Hungary – Legislative vetoes by president Áder: Irrelevant activism?

There is no doubt that Hungarian president Janos Áder is a close ally and supporter of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his illiberal politics. Interestingly, however, he has used and continues to use his legislative veto power with surprising frequency. Overall, this runs counter to existing explanatory approaches and might thereby shed new light on the functioning of Hungary’s illiberal democracy.

Hungarian president Janos Áder – image via wikimedia commons

When Janos Áder was elected president, he promised to depart from the rubber stamp-attitude to legislation exhibited by his co-partisan precedessor Pál Schmitt (who not only failed to use his veto power during his two years in office, but has also publicly declared he would sign every bill the Fidesz majority in parliament passed). Opposition politicians welcomed (albeit cautiously) his declaration that if parliament passed a hundred good bills he would all sign them into law but if parliament passed a hundred bad bills he would use his veto against all of them. Nevertheless, given that the Hungarian president’s veto can be overridden by simple majority (unless the original bill required a higher majority to be passed, e.g. organic law) and presidents are obliged to sign bills that were passed again (even if changes were introduced during the veto/reconsideration process), it was clear that such activism would need to be amplified by use of the personal ties between Áder and his long-time friend Orbán.

Already early on in his first term, Janos Áder seemed to follow through on his promise – in his first year in office alone, he sent 11 bills back to parliament for reconsideration. Even his predecessor Lászlo Sólyom, who found himself in cohabitation with all governments during his five year-term in office and vetoed almost frantically in comparison to his own predecessors, took almost three years to veto as many bills. Although clearly in friendly relations with the government and parliamentary majority, Áder had vetoed 28 bills by the end of his first term last year (only four less than Sólyom who – as mentioned above – was in cohabitation the whole time) and vetoed three more since his re-election.

These number may not be high in comparison to other presidents in the region, particularly those elected by popular vote, yet they present a challenge to established explanations of presidential activism that others and myself have proposed. If presidential activism is primarily determined by the institutional structure (most prominently direct/indirect elections) and the political environment (the partisan composition and strength of parliament and government vis-a-vis the presidency), we should see comparatively fewer vetoes in the case of Janos Áder.

Additional explanatory variables that I found to be important in the case of president Lászlo Sólyom (2005-2010) also do not seem to apply here. For once, there is no personal antipathy between president and prime minister and more than two thirds of bills vetoed were prepared by ministries (i.e. not private members bills which have typically been of lower quality). Furthermore, after the government initially incorporated changes proposed by Áder into bills as part of the review process, all 12 vetoes issued since the 2014 parliamentary elections were overridden. Thus, presidential vetoes are not (or are no longer) an easy way to let the government fix problems with bills that were previously overlooked.

At the same time, Áder’s veto activity does also not quite fit into the pattern (if one can speak of such) of democratic window-dressing in the Polish case. Despite international outcry and serious flaws in bills Áder has not used his veto to stop (at least temporarily) the crackdown on public media, the ‘Lex CEU‘ or legislation that benefitted Fidesz politicians and their associates in other ways. While he used his veto on a number of other bills that were controversially discussed domestically, his opposition appears to be lacking in enthusiasm.

Thus, Áder’s use of presidential vetoes remains somewhat enigmatic. The fact that neither existing explanatory approaches nor the logic of presidential activism visible in other regimes can account for it should prompt a re-examination of how we imagine the functioning of Hungary’s illiberal democracy. Áder’s (ostensibly) irrelevant activism could point towards a further concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister and/or to the fact that his actions are directed towards other constituencies that have yet to be uncovered.

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A full list of presidential vetoes in Hungary is available here (in Hungarian).

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 15 March 2018

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.