Austria – Snap elections and a possible FPÖ victory: Potential to alter the functioning of Austria’s semi-presidentialism?

The Austrian presidential elections last year was a sign of tremendous change in the country’s party system. Both of the hitherto dominant parties – Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) – failed to have their candidate elected (let alone enter the run-off), while support for the far-right FPÖ and its candidate, deputy speaker Norbert Hofer, soared. Although veteran Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won the election, the threat of the FPÖ becoming the largest party in the next elections has been looming over Austrian politics ever since. After Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) resigned in the aftermath of the presidential election debacle and was replaced by his co-partisan Christian Kern, relations between coalition partners SPÖ and ÖVP were tense. Three weeks ago, the coalition effectively collapsed with the resignation of vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner (ÖVP) and the announcement of his successor, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, to call snap elections for October 2017. The outcome is unpredictable as of yet, but will provide a difficult parliamentary arithmetic in any case and may transform the way in which Austria’s semi-presidentialism functions.

To date, presidents have largely practised a “Rollenverzicht” (i.e. relinquishing of an active role in day-to-day politics) and made generally sparing use of their powers, particularly in the appointment and dismissal of Chancellors where they followed the will of parties. Nevertheless, the Austrian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in European democracies (more powerful in fact than the president of France; see also Robert Elgie’s interview here) and can theoretically dismiss governments at will. The possibility that Norbert Hofer, if victorious, would appoint FPÖ party leader Strache as Chancellor was discussed as a distinct possibility. While the FPÖ currently holds 38 of 183 seats (20.8%) in the National Council and is thus only the third-largest party after SPÖ and ÖVP, it now has a realistic chance of becoming the largest party and claiming the office of Chancellor (see figure above).

An electoral victory for the FPÖ would not only put the established parties, but also president Van der Bellen in a difficult position – domestically and internationally. Van der Bellen has not only repeatedly declared that FPÖ leader Strache would be an unsuitable choice for Chancellor but also that he would refuse to appoint a FPÖ-led government even won the most seats in the next election [1]. Furthermore, when the FPÖ participated in Austria’s federal government (albeit as junior partner in a coalition led by the ÖVP) the last time (1999 to 2002), other EU member states reacted with diplomatic “sanctions” due to the FPÖ’s openly xenophobic and revisionist positions (many of which remain part of the party – albeit less openly – to this day).

SPÖ and ÖVP have been very pragmatic in preparing for a potential coalition with the FPÖ. Starting with the failure to openly back Van der Bellen’s candidacy against Hofer in the run-off of the presidential election, neither party has excluded a coalition with the FPÖ outright. Thus, president Van der Bellen will likely assume a crucial role after the elections. Interestingly, the president has so far refused to comment on the snap elections – except for asking parties to remain civil and stating that he would expect them to formulate clear positions regarding the EU, education, labour market and human rights. Given the Austrian Chancellor once appointed does not require a vote of confidence or investiture, Van der Bellen would have the option to appoint a minority government. In that case, he may effectively become a ‘third coalition partner’ and much more strongly and openly involved in day-to-day politics that any Austrian president before. Yet even Van der Bellen chose to appoint a government with participation of the FPÖ, he could likely still refuse to nominate its candidate for Chancellor over that of a (junior) coalition partner [1]. Irrespective of the scope of the FPÖ’s participation in government, Van der Bellen would face both domestic and international pressure to provide a balance to the FPÖ.

Come October Van der Bellen will most likely not be able to rely voters to produce an ‘uncomplicated’ parliamentary arithmetic as could his predecessors. Rather the election with force him – or provide an opportunity for him (depending on one’s perspective) – to assume a more active role in Austrian politics. During his election campaign, Van der Bellen had already hinted at a slightly more activist understanding of his role. Assuming a strong FPÖ result (or victory), the question is now whether Van der Bellen will want to use the vast powers of the presidency and to what extent this will lead to a transformation of Austria’s semi-presidentialism.

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[1] Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a similar statement with regard to Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar in 2010 but remained inconsequential as the party failed to win the elections.
[2] An international precedent for this would be Polish president Lech Walesa’s nomination of PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak as prime minister of a SLD-PSL coalition in 1993, even though the SLD had won more seats.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 31 May 2017.

Poland – President’s party wins absolute majority in parliamentary elections

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 26 October 2015

After the presidential election in May this year and the referendum in September, Poles were called to the polls once again yesterday to vote in elections to the Sejm (the politically dominant lower chamber) and the Senat (upper). According to first exit polls and results, the ‘Law and Justice’ party (PiS) of recently elected president Andrzej Duda has clearly won the election and – according to first exit polls – might even be able to form the first single-party majority government in Poland’s recent democratic history.

TVP exit poll

The victory of PiS had been foreshadowed by the victory of its candidate Andrzej Duda in the presidential elections earlier this year, yet achieving an outright majority in parliament had been seen as unlikely as smaller parties were assumed to enter the Sejm. Having won 39.1% of the vote, PiS will take up to 242 seats in the 460-seat Sejm. Until now, only the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) once came close to winning an absolute majority of seats (it won seats in 2001). PiS fought the election campaign with their deputy chairman Beata Szydlo as candidate for Prime Minister. However, Szydlo – even if eventually elected Prime Minister – is unlikely to enjoy much discretion in her decisions. After it had been widely rumoured that former Prime Minister and PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski would still pull the strings from behind the scenes, the fact that he (and not Szydlo) was the first to address co-partisans and the press on election night was universally interpreted as a sign of his continued dominance in the party. In 2005, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, too, held back on his ambition to premiership to increase the chances of his twin brother Lech to win the presidential election. However, only half a year later he took over the position of Prime Minister and led the last PiS government until the 2007 elections.

The PO experienced significant losses, not the least due to appearance of the neo-liberal ‘Nowoczesna’ party, but still performed better than predicted by several pre-election polls. It remains by far the largest opposition party with around 133 seats and was thus punished significantly less severely by voters than the Electoral Action Solidarity (AWS) in 2001 or the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in 2005. Nowoczesna has not been the only new party to successfully enter parliament. ‘KUKIZ’, the party of Pawel Kukiz – the surprising runner-up of the first round of this year’s presidential elections – gained 9% of the popular vote and is thus the third largest party in parliament (44 projected seats). Two other new parties – KORWIN lead by far-right MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke and the leftwing ‘Razem’ (Together) seem to have failed to cross the 5% threshold according to national projections. The new electoral alliance ‘Zjednoczona Lewica’ (United Left), made up of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance, ‘Your Movement’ and a number of smaller leftist parties also failed to cross the electoral threshold (which lies at 8% for electoral coalitions). This is the first time since Poland’s return to democracy that the SLD, is not represented in parliament (and in fact no other left-wing party). The Polish Peasant Party (PSL) is thus the only political party to have been continuously represented in parliament since 1989. Nevertheless, as it gained only 5.2% of the vote according to exit polls it may still find itself out of the Sejm, too.

President Andrzej Duda will certainly not hesitate to appoint a PiS-led government, but it remains to be seen what policy implications this constellation with bring. The last time when both presidency and government were controlled by PiS in 2005-2007, Poland underwent a phase of diplomatic isolation. A strong anti-Russian sentiment (many members and activists still blame the death of late president Lech Kaczynski on Vladimir Putin) and euroscepticism are firmly anchored in the party which will not make Poland an easy partner to work with. Domestically, PiS could once again try to increase state (and ultimately party) control over the judiciary and media – Jaroslaw Kaczynski has long expressed an admiration for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, yet at the moment changes as controversial as in Hungary seem unlikely.

Poland – As referendum is thwarted by low turnout, new president tries to shake up rules of the game

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 8 September 2015

On Sunday, 6 September, poles were called to urns the for the second time this year to vote in a referendum on three largely connected questions. The only common denominator was that the referendum itself was a remnant of the presidential campaign during which incumbent (and now ex-president) Bronislaw Komorowski – shocked by only placing second in the first round and the sizeable vote share won by anti-establishment candidate Pawel Kukiz – tried to sway voters by promising them to decide on said three questions. Just as Komorowski’s bid for re-election failed, so did the referendum as only 7.80% voters made their way to the polling stations. At the same time, Komorowski’s successor Andrzej Duda is trying to shake up the political scene in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in October which – after the president – might also remove the government of the Civic Platform from power.

Results of the Polish referendum on 6 September 2015
Question % Yes
Are you in favour of the introduction of single-member districts in elections to the Sejm? 78.75
Are you in favour of maintaining the current system of state funding of political parties? 17.37
Are you in favour of introducing the principle that uncertainty about the interpretation of the tax code should be resolved in favour of the taxpayer? 94.51
Turnout: 7.80% (outcome invalid/not binding; threshold 50%)

In the referendum, voters were asked whether they favoured the introduction of single-member electoral districts for parliamentary elections to the Sejm, the lower and politically significant chamber of the Polish parliament (Poland currently uses preferential voting in multi-member districts; elections to the Senate are already being held SMDs). The reason for this question is the fact that one of Pawel Kukiz’ (admittedly few) campaign promises was the introduction of such a system – officially to increase accountability of deputies towards voters. The two other questions were likely aimed to pander to the general public. The public financing of political parties has long been a subject of debate in Poland. The Civic Platform – Komorowski’s former party – even did not formally register as a party for several years, thus making them unable to claim state subsidies, to demonstrate their opposition to state financing of political parties. The last question referred to the interpretation of tax law in favour of the taxpayer; however, the Sejm already passed a bill to that effect on 10th July (i.e. after the referendum was already scheduled and Komorowski lost the run-off to Duda) so that it’s only function now would have been to remind citizens of the government’s ‘good deeds’.

The low turnout which eventually rendered the outcome of the referendum invalid had been expected by many analysts and politicians. The outcome also stresses the fact that Poles – while voting for Pawel Kukiz in surprising numbers (20%, the best result of a third-placed candidate in Polish presidential elections) – did not actually want the introduction of SMDs. Kukiz political movement ‘Kukiz 15’, once predicted to win as many as 20% of votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections has recently dropped to just 6% in the polls and the results of the referendum might well have delivered its death sentence. Interestingly, the fourth-placed presidential candidate, far-right MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke (4.40%), and his newly formed party KORWIN have also failed to gain significant support – the latter is currently predicted to receive between 2-3% of the vote. Last, fifth-placed candidate Magdalena Ogórek, rumored to aim for a safe list place rather than the presidency during the course of the campaign, has disappeared from the political scene and will not run for parliament.

While other parties might struggle to enter parliament or will at least experience significant losses, ‘Law and Justice’ (PiS) the party of president Duda has been leading in the polls for months. Yet Duda’s first month since taking office has not been without controversy. During his first official foreign visit to Germany, Duda tried to propose a new format for talks about the Ukrainian crisis which was quickly panned and its necessity questioned by all parties involved. While the Polish has a formal role in foreign and defence policy, his initiative was also generally negatively received as overstepping established boundaries between governmental and presidential responsibilities. It later emerged that Duda had also told his German counterpart Joachim Gauck that he did not consider Poland to be a state where everybody was treated equally, triggering another wave of criticism. Duda’s latest gaffe – although it is likely that this was planned in order to appeal to the PiS core electorate – was when he refused to shake hands with Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz during the commemorations of the outbreak of the WW II in Danzig.

Up to this point, Duda has is far from being a non-partisan president but his actions are almost reminiscent of PiS’ last president Lech Kaczynski and the 2005-2007 period when PiS-led governments led to Poland’s increasing isolation in foreign affairs and the questionable use of administrative resources and the judicial system against political enemies. Most recently Duda’s request to the Polish Senate for another referendum – to be held on the same date as the parliamentary elections and covering question ranging from the state retirement age and the management of state forests to the school starting age and thus mostly relating to changes introduced by the current government – was still denied. Nevertheless, the fact that letters still sent to his predecessor were sent back with a stamp ‘This person does not work in the Presidential Office’ rather than answered, shows how quickly Duda and his people have changed the character of the institution.[1] Duda has already declared that he will campaign on behalf of his party in the forefront of the parliamentary elections in late October, but (as always in Polish politics) it is too early to tell how his activism will impact on its electoral fortunes. On the one hand, PiS might benefit form the coattail effect; on the other hand, the Civic Platforms recently announced decision to co-opt several well-known conservative and left-wing politicians on its list might still sway voters in the other direction.

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[1] Interestingly however, the head of the important legal and institutional department and the presidential office’s longest serving employee, Andrzej Dorsz, who under Lech Kaczynski had still been banished to head the archive, has so far remained in his place.

Latvia – General election results confirm ruling coalition’s mandate

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 6 October 2014

On 5 October 2014, Latvia held parliamentary elections whose results will allow the ruling centre-right coalition to stay in office. Following the snap elections of 2011, the elections now followed a shortened legislative term of three years (while the legislative term generally lasts four years, the constitution prescribes regular general elections in four-year intervals) and brought two new parties into parliament.

Party % of votes Seats Change
“Harmony” Socialdemocratic Party (“Saskaņa” sociāldemokrātiskā partija) 23.13% 24 -7
Unity (“VIENOTĪBA”) 21.76% 23 +3
Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība) 19.62% 21 +8
National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!”-“Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”) 16.57% 17 +3
For Latvia from the heart! (No sirds Latvijai) 6.88% 7 new
Latvian Association of Regions (Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība) 6.55% 8 new
Others 4.83% 0
Total 100.00% 100

As in 2010 and 2011, the election winner was the socialdemocratic “Harmony Centre” party, yet as it is strongly linked to the Russian-speaking population and only left-of-centre party, it is unlikely to be included in the government. Compared to 2011, Harmony however lost 7 of its seats in the 100-seat assembly and the runner-up “Unity” of Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma only won one seat less. Unity gained three seats, however, it ran a common list together the “Reform Party” founded by former president Zatlers (both parties still gained a combined seat count of 42 in the 2011 the last elections). Unity’s coalition partners – the “National Alliance” and the “Union of Greens and Farmers” – both increased their seat share as well, so that the coalition now controls 61 seats. The Union of Greens and Farmers had only been included in the government since January 2014 following pressure from president Andris Berzins. While it would be difficult to link Berzins interference with the Union’ political success, its new status as second-largest coalition partner will most likely secure his re-election next year.

The elections also brought two new parties in to parliament. The “Latvian Association of Regions” – created through a merger of two smaller parties – and “For Latvia from the Heart” (a genuinely new party under the leader ship of former state auditor Inguna Sudraba) both gained representation. While the former party – whose candidate for Prime Minister recently suggested to introduce popular presidential elections – still has chances to enter the government, “For Latvia from the Heart”s chances are rather slim. Throughout the campaign the party tried to maintain a neutral stance towards the Harmony Centre and indirectly campaigned for the votes of the Russian-speaking minority.

It is still unclear whether president Berzins will nominate Straujuma for Prime Minister again. Her nomination in January was widely interpreted as a way to put a more uncontroversial figure at the helm of the coalition after the centre-right coalition’s approval ratings had been in constant decline (see also here). Although she was Unity’s official candidate for Prime Minister, she lacks a strong support base in the party. Outgoing EU commission Andris Piebalgs (Unity) appears to have better chances for the job. He had already been a preferred candidate of the president in January 2014 and might – given that Latvia will take over the EU presidency in January 2015 – be the better person for the job.

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More information on the website of the Latvian Electoral Commission (in Latvian and English): http://sv2014.cvk.lv/index_rez.html?lang=1

Hungary – Prime Minister Orbán re-elected, Fidesz government will hold 2/3 majority in parliament

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 8 April 2014

On Sunday Hungary held the first parliamentary elections since its new constitution came into force on 1 January 2012. Contrary to previous elections, the size of parliament has been reduced from 386 to 199 deputies and the elections took place under a new electoral system. As expected, the governing Fidesz-KDNP won the elections by a large margin and will (very likely) once again hold a 2/3 majority in the assembly.

Preliminary results of the Hungarian parliamentary elections, 6 April 2014 (turnout: 60.48%)preliminary results - Hungary elections 2014

From 1990 until 2010, voters elected 386 deputies using a two-tier mixed member system. In this election, the number of deputies was reduced to 199 and the run-off for single-member electoral districts (SMDs) abolished. Furthermore, for the first time Hungarian citizens living abroad were allowed to vote (albeit only for the party lists) and members of ethnic minorities could vote for their own representatives. Especially the latter was heavily criticised as registering as a minority voter prevented people from voting from the other party lists (no minority representative won a seat under the new system). The government was also accused of gerrymandering when it re-drew the boarders of the now larger SMDs – even from the otherwise ideologically largely aligned far-right party Jobbik.

According to the preliminary results – votes in one SMD are still being recounted and might costs Fidesz its 2/3 majority – Prime Minister Orbán’s Fidesz (in an electoral alliance with the Christian-Democratic KDNP) won 96 out of 106 direct mandates and 37 of 93 seats from electoral lists. The centre-left Unity alliance (MSZP-EGYUTT-DK-MLP) had struggled to come together since its inception and were thus unable to effectively campaign against the government parties – they only won 10 direct mandates and 26% of the list vote. The far-right Jobbik party which has repeatedly made headlines for their xenophobic and specifically anti-Roma rethoric could slightly improve on its 2010 electoral result yet still holds only 12% in parliament. Last, the Green Party LMP lost support and now only holds 2.5% of seats (4.15% in 2010).

The clear victory for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán come as no surprise, yet will likely affect Hungary’s position in dealing with other countries in the EU which have previously criticised Orbán’s style of governing and several policies that have limited press freedom (several government-critical journalists were also denied access to the government parties’ election party). The election results have also further strengthened the position of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and have  ensured the re-election of president János Ader (also Fidesz) in 2017. However, a more prominent role of the Prime Minister together with his party colleague as head of state will inevitably lead to a further marginalisation of the role of the president as a check-and-balance – a development that could already be seen during Orbán’s last four years in office.

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For more information on the results of the Hungarian parliamentary elections see:
Saltman, Erin Marie. 2014. ‘Fidesz have won a clear victory in Hungary’s elections, but their supermajority hangs in the balance’. LSE EUROPP Blog 7 April 2014.
http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/04/07/fidesz-have-won-a-clear-victory-in-hungarys-elections-but-their-supermajority-hangs-in-the-balance/

Hungary – Presidency lost?!

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

About one and a half years ago I explained in a post on my old blog why there could still be hope for the Hungarian presidency to develop as an independent and effective check-and-balance on government and parliament. Yet with the next parliamentary elections approaching, it appears that under the rule of Fidesz and Prime Minister Orbán the Hungarian presidency has lost this role, and (potentially) its raison d’être, too.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and president Janos Ader (right) | © Tibor Végh via wikimedia commons

Towards the end Ferenc Mádl’s term in office (the country’s second democratically elected president – 2000-2005), a number of publications declared the emergence of a German/ Austrian-style ‘Chancellor democracy’ in Hungary. [1] After the role of the presidency had been defined as the outcome of several clashes between president and government, Hungarian Prime Ministers had become the dominant political players, yet the presidents’ role was still significant. This became clear when former Constitutional Court president László Sólyom was elected in 2005. Faced with increasingly unpopular governments  (which eventually lost their parliamentary majority) led by the Hungarian Socialist Party, Sólyom was not shy to use his powers and sent badly crafted bills back to parliament or the Constitutional Court.

After the election of Pál Schmitt as Solyom’s successor, the activity (or rather inactivity) of the president was largely determined by the government (with Schmitt’s consent as he promised ‘not to obstruct the work of the government’ in any way). After Pál Schmitt’s plagiarism-induced resignation, János Áder promised to be a more active president than his party colleague and that he would check government bills more thoroughly. Áder’s potential for activism is of course naturally restricted by virtue of his indirect election (and the fact that Fidesz is likely to once again dominate parliament after the elections in April). Nevertheless, together with Prime Minister Orbán and parliament speaker László Kövér Áder belongs to the three men that have led Fidesz for the past twenty years and thus has more authority than his predecessor. Since his election in May 2012, Áder also referred 17 bills to parliament (in all but one case his amendatory observations were accepted).

Yet, recent developments have shown that the president is less independent (or committed to independence) than political observers and practitioners initially thought. Áder failed to criticise, veto or send to the constitutional court any of the controversial constitutional amendments introduced over the last two years. He also signed off the new electoral law which – despite including several amendments that made the system more effective – gave way to the exclusion of ethnic minorities. His signature under a highly controversial nuclear power deal with Russia that was negotiated without a proper tendering process is the latest case in which the opposition has accused Áder of not fulfilling his constitutional duties.

Áder also created great controversy when he announced the date for the 2014 parliamentary elections. Not only did he wait until very late to announce them, but then also set the date for the earliest possible day. This not only reduces the time for an electoral campaign but also the time for parties to gather the required number of signatures. Contrary to political practice Áder did not consult the date of elections with the opposition parties and agreed on it with the government parties months before its declaration. The latter was only revealed when a government MP mentioned the date by mistake during a parliamentary debate.

The new Hungarian constitution of 2011 did not change any stipulations on the presidential office, and this despite the fact that many of them were ambiguous and led to fierce political conflict or contained powers (such as the right to legislative initiative) on which both politicians and legal scholars agree that the president must not use them. Yet as shown above the role of the president in practice differs very much from stipulations and previous practice. While one could attribute Áder’s failure to criticise controversial government policies to his party affiliation and wish for re-election, there are hardly any other examples in the region where an indirectly elected president remained so inactive. Even if in friendly relations with the government, presidents in Central and Eastern Europe have never subordinated themselves to the government to the same extent as Áder. Even German presidents have – while being significantly less powerful and legally subordinate to the federal government in political matters – not shown such inactivity.

Further amendments to the Hungarian constitution are likely, but will probably not include a removal of the presidency. Nevertheless, for the current functioning of the Hungarian political system, its existence appears to be largely irrelevant.


[1] For instance:
Dieringer, Jürgen. 2005. ‘Staatspräsident Árpád Göncz: Wegbereiter der ungarischen ‘Kanzlerdemokratie’ wider Willen.’ [President Árpád Göncz: Inadvertent enabler of the Hungarian ‘Chancellor Democracy’] Südosteuropa. Zeitschrift für Politik und Gesellschaft 2/2005, 272-288.
Schiemann, John W. 2004. Hungary: the emergence of chancellor democracy. Journal of Legislative Studies 10 (2) 128-141.