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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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