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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 14 February 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Estonia – Politicians enter uncharted waters as electoral college fails to elect new president

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 27 September 2016

On Saturday 24 September, Estonia entered yet uncharted waters as the electoral college – following three unsuccessful votes in parliament – failed to elect a president. The term of president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, first elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2011, ends on 8 October 2016, so that politicians need to act fast if they want to find a successor in time. As voting now returns to parliament, deputies continue to face the difficulty of finding a candidate that appeals beyond individual parties.

The Estonia Kontserdisaal - meeting place of the Estonian electoral college | photo via visittallinn.ee

The Estonia Kontserdisaal – meeting place of the Estonian electoral college | photo via visittallinn.ee

Estonia is one of the many parliamentary democracies which have chosen to elect their president indirectly. The first democratic presidential election following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1992 was still held under a special system in which the first round was held by popular vote and a runoff between the front-runners took place in parliament. Since 1996 however, the president is elected entirely indirectly. The first three rounds of voting are held in parliament and a candidate needs an absolute majority of 68 votes (i.e. 2/3 of members) in any round to be elected outright. If no candidate is elected during the first two rounds, a runoff is held between the front-runners of the second round, yet the majority requirement remains. If parliament fails to elect a president, the vote passes to an electoral college consisting of all 101 members of parliament and currently 234 representatives of local government councils (the number of electors is based on the size of the municipality and thus varies, yet only few municipalities send more than one elector). In the electoral college, candidates need an absolute majority to be elected; while the participants of the last round in parliament enter the voting in the electoral college automatically, new candidates can also be nominated. If no candidate achieves a majority in the first round, the second round (fifth round overall) is a runoff between the two front-runners.

In the 4 presidential elections between 1996 and 2011 it was necessary to convene the electoral college on all but one occasion (i.e. the re-election of presidents Ilves) as parliament regularly failed to elect a candidate. In 1996 and 2001, the electoral college needed two rounds to elect a new president and only in 2006 a single round was sufficient. The current situation in Estonia is thus both unprecedented and unexpected.

estonian-presidential-election-results-2016_rounds-1-to-5

The first two rounds of voting in parliament were very much dominated by the tactics of two of the governing parties. The Social Democrats (SDE) had very much hoped that Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas (Reform Party – RE) would concede the presidency to them (as the RE had done in the case of president Ilves who was a SDE member at the time of his election). Nevertheless, despite the chance of nominating non-partisan foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand who enjoyed great public support, RE leadership eventually decided to only support SDE candidate, veteran politician and speaker Eiki Nestor, for the first and round and then put forward former Prime Minister and EU commissioner Siim Kallas in the second round, calling on solidarity from its coalition partner. Kallas had already been set to become Prime Minister instead of Rõivas after the resignation of Andrus Ansip in 2014 but withdrew following allegations concerning his time as director of the Estonian Central Bank in the 1990s. It thus seems that Rõivas’ support for Kallas’ candidacy is thus a way to install him in another high-ranking political post – particularly because it was not fully supported by all RE deputies. The third coalition party, Pro Patria and Res Publica (IRL), on the other hand decided to support former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks (non-partisan) together with the conservative Free Party (EV). The Centre Party (KE) – the first party to agree on a candidate – somewhat suprisingly did not nominate long-time party leader Edgar Savisaar but its deputy leader and former minister of education Mailis Reps (who is part of a competing faction within the party). While the Conservative People’s Party (ERKE) designated their leader Mart Helme as their candidate, they failed to gather a sufficient number of MPs to support him.

As expected, parties failed to unite in support for any candidate and the number of abstentions and spoiled ballots is very telling – several RE deputies seem to have refrained from supporting SDE candidate Nestor in the first round and Siim Kallas only gained 45 votes (the combined seat share of RE and SDE) in the second round. Very much counting on a transferal of the vote to the electoral college a third of all deputies abstained from voting in the third round of voting making it impossible for either Reps or Kallas to be elected.

seat-distribution-in-the-estonian-electoral-college

The vote in the electoral college brought a number of uncertainties for established parties. First and foremost, almost one third of the 335 electors and thus about half of the local government representatives are not members of parties represented in parliament but were elected on the basis of local/independent electoral lists of varying ideological leaning and coherence. The second uncertainty was created by foreign secretary Marina Kaljurand’s decision to resign from her cabinet post and run for president. Having topped public opinion polls for weeks the decision was a strategically excellent move, yet presented a surprise for public and parties alike. In a poll conducted by public broadcaster ERR, Kaljurand had a narrow lead over other candidates among electors and was thus tipped as one of the favourites who likely to go head to head with Siim Kallas in the second round of voting in the electoral college. Several MPs of other parties (including EKRE) had come out in support for Kaljurand’s candidacy and the SDE decided to support her too instead of nominating Nestor again, increasing her chances even more. Third, in contrast to previous elections a third candidate from the rounds in parliament was renominated – Allar Jõks once again received support from IRL and EV meaning that there was another non-partisan candidate with potentially wider appeal in addition to Kaljurand.

These uncertainties produced a surprising result: four of the five candidates (the EKRE finally managed to get enough supporters to nominate Mart Helme) received almost equal support with only 6 votes difference separating front-runner Kallas and the unexpectedly third-placed Kaljurand. KE candidate Mailis Reps on the other hand did surprisingly well with a strong third place even though it was rumoured that party leader Savisaar had tried to convince fellow party members to vote for Kaljurand instead (a move that shows the great divide between the factions led by Savisaar and Kaljurand within the KE). The second round was then held as a runoff between Kallas and Jõks, yet the college eventually failed to elect a new president. Both fell 30 and 34 votes, respectively, short of the required absolute majority. Electors were apparently surprised by the fact that Jõks and not Kaljurand entered the runoff – the high number of blank ballots (60 + 3 invalid votes) shows both their general dissatisfaction with the choices but also the fact that political competition in Estonia, which has been dominated by the Reform Party for the past decade, is changing. New parties have already entered parliament in the last election and current polls see KE and RE head to head – it is not out of the question that the presidential election fiasco will have consequences for the government and end Rõivas’ premiership or party leadership. An additional factor which played out in the electoral college might be the fact that the local administration reform – which will mean that municipalities are merged and therefore must also trigger a change in the presidential election law – is still contested was far from favourably received. The support from primarily local representatives for non-partisan candidates Kaljurand and Jõks as well as the high number of blank ballots could – if they in fact came from local electors – be a protest against the reform bill.

Parliament will reconvene on 3 October to elect a new president and while it is yet unclear who will run for president, politicians and experts agree that all previous candidates are now metaphorically ‘burned’ and new faces are needed if parties want to save face. In case parties fail to elect a president by the end of Ilves term, this will trigger one of the most complicated stipulations for acting presidents in existence: Speaker Eiki Nestor will take over duties as acting president. For this time, however, he will have to give up both the position of speaker and his seat in parliament – subsequently a replacement deputy must be appointed and sworn in and a new speaker must be elected who will then preside over the next rounds of presidential elections. Irrespective of when a new president is elected, a reform of the presidential election law is now inevitable and will invite calls for a popular election of the president once again.

Austria – Complaint against narrow runoff result might lead to partial do-over of election

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 16 June 2016

After Alexander Van der Bellen won the runoff with a razor-thin margin, calls for a recount and even accusations of electoral fraud from Norbert Hofer’s (FPÖ) supporters were expected. The FPÖ has now lodged a formal complaint with the Austrian Constitutional Court which could trigger a partial rerun of the second round of presidential elections. It is clear that there were some irregularities in the counting of votes and bodies on various levels failed to follow correct protocol. Unfortunately, Austria’s Ministry of Interior and the respective state electoral bodies have also not done the best job in preventing the emergence of further doubts. Given that the FPÖ has yet to make public its list of suspected violations – which is said to exceed the number of previously publicised cases – it is difficult to establish what the outcome of their complaint will be. In any case, the FPÖ has already succeeded in gnawing off some of the new president’s legitimacy before he has even taken office.

The known cases of electoral violations mainly concern the counting of postal votes, idiosyncratic decisions or errors by local officials, and turnout exceeding 100%. Some of the state-level agencies started counting postal votes (which were eventually decisive for the election) too early and some others at least opened the post vote envelopes already on Sunday instead of Monday morning. Although this was against protocol, there is not indication that there was any manipulation or interference with the ballots. In another case in the town of Helfenberg, there were three ballot papers too many in the box after the end of the day even though all voters had been registered twice before casting their vote. Eventually, the local electoral commission decided to take out three invalid votes to make numbers match – while certainly unusual, this seems like a fair decision in relation to its effect on the outcome. The problem here is that the mayor ripped up the three supernumerary ballot papers – a clear violation of federal law. There was also one case where a women was unable to cast her vote due to an error on the electoral register (where she was listed as a postal voter).

More troubling is the report of the municipality Miesenbach in Lower Austria where apparently a handful of 14 and 15 year-olds where allowed to vote – the general voting age is 16. Overall, fifteen teenagers below the voting age were listed as eligible to vote of which five eventually cast a ballot. The reason seems to be that the local electoral commission mixed up the electoral register for the presidential election with the so-called ‘Wählerevidenz’, a constantly updated list based on the local resident registration database. 380 valid ballots were cast in Miesenback, 258 for Hofer and 122 for Van der Bellen, so that it didn’t have a significant impact. Nevertheless, this is a blunder that cannot be easily justified.

For a while the official election website showed 146.9% turnout in Waidhofen/Ybbs

For a while the official election website showed 146.9% turnout in Waidhofen/Ybbs

Last but not least, an embarrassing error fuelled accusations of electoral fraud on the day after the election. The official election website on the pages of the Ministry of Interior showed an impossibly high turnout of 146.9% for the district Waidhofen in the city of Ybbs. A screenshot was widely shared across social media, particularly by supporters of Norbert Hofer. The Ministry later traced the error back to the state electoral commission. While the local district had submitted correct data, the state commission made an error during data entry and transmitted the incorrect data to the Ministry. Human error happens in every election but raises questions over the suitability of the IT systems used by Austrian authorities, e.g. why is there not automated checking of improbable values in the systems? In some other districts, turnout even exceeded 200% as a great number of people made use of proxy voters. In addition, the number of distributed ballot papers was slightly lower than votes received in a few more electoral districts. Nevertheless, while this may seem suspicious to international observers, this is simply due to the postal vote system in place in Austria (as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany). Postal voters receive their ballot paper by post and can either send it back by mail or go to any relevant polling station to cast their vote. The latter happens particularly often when people are on holiday and still want to cast their vote in person (in Germany this is limited to SMD districts).

These known cases alone should not be sufficient to trigger a partial re-run of the presidential runoff in the affected districts. However, the FPÖ claims that violations were recorded in 94 of 117 postal voting districts. Given that it was the postal votes that turned the result around and Van der Bellen eventually won with only 31,000 votes (0.6%) difference, such a claim – if it proves true – would definitely require a do-over of some sort. The Federal Returning Officer, Robert Stein, has however expressed doubts that the whole second round would be repeated. In any case, the FPÖ might have found a way to once again mobilise the anti-establishment vote that Norbert Hofer received. From the point of view of a rational observer, a ‘conspiracy’ against the FPÖ by the state (including public TV stations – one of the FPÖ’s recurrent targets during the election campaign) may be out of the question. Nevertheless, it is likely to resonate with the FPÖ’s core electorate which sees the stigmatisation of the far-right party and categorical exclusion from the federal government as an injustice and plot orchestrated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Even if the complaint is entirely unsuccessful, it casts a shadow over Van der Bellen’s election and will give additional ammunition to the FPÖ in the run-up to and after the next parliamentary elections.

Austria – Will the April presidential elections bring an end to the SPÖ-ÖVP dominance of federal politics?

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

Politics in Austria since reinstatement of the republic in 1945 dominated by the two mass parties, SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) and ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party). Presidential  elections have thereby been no exception. After Austria’s first post-WW II head of state, Karl Renner (SPÖ), had still been held indirectly in a joint sessions of the two chambers of parliament, Austrian voters have chosen their president by popular vote since 1951. On 24 April, Austrians are once again called to the polls to elected a new president after president Heinz Fischer (independent; previously SPÖ) served two consecutive and is not eligible for re-election. However, for the first time in 75 years, it appears possible that not a candidate of either of the big parties will win the race for the Hofburg, the seat of the Austrian presidency.

The dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP in previous elections

% of first round votes for SPÖ and ÖVP candidates 1951-2016_presidential-power.com

During the last 75 years, candidates nominated by SPÖ and ÖVP dominated the candidate field in presidential elections and in almost half of them other parties yielded to their dominance and fielded no candidates. Even when other candidates were in the running, SPÖ and ÖVP managed to capture an overwhelming majority of valid 1st round votes. Subsequently, all run-off elections were also decided between SPÖ and ÖVP candidates. Only on three occasions – on each of which the incumbent of the respective other party ran ran for re-election – have these parties not nominated their own candidate.

This dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP becomes even clearer when looking at the effective number of candidates (ENC) throughout the years – irrespective of whether Laakso’s and Taagepera’s or Golosov’s measure is used and how many actual candidates contest the election, the ENC stays close to or below 2. The indices also highlight the extreme change that the 2016 election might bring based on recent opinion polls – both exhibit scores that are more than twice as high as their previous average (Laakso & Taagepera: 5.341; Golosov: 4.658) and come close to approximating the actual number of candidates, signifying a relatively evenly matched field of competing candidates. The actual number of candidates in this election also ties the previous record of six candidates in 1951 and it is the first time that two independent candidates (i.e. not nominated or officially supported by any party) are competing for the presidency.

Candidates and competition in Austrian presidential elections, 1951-2016_presidential-power.com

A look the candidates in the 2016 elections

The above figures have already shown that this election is far from being dominated by the candidates of only two parties. Yet, recent opinion polls (see below) illustrate just how much this election differs from previous contests as the candidates of neither SPÖ nor ÖVP are even among the front-runners but trail behind in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

The field of candidates is headed by Alexander Van der Bellen, an economic professor, former member of parliament and leader of the Green Party. While he is officially running as an independent, the Green Party is financing his campaign. As Der Standard notes, his nominal independence means that he could avoid a lengthy nomination procedure (requiring only the party leadership’s support) and his campaign is not bound by the same complicated transparency regulations of the Austrian party law as party-nominees. In addition, it is very likely a way to make his candidacy more appealing to voters of other parties (Van der Bellen’s personal popularity has always exceeded that of his party). This interpretation is also supported by the fact that one of the aims of his campaign, which otherwise focusses on a number of traditionally green and left-of-centre postulates, is to “become the first president who does not come from the big party apparatusses [i.e. SPÖ/ÖVP], who serves independently” – thus mirroring the rhetoric of independent Slovak president Andrej Kiska in 2014. Should he win, Van der Bellen would only be the second Green president in the world after Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis.

The fact that Norbert Hofer, candidate of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), follows in second place is less surprising. The FPÖ (whose inclusion in the federal government by the ÖVP 2000-2003 led to calls for sanctions from other EU nations) has benefited greatly from the refugee crisis during which its xenophobic rhetoric and clear stance resonated with many Austrians and let the party rise in the polls. Hofer, a member and third deputy speaker of the Austrian National Council, has also integrated a number of other slogans used by right-wing populists across Europe into his campaign (e.g. criticism of the EU, more direct democracy). Given his steady performance in the polls, Hofer will quite likely make it into the second round unless Griss’ ratings rise any further.

candidates and polls in the Austrian presidential elections 2016_presidential-power.com

The performance of third-ranking candidate Irmgard Griss is not only notable because she is likely to achieve the best result of an independent candidate in Austrian presidential elections, but also because of her ability to fundraise (she has received the highest amount of all candidates so far). Griss is a lawyer and former president of the Austrian Supreme Court and originally entertained the idea of a candidacy as a joint candidate of SPÖ and ÖVP, yet as these failed to support her, she announced that she was running as an independent. Her campaign is in many ways a crossover between those of the two frontrunners as she stresses her independence from party politics (in many ways postulating a form of ‘anti-politics’) on the one hand and criticises the government for its handling of the refugee crisis. As a centre-right candidate she is likely to be supported by disappointed ÖVP-voters and get part of the conservative-leaning protest vote. It is difficult to establish whether she is a danger to Hofer, yet her polling results have recently improved.

Rudold Hundstorfer was presented as the SPÖ candidate in mid-January 2016. As a former trade union official and cabinet minister in the Faymann governments personifies the ‘old politics’ of the Austrian party-state, one of the reasons that he may be trailing behind in the polls. Compared to his rivals, Hundstorfer’s campaign is also relatively bland and lacks concrete political demands. While this and his campaign slogan “The uniting force” reflect the largely ceremonial role of the Austrian presidency according to established constitutional practice (yet in contrast to its formal powers), it appears to be relatively unpopular with voters.

Andreas Khol, a long-time chairman of the ÖVP parliamentary group and speaker of the National Council, in many ways shares the ‘flaws’ of his SPÖ contender. His campaign focusses mainly on his experience as a politician and contacts with foreign heads of state. His 6 children and 15 grandchildren are listed as proof of his support for traditional family values (although it should be mentioned that he can be described as relatively progressive compared to others in his party). Apart from that, it also lacks the appeal of the three front-runners.

Last-placed candidate is Viennese construction mogul and socialite Richard Lugner (now best-known for paying celebrities to accompany him to the Vienna Opera Ball). Lugner already once ran for president in 1998, receiving 9.9% of the vote. However, he subsequently failed to build on his success and enter parliament with his movement “The Independents” one year later. After initially falling short of signatures to register his candidacy, Lugner managed to deliver the missing declarations of support within a three-day grace period granted by the Federal Election Agency. After Lugner’s 1998 campaign was still earnest, his current campaign appears to be far from serious. It is focussed on a campaign song performed by himself (watch it here) in which he praises his significantly younger wife’s physical assets (claiming that even Putin has her poster in his wardrobe) and declares to appoint FPÖ party chairman Hans-Christian Strache as Federal Chancellor to “tidy up” Austrian politics.

The 2016 election: Ending the two-party hegemony?

Based on current opinion polls, Van der Bellen and Hofer seem to be relatively set for entering a run-off. Griss, who has been rising in the polls, might however still interfere with this set-up. This constellation notwithstanding, it seems very unlikely that either SPÖ or ÖVP will see their candidates enter the run-off or win the presidential election. The SPÖ will likely support Van der Bellen in a run-off against either Hofer or Griss. The ÖVP on the other hand will likely only support the non-partisan Griss. While Hofer would surely look more kindly on the ÖVP than on its senior coalition partner SPÖ, the FPÖ remains a political pariah on the federal level and supporting their candidate might thus have negative consequences for ÖVP both on the national and international level. Hofer and Griss would most likely endorse each other’s candidacies, yet Griss may be more reluctant to do so if she aims to obtain any other political office. In accordance with his song, Lugner will likely throw his support behind Hofer, yet his endorsement is likely to remain with little influence in any case.

In any case, this presidential election will see an important break with the two-party hegemony of SPÖ and ÖVP which has long dominated Austrian politics. It also shows the immense political impact of the refugee crisis and the dissatisfaction of voters with the political class which was already visible in the 2013 general elections when the new parties “Team Stronach” (economically liberal and eurosceptic party founded by billionaire Frank Stronach) and NEOS (economically and socially liberal party which emerged from a number of citizens’ initiatives) entered the National Council. It remains to be seen which effect the results of the election will have on the established parties. A strong finish of FPÖ candidate Hofer (even in third place) will likely boost the party’s electoral prospects (the next federal elections are due 2018) while the Green Party will not necessarily profit from Van der Bellen’s performance due to its niche appeal. The results of SPÖ and ÖVP – who voters might now also punish for merely general dissatisfaction – on the other hand could be part of a general trend in which mass parties lose their appeal to voters (a prime example of this would be the German Social Democrats).

Latvia – Defence Minister Raimonds Vējonis elected as new president

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 5 June 2015

On Wednesday, 3 June, Latvia’s Saeima met for an extraordinary session to elect a new president to succeed Andris Bērziņš. Deputies eventually chose defence minster Raimonds Vējonis as the new head of state, yet only after five rounds of voting and amid continued uncertainty whether Vejonis would be able to gather sufficient votes. While Vējonis has stronger ties with his party – the Greens and Farmers Union – than his soon-to-be predecessor Bērziņš, the role of the presidency is unlikely to change during his incumbency. However, given that he eventually won against Egils Levits, who was nominated by the Greens’ coalition partner, the election might well be an indicator of first cracks in the government.

latvian presidential election results_presidential-power

Latvia employs an interesting method of indirect presidential elections with a limited number of repeated run-offs and an absolute majority requirement. To be elected, the successful candidate needs at least 51 votes in the 101 seat parliament. If no candidate achieves the required majority in the first round of voting, a second round is held with all candidates, thereafter the candidate with the least amount of votes is dropped and a new vote is held. If no candidate is elected in the fifth round of voting, the election is postponed and new candidates need to be nominated.

Until now, parliament has only once taken more than two rounds of voting to elect a new president. Apart from the inaugural election in 1993 candidates were even elected during the first round. In 1999, however, five rounds of voting proved inconclusive and new candidates had to be nominated. The protracted election of Vejonis is thus rather unusual, even though coalition parties have until now only twice nominated a common candidate (Ulmanis in 1993 and Zatlers in 2007) and the majority was thus less than clear.

The National Alliance had already openly speculated about nominating their own candidate, rather than coordinating with their coalition partners, when it was still unclear whether incumbent Bērziņš would run again. The Greens’ and Farmers Union on the other hand took longer to find a new candidate and it initially looked like Unity, the largest coalition partner, would also present its own candidate, yet eventually supported Vējonis (also because the party could not agree on candidate). The social-democratic Harmony Party nominated their MP Sergejs Dolgopolovs, yet due to the party’s close association with the ethnic Russian minority it was clear from the beginning that his candidacy would be unsuccessful. Given the fact that the National Alliance put forward their own candidate, at least some of Harmony’s votes on the other hand would be/were necessary for electing any candidate. Equally without chance was the candidate of the Association of Regions, former basketball star and businessman Martins Bondars. The ‘For Latvia from the Heart’ party did not nominate their own candidate and did not impose a whip on their seven deputies.

The results of the first three rounds of voting show that at least some Unity and Green deputies (23 and 21, respectively) did not vote for Vējonis but it is difficult to reconstruct whether they voted for Levits, voted against all candidates, or spoiled their ballot. Harmony’s candidate Dolgopolovs appears to have only received the votes of his co-partisans (the party holds 24 seats in the Saeima). Votes ‘against all’ increased continuously through the rounds and National Alliance leader Raivis Dzintars told the press that his party would vote against Vējonis. Thus, even after the fourth round of voting, it was not yet clear whether Vējonis would get a majority in the final round.

Vējonis will now serve four-year term starting 7 July. As he comes from the second largest coalition party, friendly relations between presidency and government can be expected to continue. Overall, he is likely to be less active than his predecessor-to-be Bērziņš, whose involvement in the formation of the last two governments is one of the reasons many Unity deputies opposed his potential re-election. Vējonis is not only more politically experienced and will thus be able to choose his battles more wisely, he also has better connections that will allow him to be active more effectively (as well as informally, away from of the public eye). The more interesting effect of this election will be on the dynamic within the governing coalition. Although Prime Minister Straujuma was quick to say that the conflict between the National Alliance and Unity/Greens and Farmers over the preidency would not affect the coalition, Saeima speaker and Unity leader Āboltiņa already speculated whether ‘a new government would be needed’ by the end of the year. Previous governments have not split over the election of a president, yet the fierceness of the contest is hitherto unprecedented, leaving room for a different development.

Last, there are two other interesting facts that should to be mentioned in the context of the presidential election. As in almost all democratic parliamentary republics, the election of a new president in parliament has brought up calls for introducing popular presidential elections. An opinion poll conducted by SDKS in May showed that 43% fully supported the introduction of direct elections and a further 27% moderately supported it – this is a 13% drop from last year, accompanied by an inverse change in the number of supporters of indirect election (11% tended to support, 6% fully supported; in 2014 6% tended to support, 1% fully supported). The presidential election was furthermore accompanied by a private initiative called ‘MansPrezidents.lv’ (‘My President’) which allowed citizens to ‘vote’ for potential presidential candidates in a bid to influence parliamentary decision-making and to highlight public interest in the presidency. Contrary to parliamentary results, the final winner of the contest was Martin Bondars – Raimonds Vējonis only placed 6th out of seven. Although the formation of broad public support for/opposition against candidates in indirect elections is not new (e.g. in the 2011 presidential election in Germany, the public largely supported Joachim Gauck over eventual winner Christian Wulff), this seems to be the first initiative of its kind and an interesting innovation in the context of indirect presidential elections.

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The Latvia Public Broadcasting Service wrote a live blog in English during the election which can be accessed here: http://www.lsm.lv/en/article/politics/live-blog-closed-defense-minister-raimonds-vejonis-is-elected-as-latvias-next-president.a132150/

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.