Today voters in Serbia voted in a runoff election for the country’s presidency; legislative elections were held concurrent with the first round on 6 May. Meanwhile, France is in the interim period between presidential and legislative elections. What difference does this make?
France has long been seen as the model of semi-presidential government (notwithstanding that there actually are older examples). Specifically, it is of the premier-presidential subtype, which is to say that the president actually has very limited powers over government formation and policy-making, unless he leads a party or alliance of parties with a majority in the parliament. Under the premier-presidential subtype, the premier and cabinet are responsible to the parliamentary majority, but not to the president. Nonetheless, when the president is the acknowledged head of the legislative majority, he can be as unchecked in practice as any executive leader in any democracy.
The Serbian constitution, is unambiguously premier-presidential. Perhaps the presidency is very slightly less powerful, but the basic configuration of powers is similar to that of France.
So let’s compare the two countries, at this very moment, in terms of the process of government formation. In a premier-presidential system, “government formation” typically means the president initiates the appointment of a premier, but only upon taking account of the balance of forces in the parliament, which must approve his selection (and, solely, has the constitutional power to remove it subsequently).
In Serbia, the first round of the presidential election produced a close result, which was not decisive. Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party won the plurality, but only around a quarter of the valid votes. Close behind him was Tomislav Nikolic of the nationalist Serbian Progressive Party. In third place, but with only around 14%, was Ivica Dacic, of the Socialist Party of Serbia. (No other candidate had even 7.5%.)
This outcome made Dacic, the strongest of the candidates not qualifying for the runoff, potentially influential. To say “kingmaker” would be an overstatement, given that even if he could deliver his support as a bloc, neither candidate would reach 40%. Still, that did not stop some stories following the first round from suggesting Dacic would be the kingmaker.
Dacic tried, by announcing an alliance with Tadic, amid speculation that Dacic would become premier. Legislative elections were held at the same time as the first round, and they gave the alliance led by Tadic, called Choice for a Better Life, 67 seats. Nikolic’s alliance, Let’s Get Serbia Moving, won 73 seats. Dacic’s Socialists won 44 seats. With an assembly size of 250, a coalition led by Tadic and Dacic could combine for 111 seats–not enough for a majority, but with 44.4% of the seats, a strong base from which to build a government. Only one small detail: this coalition had to succeed in electing Tadic to the presidency first.
The voters did not cooperate, however, as Nikolic has won today’s runoff. Now Nikolic will need to begin negotiations to put together a cabinet that can command a majority in parliament.
This strikes me as more or less how premier-presidentialism is supposed to work. Parliamentary elections determine the parameters of coalition possibilities, given that–as in a parliamentary democracy–the cabinet must have the confidence of the parliamentary majority. Yet when there is no electorally based majority, it falls not to a third party in parliament, but to the voters, acting through their agent in the presidency, to serve as the real kingmaker.
Now contrast this process just sketched with that in France now. The presidential election is concluded, but parliamentary elections are looming in June. However, the newly inaugurated President, Francois Hollande, has already appointed his cabinet. Meanwhile, Hollande’s Socialists and the allies of the presidential candidate who finished fourth, Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front, are divvying up the districts in which they will present joint candidacies, in order to maximize the seats of the broad left. In effect, Hollande (and Melenchon) are asking voters to ratify decisions they have taken since Hollande was voted into the presidency.
Events in France seem less in the spirit of premier-presidentialism, because they lend a far more “presidentialized” air to the whole process by permitting the appointment of the next government before the election of the parliament to which it is (formally) accountable.
The critical difference here is in the electoral cycle, with Serbia having its parliamentary elections concurrent with the first round of the presidential contest, whereas France, since 2002, has been employing a “honeymoon” cycle with parliamentary elections following close on the heels of the presidential runoff. When combined with the two-round majority-plurality system by which France elects its National Assembly, the honeymoon elections will tend to create a very large president-supporting majority, rather than a legislature that serves as a check on the president through coalition politics.
While both France and Serbia are clearly premier-presidential systems, the Serbian electoral cycle is much more in the spirit of the hybrid process of government formation that this subtype of constitutional form is supposed to generate.