one could have replaced the National Alliance in the coalition and increased the ZSS share of portfolios. However, the support of both would have been needed to form a coalition of Unity and National Alliance without the ZSS. Furthermore, The fact that the ZSS had a former co-partisan in the presidential office meant that they could be relatively sure to be included in the new government. Although Vējonis refrained from openly taking sides, he publicly criticised Unity for failing to propose a(n agreeable) candidate for PM. Eventually, ZSS even announced to present its own candidate by late December to put pressure on Unity which responded by formally proposing Āboltiņa. After the ZSS eventually away off from formally proposing a candidate and merely flouted two names and Unity once again failed to agree on a potential candidate in addition to Āboltiņa, president Vējonis eventually announced that he would approach potential candidates himself in the new year.

The first candidates – finance minister Janis Reirs from Unity and Mayor of Valmiera, Janis Baiks (affiliated with Unity via a local party) – both declined to be nominated and other potential Unity candidates were unequivocally opposed by both ZSS and the National Alliance. Although Vējonis met with another potential Unity candidate, he eventually nominated ZSS’s nominee Maris Kučinskis on 13 January 2016, disregarding any potential opposition from Unity regarding this candidacy. The remainder of the government formation process can be described as relatively ‘uneventful’ with regard to negotiations between parties and the president’s involvement. However, the latter was largely predicated by the fact that Vējonis was hospitalised with a heart condition and operated on shortly after announcing Kučinskis’ nomination. The government then passed its vote of investiture in parliament on 11 February 2016.

The pattern of involvement by president Vējonis is quite similar to cabinet formation under his predecessor. Here, too, parties disagreed on the candidates for prime minister and/or the choice of potential (additional) coalition partners until the president took the initiative and rejected all candidates formally proposed by parties (which also tended to lack support among other potential coalition parties) and then approaching candidates on his own initiative. Overall, however, Vējonis appears to have been less active, leaving parties more leeway (yet not necessarily more time) in proposing candidates and sorting out their internal differences before taking the initiative himself. Furthermore, although Vējonis would have been in a position to force a cabinet under the leadership by his own ZSS (aided by the party’s generally advantageous position; see above), he gave Unity a second chance after the nomination of Āboltiņa failed to garner any support from the ZSS and the National Alliance. This leads to the question of whether the president is actually necessary/desirable in situations like these and if these were not better solved by parties alone. In this instance, a strongly partisan president (irrespective of party affiliation) might well have significantly delayed the formation of a government by nominating candidates without support from other parties. Vējonis tactics of waiting for the field of candidates to thin out naturally, gauge parties’ support for the various nominees and only take the initiative when deadlock likely saved Latvia a further month of fruitless negotiations. Furthermore, by maintaining the current coalition which elected him last year, his activism will likely not result in a significant decrease of support come the next presidential elections.

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The composition of new Latvian government is available at: whogoverns.eu

Veto et Peto – Patterns of Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe, 1990-2010

 This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 15 April 2015

This post summarises the main argument and findings of Philipp Köker’s PhD thesis
‘Veto et Peto: Patterns of Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe’ (UCL, 2015). You can download the full thesis from UCL Discovery here.

belweder_poland

The presidents of the new democracies that emerged in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) after 1989 have been subject to a great number of studies. Thereby, political scientists have often focussed on presidents’ powers – be it to enhance or develop classifications of regime types, or to study their impact on democratic consolidation or economic development. However, comparatively little has so far been written on how president actually use the varying powers at their disposal. Therefore, the aim of my study was to map patterns of presidential activism – defined as the discretionary use of formal powers by the president – and explain why and when presidents decide to become active.

Until now, there have only been few attempts to explain the use of presidential powers in the context of European parliamentary and semi-presidential systems. One of the most useful in this regard is Margit Tavits’ (2008) ‘political opportunity framework’ which I also adapted for my study. Based on studies of intra-executive conflict Tavits argues that variations in environmental factors – the relative ‘strength of other political institutions and the constellation of political forces in parliament and government’ (ibid. 35) – determine the level of consensus between the president and other institutions and thereby create opportunities for activism. In contrast to Tavits, however, I argue that these factors do not eclipse the role of the mode of presidential election. Rather, in line with the traditional argument I asserted that popularly elected presidents should be more active than their indirectly elected counterparts. This is because they are agents of the public rather than parliament and lack the constraints and potential for punishment faced by presidents elected in parliament (for more detail, see pp.41-46 and pp.68-69 of my thesis). My main hypotheses were therefore:

  1. Directly elected presidents are more active than indirectly elected presidents.
  2. Presidents are most active during cohabitation, least often when relations with the government are unified.
  3. Presidents are more active when parliamentary fragmentation is high.
  4. Presidents are more active when the government’s seat share is small.
  5. Presidents are more active if their party’s seat share in the assembly is small (or if they have no parliamentary support base).

It is clear that research design, case selection, and the quality of data matters greatly in arriving at meaningful and reliable conclusions. In order to both achieve generalisable results and gain in-depth insights into the practice of presidential activism, I employed a nested analysis framework which combined large-N statistical analyses with qualitative case studies. The presidencies of CEE presented a particularly suitable set of cases for this type of comparative analysis for several reasons [2]. First, the regions boasts a mix of directly and indirectly elected presidents with varying degrees of power. Second, the new democracies in CEE were not only created during the same and comparatively short period of time, but also faced analogous domestic and external pressures during democratic transition. Last, as previous studies usually had to rely on proxies to measure presidential activism, I created an original cross-section time-series data set on the use of presidents’ legislative powers – vetoes, judicial review requests, and legislative initiatives – in CEE between 1990 and 2010 for my statistical analysis. For my case studies, I conducted 65 semi-structured interviews with high-ranking presidential advisors, (former) government members and MPs, and a number of national experts.

Patterns of presidential activism
In order to analyse my data on presidential activism, I used both negative binomial and event history regression models. For the sake of simplicity I only show some descriptive statistics on the use of presidential vetoes here. My regression models generally confirmed the majority of my hypotheses, particularly with regard to presidential vetoes – the most prominent and most frequently used presidential power. In line with the table below, my model results showed 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. Contrary to my expectations, however, coefficients for parliamentary fragmentation did not reach statistical significance.

Use of presidential vetoes in CEE 1990-2010 - (C) Philipp Köker 2015

The statistical analyses of presidents’ use of judicial review requests and legislative initiatives unfortunately brought less striking results. This can mostly be attributed to the fact that they are only relatively rarely used or only few presidents have the right to use them which complicated statistical modelling. Nonetheless, the results for presidential vetoes provided a sufficient basis for proceeding with so-called ‘model-testing small-N analysis’ – a second step in the nested analysis approach that is aimed at verifying the results of the quantitative analysis, further testing the robustness of the model, and illustrating the causal mechanisms at work.

Presidential activism in practice
Based on the predictions of the statistical models of presidential vetoes, I selected 12 president-cabinet pairings in four countries (Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) for qualitative analysis. The guiding principle of the selection of countries (two directly, two indirectly elected presidents; two powerful, two weak presidents) as well as the the selection of president-cabinet pairings was to achieve a well-balanced mix of cases for in-depth analysis. Due to the results of the statistical models, the case studies focussed on presidential vetoes and the degree to which the factors included in my statistical models could explain instances (or the lack) of the use of vetoes. They also included a section on presidential activism in government formation which – given the lack of appropriate data – could not be adequately analysed statistically and was intentionally left for the qualitative part.

The in-depth analysis of presidential activism, which was greatly facilitated by the insights gained through interviews with those involved, generally confirmed my hypotheses and provided 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 presidential aides 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. Last, my (albeit brief) analysis of presidential activism in government formation, censure and dismissal called for re-thinking the use of non-partisan cabinet ministers as a proxy for presidential involvement. Not only were non-partisans often appointed without presidential involvement but presidents were also very actively involved in placing co-partisans in the cabinet.

Conclusion & look ahead
Comparative work on the actual use of presidential powers – particularly in European political systems – is still rare. My study could provide one of the first large-scale studies of presidential activism in these systems and thereby confirm a number of assumption which could previously only insufficiently be tested. The nested analysis approach furthermore ensured a better understanding of both statistical results and qualitative findings which will help to inform future studies and further theory development. My study however only produced limited evidence on the influence of factors related to presidents as individual (‘president-centred’ factors) – a group of factors particularly prominent in the case study literature on European presidents. While it appeared that these variables certainly have the potential to enhance the understanding and explanation of presidential activism, more research based on strong theory is needed to further examine their effect. In addition, it would seem sensible to analyse the use of presidential vetoes using data on individual bills which would allow to take those factors that could not be adequately addressed in the statistical models used in this study into account.

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References:
Tavits, Margit. 2008. Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do direct elections matter?. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Notes:
[1] The full study can be downloaded from UCL Discovery by clicking here. If you are interested in the interviews I conducted with presidential advisors (and other political elites), a paper on these appeared last year in SAGE Research Methods Cases and will soon also be adapted as a video for SAGE‘s new teaching collection.
[2] I defined CEE as those countries that joined the EU in 2004/2007, i.e. Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Due to the fact that the Slovenian presidency does not possess any legislative powers, it was excluded from this study.

Estonia – New government takes office but cracks in coalition are already visible

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 13 April 2015

On 8 April, more than five weeks after the parliamentary elections on 1 March, Estonia’s new government passed its vote of confidence in parliament and was formally appointed by the president on the next day. The government continues the cooperation of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas’ Reform Party with the Social Democratic Party; yet the coalition now also includes the ‘Isaama and Res Publica Union’ (IRL). The coalition talks did not proceed without difficulty and some observers doubt that the coalition will hold for the whole length of the legislative term.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (centre left) and Prime Minister Taavi Roivas (centre right) with the new cabinet | © Office of the Estonian President 2015

The elections of 1 March saw not only unexpected vote losses for all major parties but also two previously unrepresented parties enter parliament. Although the Reform Party of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas emerged as the clear winner (finishing 3 seats before its main opponent, the Centre Party), it lost 3 seats which – together with the 4-seat loss of its coalition partner – meant that a third party would need to be included. While both the IRL (the Reform Party’s coalition partner 2007-2014) and the newcomer ‘Free Party’ on their own would have been able to contribute the required number of seats for a majority government, Rõivas soon announced that coalition talks would be held between all four parties. The idea for such a super-sized coalition seems to have originated in talks between Rõivas and president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ilves has generally not played a very active role in coalition negotiations and rarely interfered in day-to-day political decision-making, yet now unusually vocally suggested that the new government should have a ‘broad parliamentary basis’. Ilves surely remembered the more than fragile coalition between Reform Party, IRL and Social Democrats which was characterised by continuous disagreements eventually leading to the exclusion of the Social Democrats from the government. On the other hand, the inclusion of the ‘Free Party’ would have enhanced the position of the Reform Party with which Ilves has formed strong bonds while in office vis-a-vis the other coalition partners.

Eventually, the ‘Free Party’ left the coalition negotiations prematurely after its calls for more direct democracy and tax increases found no resonance with the other parties. Yet negotiations between the remaining three parties did not go smoothly either. Similar to the first edition of the three party coalition, the Social Democrats found themselves opposed by the two other parties an many issues and although not all of them have been resolved in the coalition agreement, the fact that their veteran politician Eiki Nestor was made speaker of parliament was one of the key elements in securing their support for the government.

Overall, the government hardly had a smooth start. First disagreements concerning the Cohabitation Act (i.e. legalisation of same-sex marriage passed in the last legislature) surfaced immediately after its inauguration and the abstention of Social Democrat deputy Jevgeni Ossinovski in the cabinet’s vote of confidence caused a further scandal. The ministerial line-up was also subject to some public criticism as the number of women in the government dropped from six to only two. This is particularly relevant as Estonia which was recently named as having one of the biggest gender paygaps in the EU. The coalition agreement, too, only includes little on how to remedy this problem. Therefore, some experts and prominent party representativeshave already questioned whether the coalition would be able to survive the full legislative term.

Last, the period of government formation was overshadowed by the illness of Tallinn mayor and Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar. Following a streptococcus infection, Savisaar’s leg needed to be amputated and he remains in a critical care unit. As Savisaar has been party leader since the early 90s, the party is still in a phase of re-orientation. Compared to previous coalition talks – during which Savisaar demanded that his party be included in the government – the Centre Party (which due to its russophile position has no chance of being included in any coalition despite its size) remained largely silent during the coalition talks.

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Cabinet Composition – Rõivas II

roivas 2015 allocation

Prime Minister – Taavi Rõivas, 35, Reform Party
Minister of Foreign Affairs – Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, 39, Reform Party
Minister of Internal Affairs – Hanno Pevkur, 38, Reform Party
Minister of Defense – Sven Mikser, 41, Social Democrats
Minister of Education and Research – Jürgen Ligi, 55, Reform Party
Minister of Justice – Urmas Reinsalu, 39, IRL
Minister of the Environment – Marko Pomerants, 50, IRL
Minister of Culture – Indrek Saar, 42, Social Democrats
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure – Kristen Michal, 39, Reform Party
Minister of Entrepreneurship – Urve Palo, 44, Social Democrats
Minister of Rural Affairs – Urmas Kruuse, 49, Reform Party
Minister of Finance – Sven Sester, 45, IRL
Minister of Health and Labour – Rannar Vassiljev, 33, Social Democrats
Minister of Social Protection – Margus Tsahkna, 37, IRL
Minister of Public Administration – Arto Aas, 34, Reform Party

Latvia – New government passes vote of confidence

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 11 November 2014

Following the parliamentary elections in October, which saw the ruling centre-right coalition confirmed in office, the Latvian parliament passed a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma last week. As the government consists of the same party coalition as before, the changes to the line-up have been small and no major policy changes can be expected. The renewed inclusion of the Union of Greens and Farmers in the coalition makes a re-election of president Berzins likely.

Latvian president Andris Berzins and Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma | photo via wikimedia commons

Latvian president Andris Berzins and Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma | photo via wikimedia commons

Latvian president Andris Berzins nominated Prime Minister Straujuma to head the next government less than a week after the election. The continuation of the coalition between her “Unity” party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (Berzin’s old party) and the National Alliance was the only viable option to form a government. Given the prevalence of centre-right parties and strong russophile connection of the social-democratic ‘Harmony’, the latter had no chance of being included despite winning the most seats.

Despite this constellation and some more resources to distribute (Unity had absorbed the ‘Reform Party’ founded by former president Valdis Zatlers which previously held 3 portfolios), the coalition talks experienced several deadlocks which prompted president Berzins to publiclyannounce deadlines by which a conclusion should be reached. The ministry for Environment Protection and Regional Development Ministry triggered one of the larger battles between parties during the coalition negotiations with both the Union of Greens and Farmers and the National Alliance (which, too, is reliant on voters ins more rural regions and held the ministry in the last government) keen to claim it. In the end, the National Alliance was successful yet had to accept the Union of Greens and Farmers’ board chairman as deputy minister. Furthermore, the Union of Greens and Farmers were given the Health Ministry as well as the post of parliament speaker which was previously held by Unity leader Solvita Aboltina.

Overall, only modest policy change can be expected from the government. The fact that Latvia will take over the presidency of the EU for the first half of 2015 means that some domestic reforms will be put on hold and the opposition, too, has little interest in exposing the government to criticism during this time of international (or at least European) focus on the country. A factor to watch remains the government’s policy with regard to same-sex partnerships. In 2005 parliament passed a bill that defined marriage as being between two people of the opposite sex and a draft for a new bill is currently in parliament. Yet two days after the government received approval by parliament, foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics came out as gay (receiving words of encouragement mostly from his foreign rather than domestic colleagues) and called for a framework that allowed all kinds of partnerships.

Last, the renewed inclusion of the Union of Greens and Farmers as well as their now more prominent position in government (it only entered the coalition earlier this year when Straujuma was first elected Prime Minister due to pressure by president Berzins), appears to have secured his Berzins re-election in the next presidential elections (2015).

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 Composition of Straujuma II

Straujuma 2 composition

Prime Minister: Laimdota Straujuma (Unity)*
Minister for Defence: Raimonds Vējonis (Union of Greens and Farmers)*
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Edgars Rinkēvičs (Unity)*
Minister for Economics: Dana Reizniece-Ozola (Union of Greens and Farmers)
Minister for Finance Jānis Reirs (Unity)
Minister for the Interior: Rihards Kozlovskis (Unity)*
Minister for Education and Science: Mārīte Seila (independent; nominated by Unity)
Minister for Culture: Dace Melbārde (National Alliance)*
Minister for Welfare: Uldis Augulis (Union of Greens and Farmers)*
Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development: Kaspars Gerhards (National Alliance)
Minister for Transport: Anrijs Matīss (Unity)*
Minister for Justice: Dzintars Rasnačs (National Alliance)
Minister for Health: Guntis Belēvičs (Union of Greens and Farmers)
Minister for Agriculture: Jānis Dūklavs (Union of Greens and Farmers)*

* Member of previous government

Poland – The new cabinet of Ewa Kopacz and the limits of presidential influence over government formation

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 2 October 2014

Yesterday, the Polish Sejm (lower chamber of parliament) passed a vote of confidence in the new government of Ewa Kopacz by 259 to 189 votes (7 abstentions). Kopacz, the second woman to head a Polish cabinet, had been nominated by president Komorowski on 15 September after her predecessor Donald Tusk resigned in early September to take up the position of European Council president. The new cabinet includes a few surprise nominations in key ministries which – in one way or another – show the extend of president Komorowski’s influence over cabinet formation.

New Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz with her cabinet | photo via wikimedia commons

When president Lech Wałęsa appointed Hanna Suchocka as Poland’s first female Prime Minister in 1992, the new head of government reportedly had no influence over the composition of her cabinet. Rather, this was negotiated between leaders of the coalition parties and the president himself and it was evident that Suchocka (although deputy head of the Sejm’s legislative committee at the time) had been chosen for her lack of genuine political leverage. Ewa Kopacz’s nomination as Prime Minister thus stands in contrast to Poland’s first experience with a female Prime Minister. Kopacz was not only minister for health in Donald Tusk’s first government (2007-2011) and subsequently served as speaker of the Sejm, but has also been deputy chairperson of the Civic Platform (PO) since 2010 and first deputy since 2013. Rather than a stopgap, Kopacz comes to her position with more political power and experience than some of her male predecessors. The majority of ministers from the Tusk government will continue to lead their respective portfolio in Kopacz’s new cabinet. Notable changes, however, have been made in the ministries for foreign affairs, interior, and justice and give an indication of the power balance between president Komorowski and the new Prime Minister.

According to media reports, the departure of foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski and justice minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz can largely be attributed to pressure from president Komorowski. Both Sikorski and Sienkiewicz were implicated in a wiretapping scandal earlier this summer and the president had subsequently repeatedly expressed his disapproval towards their continued cabinet membership. Yet Komorowski’s pressure to remove both men from their posts is also evidence of the increasing hostility between the factions in the PO that formed around the triumvirate Tusk-Sikorski-Sienkiewicz and the president and his advisors. Their removal from the new cabinet (although Sikorski has now succeeded Kopacz as speaker of the Sejm) thus weakens the influence not only of said rival group but also that of ex-PM Donald Tusk. The dismissal of interior minister Marek Bernacki – a long-time ally of Komorowski – on the other hand appears to be Kopacz’s attempt to weaken the president’s influence over government policy.

The new appointments, too, bear marks of both Ewa Kopacz and the president. The new foreign secretary Gregorz Schetyna – although chairman of the Sejm’s foreign policy committee sine late 2011 – lacks significant foreign policy experience, yet is one of the most significant intra-party rivals of both Tusk and Komorowski. The new justice minister Cezary Grabarczyk is politically closer to the president and known as leader of a faction of regional party leaders who tended to support Donald Tusk but due to his post as deputy speaker under Ewa Kopacz also close to the new Prime Minister. Nevertheless, the fact that he has – despite pressure from Tusk and Komorowski – not been made deputy prime minister shows that Kopacz is wary of his potential influence. Last, the appointment of Teresa Piotrowska as the new interior minister is another point on Kopacz’s side of the scoreboard. Piotrowska, who first entered parliament together with Kopacz, is a close friend and political ally of the new Prime Minister, yet her nomination has widely been panned and criticised due to her announcement not to take on the oversight of the country’s special services.

Ewa Kopacz has thus managed to claim her appointees for two of the so-called ‘force ministries’ (foreign affairs, interior, defence – often staffed with presidential nominees due to political practice developed under Poland’s ‘Small Constitution’ 1993-1997), yet her success is mitigated by the lack of her chosen ministers’ qualifications. Nevertheless, she could still tip the balance of power between her and the president in her favour and thus credibly demonstrate her ambition to be an independent political actor. Yet this might prove to be only a temporary victory. She will only be able realise her political ambitions if the PO also elects her as a party leader, although these might not take place until after the next parliamentary election in autumn 2015.

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Ewa Kopacz’s cabinet consists of 19 members (PM + 17 ministers with portfolio + head of cabinet office), 11of which previously served in the same position under Donald Tusk (the ministries headed by the Civic Platform’s coalition partner, PSL, remained unaffected). There are four non-partisan members in the cabinet, all of which are have clear political links to the Civic Platform. The division of portfolios between PO and PSL remained unaffected and the PSL remains being slightly overrepresented in the cabinet.

 

Composition of Kopacz I
Prime Minister: Ewa Kopacz (PO, female, 58)
Minister for Defence & deputy PM: Tomasz Siemoniak (PO, male, 47)*
Minister for Economy & deputy PM: Janusz Piechociński (PSL, male, 54)*
Minister for Health: Bartosz Arłukowicz (PO, male , 43)*
Minister for Sport and Tourism: Andrzej Biernat (PO, male, 54)*
Minister for Administration and Digitalisation: Andrzej Halicki (PO, male, 53)
Minister for the Treasury: Włodzimierz Karpiński (PO, male, 53)*
Minister for Justice: Cezary Grabarczyk (PO, male, 54)
Minister for the Environment: Maciej Grabowski (non-partisan [PO], male, 55)*
Minister for Education: Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska (non-partisan [PO], female, 50)*
Minister for Science and Higher education: Lena Kolarska-Bobińska (PO, female, 66)*
Minister for Labour and Social Policy: Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz (PSL, male, 33)*
Minister for Culture and National Heritage: Małgorzata Omilanowska (non-partisan [PO], female, 44)
Minister for the Interior: Teresa Piotrowska (PO, female, 59)
Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development: Marek Sawicki (PSL, male, 56)*
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Grzegorz Schetyna (PO, male, 49)
Minister for Finances: Mateusz Szczurek (non-partisan [PO], male, 39)*
Minister for Infrastructure and Development: Maria Wasiak (non-partisan [PO], female, 54)
Minister without portfolio/Head of the Cabinet’s Office: Jacek Cichocki (non-partisan [PO], male, 43)*

* member of previous government with same portfolio (Tomasz Siemoniak was promoted to deputy PM).

Lithuania – Reshuffle of deputy ministers as President Grybauskaite is sworn in for second term in office

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

After her successful reelected in May 2014, president Dalia Grybauskaite was sworn in for her second term in office this Sunday, 12 July. As I have previously remarked in other posts, the Lithuanian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in Central and Eastern Europe. This powerful position stems not only from the popular mandate and the constitutionally defined leading role in foreign policy, but also finds expression in an interesting stipulation about the government’s mandate after presidential elections which has now allowed Grybauskaite to force changes in a number of government ministries.

Art 92 of the Lithuanian Constitution states that The Government shall return its powers to the President of the Republic after the Seimas elections or after the elections of the President of the Republic. The president then has 15 days to present a (new) candidate for Prime Minister to parliament who has to pass a vote of confidence. Although the president’s potential courses of actions are naturally restricted by parliamentary arithmetic, the stipulation theoretically  allows her/him to try and install a government which is closer to her own policy preferences or at least to extract some concessions from an incumbent Prime Minister and their cabinet.

Dalia Grybauskaite had already played a very active role in the appointment of the current centre-left government led by Algirdas Butkevicius in 2012 and had even refused to nominate him before conceding that he was the only candidate capable of mustering a majority in parliament. While she remained critical of the government as a whole as well as individual cabinet members, she has not been successful in effecting any changes to the cabinet composition since – also because there is no alternative to the current government coalition. As her inauguration approached it was thus clear that she would re-appoint Prime Minister Butkevicius. Nevertheless, two week ago Grybauskaite announced that she would not reappointcabinet ministers on the Prime Minster’s request if they failed to sack deputy ministers (MPs with the rank of secretary of state) that appeared on a ‘blacklist’ of people with suspicious financial activities. Representatives of the government protested against the move as the president formally has no authority to influence appointments below cabinet level. However, coalition parties soon agreed to ask all deputy ministers to resign – a call which was eventually followed by all involved.

The resignation of all deputy ministers can be seen as a great success for Grybauskaite, particularly over the Electoral Action of Poles whose only deputy minister refused to resign until last night and was also not fired by the respective cabinet minister from the same party. The fact that she has been able to force changes below cabinet level cannot only be attributed to the stipulations of Art 92. Grybauskaite also certainly benefited from her ‘fresher’ legitimacy and her popular mandate which let her act independently of the government. While her actions are partly a way of fulfilling the promises of her electoral campaign and improving her public image (the topic of corruption remains very salient in Lithuanian politics), her activism can also be explained by the fact that she will not want to become a lame duck towards the end of her term. By referring to the precedent she has just set, it will be easier for her to influence political decision-making even after the parliamentary elections next year have brought a new and freshly legitimised government into office.

Estonia – New government under leadership of EU’s youngest Prime Minister formed

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 4 April 2014

Until Andrus Ansip resigned his resignation in early March, his intention was to pave the way for a successor. However, after his designated successor, EU Commissioner Siim Kallas, dropped out Ansip’s Reform Party switched plans and asked President Ilves to appoint 34 year-old Taavi Rõivas to head the new government. While Rõivas is not the youngest Prime Minister in Estonia’s recent history and has been tipped as the new Reform Party leader, the extent of his authority over the party and the cabinet is unclear.

President Ilves with the new government | photo © Raigo Pajula via www.president.ee

When Andrus Ansip announced his resignation as Prime Minister he had been in office for almost nine years (making him longest serving Prime Minister in the EU). The reasons for his resignation was to pave a way for a new leader that would Ansip’s centre-right ‘Reform Party’ into the 2015 parliamentary elections. The designated successor was EU Commissioner Siim Kallas (himself Prime Minister 2002-2003) with whom Ansip – pending approval by the European Parliament – hoped to switch places. However, only shortly after the plans were made public, Kallas was faced with media reports about alleged wrongdoings during his time as director of the Estonian Central Bank. The allegations that he had signed guarantees that did not appears were known for several years and not judged as particularly grave by experts given economic situation at the time. However, Kallas’ reaction to the reports – aggressive denial followed by partial admission – was not well-received and only increased pressure, so that he eventually withdrew his candidacy.

At the same time, the Reform Party held talks with both its current coalition partner, the conservative ‘Pro Patria & Res Publica Union’ (IRL), and the Social Democratic Party, with which they had formed a coalition 2007-2009. However, they soon opted to form a new coalition with the latter.

After Kallas’ resignation, the most likely candidate was Foreign Minister Urmas Paet. It has also been alleged that Ansip’s original plan to let Paet become Prime Minister, while Kallas would become a member of the European Parliament and eventually become Estonian president in 2016. After Paet delined, Justice Minister Hanno Pevkur still seemed a more obvious choice but party leadership chose to put forward 34 year-old Taavi Rõivas, MP since 2007 and Minister of Social Affairs since December 2012. Even though Rõivas has been described as a ‘dark horse‘, he has already gained some experience as chairman of the Finance and European Affairs committees in parliament. Despite his young age, he is also not the youngest Prime Minister yet – Mart Laar was only 32 when he became the country’s first post-communist Prime Minister in 1992.

Shortly after parliament approved of Rõivas and his government (he received 55 votes and thus 3 more than the coalition majority), it was announced that he would also take over the leadership of the Reform Party from Ansip. The question is how much actual authority Rõivas will have over the party as well as the government. There are not only several stronger and more experienced candidates (and thus potential intra-party rivals), but the Reform Party has lately seen its position in approval rating drop behind the Social Democrats and the IRL which could weaken his position.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves appears to have played no role in the process of government formation. Being indirectly elected, Ilves has made clear on several occasions that he felt he should not be involved in domestic politics too much. Furthermore, as a former chairman of the Social Democrats and due to the close affiliated he developed with the Reform Party throughout his term in office, he probably does not have any objections against the policies that the new government will implement. As the government includes many experienced politicians, too, there are also no formal reasons of why he would have needed to interfere in the process of government formation.

The role of Estonian presidents in government formation is in any case very limited and apart from presidents’ unwillingness to charge Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar with forming a government on several occasions (despite a large seat share, he would not have been able to form a coalition) there has not been any notable presidential activism in the matter. Therefore, it only seems natural that Ilves left it to parties to find a successor for Ansip and voiced no public objections against appointing Rõivas.

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Cabinet composition Rõivas I

Rõivas portfolio allocation & seat shares

Prime Minister: Taavi Rõivas (Reform Party; 34, male)
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Urmas Paet (Reform Party: 39, male)
Minister of the Interior: Hanno Pevkur (Reform Party; 36, male)
Minister of Defense: Sven Mikser, (Social Democrats; 40, male)
Minister of Education and Research: Jevgeni Ossinovski (Social Democrats; 28, male)
Minister of Justice: Andres Anvelt (Social Democrats; 44, male)
Minister of Environment: Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (Reform Party; 38, male)
Minister of Culture: Urve Tiidus (Reform Party; 59, female)
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure: Urve Palo (Social Democrats; 41, female)
Minister of Foreign Trade and Entrepreneurship: Anne Sulling (Reform Party; 37, female)
Minister of Agriculture: Ivari Padar (Social Democrats; 49, male)
Minister of Finance: Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party; 54, male)
Minister of Health and Labour: Urmas Kruuse (Reform Party; 48, male)
Minister of Social Welfare: Helmen Kütt (Social Democrats; 52, female)

Czech Republic – A new government and the evolution of semi-presidentialism

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 7 February 2014

On 29 January 2014, 95 days since the parliamentary elections of October 2013, president Miloš Zeman appointed a new government under the leadership of Czech Social Democrat Chairman Bohuslav Sobotka, thus ending the longest tenure of an acting government in recent Czech history. While the government still has to pass a vote of confidence in the assembly until the end of February, this is rather seen as a formality given the coalition’s 111 votes in the 200 seat assembly – a comparatively comfortable majority for Czech conditions.

President Zeman eventually did not refuse to appoint any of the candidates presented to him by the coalition parties, yet the past months were filled with speculations about the president’s potential interference. These were mainly fueled by the fact that Zeman had in an unprecedented move already appointed the last government of Jiri Rusnok without consulting parties (the government subsequently failed to win a vote of confidence and resigned) as well as Zeman’s insistence that he need not appoint all candidates proposed to him. In particular, Zeman objected to the candidates for the ministries of interior, industry/trade, and human rights/legislative council. While his objections to individual candidates were only made public in early January, Zeman previously announced that he would require lustration certificates from each candidate (mainly aimed at preventing ANO 2011 leader Andrej Babiš from taking office) and that he would not appoint a candidate without relevant experience.

The question is now in how far this activism can be attributed to Zeman’s popular mandate (from 1993-2013 Czech presidents were elected by parliament) and why he eventually chose to acquiesce with the prime minister’s wishes. Many commentators have pointed out the importance of direct presidential elections for explaining the president’s activism (particularly in connection with the appointment of the Rusnok government in summer 2013) but Zeman himself has not yest publicly spoken about the increased popular legitimacy of the presidency. Given that he has been in office for less than a year (as well as the personal dislike/feud between former party colleagues Sobotka and Zeman), a definite answer on this question needs to wait. Nevertheless, the fact that Zeman has voiced his intention to interfere so publicly suggests that he is very conscious of the signals that he has to send to his electorate.

A clearer answer can be given to the question of why Zeman eventually accepted all candidates for government office, First, Sobotka has already announced that the coalition was intending to limit the president’s powers – by refraining from interference Zeman now avoids a quick implementation or (in case the coalition cannot mobilise a constitutional majority) clarification of his only vaguely defined powers by the constitutional court (which would likely rule in favour of government and parliament).

Even if Zeman continues his current level of activity, this does not mean that the system will necessarily evolve in a way that gives the president a more prominent decision. After neighbouring Slovakia introduced popular presidential elections in 1999, its first incumbent Rudolf Schuster also showed a significantly increased level of activism. Yet faced with a determined parliament and government, he (and his successor) eventually failed to change the (parliamentary) logic of Slovak politics.

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Composition of Sobotka I

government party seat share and portfolio allocation_sobotka1

In terms of portfolio allocation, ANO 2011 is slightly underrepresented but as a new party likely has had to pay an apprentice’s premium. Nevertheless, it receives the offices of first deputy PM, finance (both for controversial party leader Andrej Babiš), and justice.

Prime Minister: Bohuslav Sobotka (ČSSD, male, 42)
First Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Finance: Andrej Babiš (ANO 2011, male, 59)
Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Science + Research: Pavel Bělobrádek (KDU-ČSL, male, 37)
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Lubomír Zaorálek (ČSSD, male, 57)
Minister of Interior Milan Chovanec (ČSSD, male, 44)
Minister of Labour and Social Affairs: Michaela Marksová-Tominová (ČSSD, female, 44)
Minister of Industry and Trade: Jan Mládek (ČSSD, male, 53)
Minister of Health: Svatopluk Němeček (ČSSD, male, 41)
Minister of Justice: Helena Válková (non-partisan/ANO 2011, female, 63)
Minister of Education, Youth and Sport: Marcel Chládek (ČSSD, male, 45)
Minister of Defence: Martin Stropnický (ANO 2011, male, 57)
Minister of Transport: Antonín Prachař (ANO 2011, male, 51)
Minister for Regional Development: Věra Jourová (ANO 2011, female, 49)
Minister of the Environment: Richard Brabec (ANO 2011, male, 47)
Minister of Agriculture: Marian Jurečka (KDU-ČSL, male, 32)
Minister of Culture: Daniel Herman (KDU-ČSL, male, 50)
Minister for Human Rights and Equal Opportunities: Jiří Dienstbier Jr. (ČSSD, male, 44)

Latvia – New government under leadership of country’s first female prime minister inaugurated

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 27 January 2014

On 22 January 2014, two months after the resignation of prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, parliament approved a new government under the leadership of Laimdota Straujuma, the country’s first female prime minister. While the latter fact has made international headlines and Straujuma’s inauguration brings an end to the difficult process of finding a new government leader, the new government is not necessarily an achievement for the coalition parties, but rather a (small) victory for the president.

New Latvian prime minister Laimdota Straujuma in parliament on 22 January 2014 | photo via wikimedia commons

After the resignation of prime minister Dombrovskis over the tragedy caused by the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga, president Andris Bērziņš took a suprisingly active approach when it came to forming a new government (see also my previous post on this blog from 11 December 2013), Until early January, president Bērziņš declined to nominate any of the candidates proposed by the four centre-right parties poised to form a new coalition, while all candidates proposed by him declined to take on the job.

In the end, president and parties agreed on the nomination of Laimdota Straujuma, a 61 year-old career civil servant who – after having served in various ministries at secretary of state/deputy minister level had headed the ministry of agriculture in the last Dombrovskis government since 2011. Having not been affiliated with a political party before (her ministerial nomination had been made on the ticket of prime minister Dombrovski’s ‘Unity’ party), she only joined Unity on 5 January, two days before her nomination.

Straujuma is Latvia’s first female head of government but not the country’s first female political leader – from 07/1999 to 07/2007 Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga served as president and was the first elected female head of state in the region. Freiberga – a former professor of psychology and semiotics at the University of Montreal – was instrumental in Latvia’s EU and NATO accession and remained a non-partisan during both of her terms in office. While the latter was an advantage for her as president, Straujuma will likely be disadvantaged by her lack of a long-standing party affiliation, as she will be without clear authority in the coalition’s largest party. While her previous positions will have provided her with an in-depth understanding of Latvia-EU relations (very important given the country’s recent adoption of the Euro) and she was one of the better-rated members of the previous government, her influence in the coalition will still be very limited. Yet as parties have agreed not to amend the budget for 2014 (which would only have been possible in the summer), there is only very little room for manoeuvre for Straujuma and her government anyway.

Overall, the formation of the government appears to be a victory for the president (as well as his party, the Union of Greens and Farmers) and evidence that his unusually active approachpaid off. Even though president Bērziņš initially rejected the idea of a purely technocratic government, a government under the leadership of quasi-technocrat Straujuma has several advantages for him. First and foremost, in a situation where the prime minister has less authority over the coalition parties, the president’s influence automatically increases. Furthermore, by not pushing for a purely technocratic government, the previous coalition parties remain in power and are not cut off from the spoils of office. Keeping a good relationship with all centre-right parties is instrumental for Bērziņš in securing his re-election. Last, the new government now includes Bērziņš’ own party whose votes are necessary to secure a majority in the assembly which increases the president’s leverage over the coalition.

Of course, the new coalition also has benefits for the other parties: Straujuma is a largely uncontroversial figure who will potentially mitigate some of the public dissatisfaction with the previous government’s policies which will be carried out until the general election in October 2014. At the same time, prominent party politicians can take a step back from the first line of politics while remaining in office (furthermore, in contrast to Dombrovskis III, they are now also more slightly adequately rewarded in terms of portfolios).

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Overall, Straujuma’s new government consists of 14 cabinet members (prime minister + 13 cabinet ministers), seven of which served in the Dombrovskis III cabinet (except for Straujuma all in the same positions). There are two non-partisan cabinet members, yet these are clearly linked to Unity and the National Alliance, respectively, and thus not the result of presidential intervention. The Reform Party of former president Valdis Zatlers is slightly underrepresented despite having the second largest seat share, yet take the high-profile ministries of foreign affairs, economics, and interior. In addition to prime minister Straujuma, there are four other female cabinet members (which is an increase by two compared to Dombrovskis III); the average age is 47.9 years.

The new government holds 62 out of 100 seats in parliament.

Composition of Straujuma I
Prime Minister: Laimdota Straujuma (Unity, female, 63)*
Minister for Defence: Raimonds Vējonis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 48)
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Edgars Rinkēvičs (Reform Party, male, 40)*
Minister for Economics: Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis (Reform Party, male, 36)
Minister for Finance: Andris Vilks (Unity, male, 50)*
Minister for the Interior: Rihards Kozlovskis (Reform Party, male, 44)*
Minister for Education and Science: Ina Druviete (Unity, female, 55)
Minister for Culture: Dace Melbārde (independent [National Alliance], female,  42)*
Minister for Welfare: Uldis Augulis (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 41)
Minister for Environmental Protection and Regional Development:  Einārs Cilinskis (National Alliance, male, 50)
Minister for Transport: Anrijs Matīss (independent [Unity], male, 40)*
Minister for Justice: Baiba Broka (National Alliance, female, 38)
Minister for Health: Ingrīda Circene (Unity, female, 57)*
Minister for Agriculture: Jānis Dūklavs (Union of Greens and Farmers, male, 61)

(*= member of previous government; except for Laimdota Straujuma all with same portfolio)