Tunisia power grab: And a challenge to claims that premier-presidentialism avoids ‘perils’

Add Tunisia to the list of countries with events that likely qualify as an autogolpe. The elected president, Kais Saied, has undertaken a power grab in which he “froze” parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and announced he would rule by decree.

Tunisia’s system of government, since the emergence of democracy following the fall of the dictatorship in 2011, is premier-presidential. This is the subtype of semi-presidential regime that is generally thought to have good institutional safeguards against presidential over-reach. The elected presidency of Tunisia has constitutionally limited power. It is worth quoting some of the constitution’s provisions that pertain to presidential authority. For instance, Article 70:

In the event of the dissolution of the Assembly, the President of the Republic may, with the agreement of the Head of Government, issue decree-laws which shall be submitted for ratification to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People during its next ordinary session.

The Assembly of the Representatives of the People may, with the agreement of three-fifths of its members, authorize by law for a limited period not exceeding two months, and for a specific purpose, the Head of Government to issue decree-laws of a legislative character, to be submitted for ratification to the Assembly immediately after the end of the period of authorization.

The electoral system might not be amended by decree-laws.

Note that the Head of Government (prime minister) must agree to decrees that occur during dissolution, which in any case must be submitted to the assembly. However, in the current case, the president has already dismissed the PM and dissolved (“suspended”) the assembly. The second paragraph allows for delegated degree powers, but not to the president, and only by a super-majority.

What about dissolution power? Article 77 includes within its list of presidential powers:

Dissolving the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in accordance with provisions of the Constitution. The Assembly shall not be dissolved during the six months following granting confidence to the government, or the six months following legislative elections, or during the last six months of the presidential or parliamentary terms.

The dismissed PM had been appointed in February, 2020, so more than six months ago. Thus perhaps a dissolution could be permissible. However, does the president have authority to dismiss the PM? Articles 97 and 98 govern the process of government termination, and do not give the presidency any unilateral dismissal authority. The government depends on the exclusive confidence of the assembly majority. This is why I class it as a premier-presidential system. Moreover, per Article 89, the president has almost no discretion in who will be appointed prime minister. The process is quite “parliamentary” in that the leader of the largest party must be tasked first, and if that leader fails, then the “person judged most capable to form a government.” If after four months there is no government approved by the assembly majority, then there may be a dissolution and call for early elections. In other words, the president has no unilateral parliamentary dissolution power just as he has no government dismissal authority.

What about emergency power? Article 80 allows for a state of emergency “In the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state… after consultation with the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and informing the President of the Constitutional Court.” The article goes on to restrict the president’s powers under a state of emergency, including that “The Assembly of the Representatives of the People shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout such a period.” Obviously, this article has not been followed.

The president claimed he was acting within the constitution. I am not a constitutional lawyer nor any sort of authority on Tunisia. But as I read the constitution, he is lying about respecting institutional order, and has carried out a coup against the government and legislature.

In many of my own writings I have been quite favorable to premier-presidential constitution designs, on the grounds that they provide clear restrictions on the powers of the president, and give presidential aspirants strong incentives to build parties or links to parties in order to sustain an allied government in office. Tunisia now is an example that strains this argument. This president is an independent, elected with 72.7% in the second round on 13 October, 2019, after having secured only 18.4% in the first round on 15 September (his nearest opponent had 15.6% and the third candidate 12.9%–both runners-up were party-backed).

The last assembly election was on 6 October, 2019. Aside: Is this only case ever in which an assembly election has been between rounds of a presidential election? In the assembly election, the largest party was the Islamist party, Ennahda, on only 19.6%. (Their candidate finished third in the presidential first round.) Ennahda won 52 of the 217 seats (24.0%). The second largest party, Heart of Tunisia, won 14.6% and 38 seats; this was the party of the other presidential runoff contender. No other party broke 7% of the vote. The effective number of seat-winning parties is presumably in excess of 8.0.*

Thus we have here a case of extremely high party-system fragmentation, combined with a president lacking party ties. This is the classic Linzian “perils of presidentialism” combination. However, premier-presidential systems are supposed to overcome these perils (although Linz himself had his doubts). One case does not disprove a thesis, and maybe Tunisian democracy would have broken down even if there were no directly elected presidency. Nonetheless, the precise means of breakdown–an autogolpe carried out by an outsider nonparty president–should give us pause about the claim that premier-presidentialism is an antidote to the perils of presidentialism.

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* I can’t say precisely because the source I am using–Wikipedia–groups 12 seats under “independent lists” which obviously should not be treated as a single party; if it were a single party, the effective N would be 7.85.

No confidence vote succeeds against Swedish government

The government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was ousted in a no confidence vote with 181 votes against it in the 349-seat Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, on 21 June. The prime minister has a week to decide whether to go to a snap election or resign to allow the speaker of parliament to facilitate the negotiation of a new government. According to Reuters, this makes Lofven “the first Swedish prime minister to be ousted by a no-confidence motion put forward by the opposition.” If there is a snap election, it would be the first since 1958.

The government is a minority government of the Social Democrats and Greens, with a policy-based agreement to allow it to govern signed with the Centre and Liberal parties. It also has had tacit support from the Left Party, but the agreement with the two center-right parties calls for the Left to have no policy influence. This is where things got delicate, as a policy of easing rent controls prompted the Left to vote against the government. Reuters notes:

“Rental reform is part of a platform agreed between the government and the Centre and Liberal parties and is not a policy the Social Democratic party is keen on.”

The Left leader, Nooshi Dadgostar, says that, despite voting with the right against the government, it would never help “a right-wing nationalist government” take power. The mention of “nationalist” refers to the Sweden Democrats, the third largest party, whose gains in the 2018 election greatly complicated building governments and parliamentary support. See the comment thread on the 2018 election for an interesting discussion of Sweden’s fraying ideological blocs and the challenges of building cross-bloc support. It was the Sweden Democrats who proposed the no-confidence motion.

An election would not otherwise be due till September, 2022, and recent opinion polls do not suggest that an early election held in the very near future would produce a result much different from that of 2018. So maybe the parties in the current government, its support parties, and the Left will somehow come to an agreement to reconstitute an arrangement, minus the specific policy measure that ruptured parliament’s fragile tolerance for this government.

Small parties heading government: What are the costs and what can we learn ahead of possible Bennett-Lapid rotation in Israel?

The following is a post by Or Tuttnauer, based on a thread on Twitter. I asked Or if I could turn it into a F&V post, and he kindly agreed.

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In Israel, Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Yamina) are trying now to form a cabinet, with Bennett the first prime minister in a rotation between the two. One problem (among others) – Bennett’s party commands only 6% of the parliament. Critics say he will lose even that at next election if he takes a turn as PM. Will he?  

I looked at  http://Parlgov.org  data of 474 PM-parties in 29 countries over 70 years (1945-2015) and how they fared in the next elections.

As the scatter plot shows, the vast majority of these parties lose votes in subsequent elections. Governing has its costs. But most PM parties are much larger than Bennett’s.

To figure out how change in vote share depends on vote share, I ran a regression with the former as DV, and the latter as well as its square value to allow for non-linearity. Turns out most parties lose votes, but not the small ones – below 30%. These are parties smaller than the average or median PM-party in the data (37% and 36%, respectively). For these smaller ruling party, the predicted gain or loss is indistinguishable from zero. Compared to the fortunes of the larger ruling parties, not losing, and not gaining votes is good news. Lucky for Bennett! 

But wait! what about ideology? Bennett’s party is also far from the centre, isn’t that a precarious position for a ruling party? Well, if we add an interaction with extremity, we see that at the very low end, extreme parties of up to 15% vote share seem to actually gain votes. This is intriguing. Perhaps (as suggested to me by Matthew Shugart), these extreme parties gain credibility after heading a government and are therefore perceived in the next elections as more moderate or mainstream than their ideology would otherwise suggest, leading to a wider electoral support. However, it may also be that there are too few cases in this range to make a meaningful inference.

So, should Bennett risk it and be PM? I say yes. First, if you follow Israeli politics, you know this is better than the alternative (if you don’t, trust me). Also, you don’t get many chances to become PM. And political narratives – like history – are written by the winner.

Appendix

Below is the list of past cases of small PM parties, their extremity, and their vote share change at the next election.

CountryPartyCabinet start dateCabinet nameExtremityvote share (t)Vote share change
BELPVVVLD12-Jul-99Verhofstadt I2.005314.31.06
NORKrF17-Oct-97Bondevik I0.851613.7-1.2
SVNNSI16-May-90Peterle2.9345131.51
ISLA28-Jun-59Jonsson II0.555612.52.7
NORKrF19-Oct-01Bondevik II0.851612.5-5.7
DNKV19-Dec-73Hartling2.29212.311
BELPVVVLD10-Jun-07Verhofstadt III2.005311.83-3.19
FRARPR20-Mar-86Chirac II2.499711.57.7
ITAPSI4-Aug-83Craxi I1.227811.42.9
BELCVP13-Jun-10Leterme III0.766710.850.76
NORSp12-Oct-65Borten I0.34359.8-0.8
NORSp7-Sep-69Borten II0.343592.03
POLPC23-Dec-91Olszewski0.55568.7-4.28
NLDARP7-Jun-71Biesheuvel I0.80678.590.25
FINRKP-SFP5-May-54Torngren1.39066.8-0.3

Candidacy for prime minister

In presidential systems, it is clear who is a candidate for the position of heading government–anyone who enters the election as a formal candidate for president. What about in a parliamentary system? This seems like a trick question. I assume it is straightforward: A person who is the leader of a party can be assumed to be a candidate for prime minister.

We might qualify that definition of candidacy for prime minister by saying it only applies to the leaders of parties expected to be among the largest in the election. Perhaps leaders of clearly minor or sectarian parties can be dismissed as candidates for the post as they are deemed as highly unlikely to claim the post. However, in presidential systems, we would not define someone on the ballot as “not a candidate” just because he or she was considered unlikely to win the job. Is the standard different in parliamentary systems?

As a starting point, I do not really think it should be. “Candidates” who finish second, third, or even lower in votes in parliamentary elections occasionally do end up as prime minister, whereas only in very rare cases can anyone lower than second in votes become president (and being second in a final or sole round of voting can be sufficient currently only in the USA.*)

Our default, then, should be that, absent a good reason to believe some party is uninterested in heading the government, or no parties would ever let it do so, or that someone other than whoever is the formal party leader is likely to be prime minister should the party be able to fill the post, any party leader is a candidate for prime minister. However, this default may be incorrect, at least in the political discourse of any given parliamentary system.

Take the case of Israel 2021(a?). Twice during the campaign, statements about candidacy for prime minister have entered the media and inter-party conversation. In early March, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett made a statement that he was indeed a candidate for prime minister. At the time, my reaction was basically, no kidding. While his party would likely be too small for its leader to be PM, it does sometimes happen that some party within a coalition other than the largest provides the PM, and Bennett is his party’s leader and top-ranked candidate. Therefore, he is a candidate. Yet he felt there was political advantage in asserting so. In other words, what I called the “default” evidently is not.

Then more recently, Benjamin Netanyahu (the incumbent PM, leader of Likud, and most definitely a candidate for the top post in this election) said he would not debate opposition leader Yair Lapid unless the latter declares he is a candidate for prime minister. I do not think anyone doubts that Lapid is a candidate for the post, but somehow he has to utter the words in order for the incumbent to debate him. The back-story here is that Lapid has been trying to avoid a head-to-head fight and simply position himself as part of a broad replace-Bibi block, and not appear too ambitious to get the job himself. He has implied that he would accept not being PM even if his party, Yesh Atid, were to be the biggest party in the anti-Likud bloc. All polls for many weeks have said the party will be the largest such party, but Lapid is not ruling out allowing someone else–presumably either New Hope leader Gideon Saar or even Bennett–to take the post if that is what is needed to replace Netanyahu. Regardless of declarations, isn’t Lapid clearly a PM candidate? Yes!

So I am genuinely puzzled by contention over which party leaders formally declare themselves to be candidate for prime minister and which ones do not. I wonder if questions of this sort come up often in other parliamentary campaigns.

(Note: I hope to get a pre-election preview post up as I have done for Israeli elections back to 2006 or so. The election is this coming Tuesday, so time is getting short. Anyway, for now, I guess this is the pre-election post. But watch for another possible one.)

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* Bolivia once had a president who had finished third in the sole round of popular voting. This was possible because the rule at the time was the congress selected from the top three if none had a majority. Later the rule was changed to two-round popular majority.

The Canadian parliamentary vote on using the term, genocide

On 22 February, the House of Commons of Canada voted to label persecution of the Uighur people by the Chinese authorities a genocide. I am not interested for purposes of this blog post in whether that is the right label or not (that’s way beyond my competence or the focus of this blog). I am interested in the unusual nature of the vote.

It was unanimous among those voting, 266-0. However, the government did not take part in the vote. The governing Liberal Party currently has 154 of the House’s 338 seats. Thus as a minority government (see 2019 election result), the possibility of a measure passing over its abstention (or outright objection) is always a possibility even if the party itself votes with the government. In this case, obviously, some Liberals voted for the measure, but most were absent. Only two MPs were present but formally registered an abstention, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who declared he was abstaining “on behalf of the Government of Canada.”

I am not sure how frequently votes pass in this manner, especially on sensitive diplomatic matters, either in Canada or in other parliamentary systems. I am also not sure what the practical (as opposed to symbolic) meaning of such a vote is when the government is not on board with it.

Term limits for a prime minister?

Lots of presidents have term limits–either one term or two, typically (and with variations in whether an interim out of office permits a later return). But terms limits on prime ministers are rare. The only cases that come to mind are Botswana and South Africa. Just to confuse things, those countries call their chief executive “president”; however, they (together with their cabinets) are responsible to the majority in the assembly, and thus these are prime ministers in the sense of heads of government whose political survival depends on parliamentary confidence.

Given the small number of cases, there may not be much of a literature in political science or law about term-limiting prime ministers. I am wondering if readers are aware of anything that one should read to understand the implications and possible motivations for term limits on assembly-responsible executives.

The question of term-limiting the prime minister comes up now and then in Israel, including in the current campaign, where New Hope Party leader Gideon Saar has said the first bill he would advance if he becomes Prime Minister would set a term limit of eight years. The idea has come up also in the past. Once upon a time, apparently even none other than Benjamin Netanyahu thought it was a good idea; this was, of course, before serving 2009–21 (and perhaps beyond) in the position. The issue comes up at times elsewhere as well (such as Grenada and St. Kitts and such a measure was passed, controversially, in Iraq). (Edit: in a comment, JD notes that Belize and Thailand have term limits in their prime ministers.)

I would generally suspect that the logic of term limits (prevent one person from monopolizing power) fits poorly with the logic of parliamentarism (the head of government serves at the pleasure of the assembly majority). But apparently any such poor fit does not prevent the idea surfacing here and there. It would be especially challenging to formulate a workable term-limit provision in a country that often has early elections–sometimes very early and frequent ones–like Israel.

Presidentialization is still a thing

With the second impeachment of Donald Trump, we can say that one piece of good news is that Samuels and Shugart (2010) are still right. In our book, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers, one of our claims is that parties in presidential systems face a severe dilemma: On the one hand, they need leaders who can win a separate popular election. On the other hand, the leaders selected for that purpose may not always share the goals of the party, but the party is basically stuck with the president, given the fixed term. While impeachment and removal are usually available under constitutional provisions, it is almost an iron law that parties do not vote to impeach their own president.

On 13 January, and in the wake of the insurrection of 6 Jan., this theory was put to a severe stress test. In fact, the day before the impeachment vote, it looked like the dam had broken and there would be many defectors from the Republican Party, who would join with Democrats and vote to impeach. The biggest blow was Liz Cheney, with the no. 3 position in the GOP House leadership, announcing she would vote to impeach. That seemed like it could give cover to others who wanted to break with the president after his reprehensible actions the week before. The New York Times reported that Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, “and other party leaders have decided not to formally lobby Republicans to vote “no”.” Moreover, according to the same report, the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell believed Trump had committed impeachable offenses.

Yet, in the end, there were only ten defectors. While this is the highest number of Representatives from a president’s own party to have joined an impeachment vote in US history (all four such votes), it is only about 5% of the total number of party members in the House. Normally, we would think of 95% unity as pretty high, and thus the case of Trump’s impeachment conforms, so far, to the theory: the president’s party does not vote in favor of a process that could lead to removal of its own leader, the president.

By contrast, the book shows that for about a third of prime ministers in parliamentary systems the manner in which they leave office is due to their own party replacing them between elections. Fundamentally, prime ministers do not have fixed terms and are agents of their own parties. Presidents, on the other hand, typically cease to be agents of their parties upon being nominated and especially upon winning the presidential election. This is the key argument of the book: “Presidentialization” effectively reverses the principal–agent relationship, as party members have strong electoral and other incentives to follow the lead of the president whose term does not depend on their ongoing support.

Presidents’ parties may not always support the president’s legislative initiatives (although in most cases, they follow the big ones, even when such initiatives deviate from normal party priorities–see Chapter 8 of the book), but they do usually hold the ranks together when it comes to a co-partisan president’s continued tenure in office. Apparently, even after incitement to insurrection over refusal to accept a lost reelection bid, and even with only a week to go in the term.

In connection with the above argument, some have asked what about Richard Nixon? Had he not resigned, it would have been a bipartisan impeachment and removal. This is probably correct. We also have other cases in our dataset of presidents who resigned for one reason or another. Obviously, in these cases, we are unable to observe an impeachment vote, so they are outside our theory. We can thank Nixon and others for sparing their parties the need to violate an iron law!

More seriously, there is probably, theoretically, some floor of presidential approval below which the dynamic changes. I do not claim to know where that floor is, but Nixon probably breached it when his approval hovered near 20% at the end. Given the small N problem, this remains entirely speculative. The logic might be something about tipping points of support in the party member’s own constituencies, as opposed to a parliamentary party, which typically has a more collective leadership that looks out for swing voters who determine its ability to retain executive control in future elections. And in multiparty systems, this modelling would get even more complex. Lots of PMs lose office due to coalition collapse. Presidents rarely go out that way. There is the case of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (2016), but it conforms to the theory: her party voted 0-10 in the Senate against conviction. Ultimately, her problem was that her party had only 10 of the 81 seats! (They had also voted 0-60 against impeachment in the Chamber of 513 total members.) There was also the case of Park Geun-hye in South Korea in 2016, where some unknown number of members of her party may have voted to impeach. The reason it is unknown is the vote is secret. If the logic of members not dumping a co-partisan president is tied to electoral incentives (fates of legislators tied to that of the president), then a secret vote would break that. In the book we also mention the case of Raúl Cubas Grau in Paraguay (1999), forced out during an impeachment vote by his own Colorado Party. In this case, the party held a super-majority, and could do it alone without fear of electoral blowback. We discuss some other cases with splits in a party. The bottom line is that there is nothing routine about impeachment, and the calculation of president’s co-partisans is usually that it is unwise to break with the leader who won your own voters’ support in the most recent election. Trump’s case would be the only one I am aware of in which the most recent presidential election was one he had lost, but we still saw a very high degree of overlap between vote for House GOP winners and votes for the president, meaning that a break is essentially saying to voters, sorry, you voted for a crook, so let us set things straight for you.

So 13 January may not have been a good day for American democracy, but it was a good day for comparative institutional political science.

Republic of Barbados?

Barbados may begin a process of transition to a republic. The representative of Queen Elizabeth II, Governor General Sandra Mason, announced such a plan in her throne speech in September. Of course, that means it is the government’s program to abolish the monarchy.

An article about this in The Economist mentioned that such plans do not always go smoothly. It cites the case of Trinidad and Tobago, already a republic since 1976, where the head of state (a president selected by parliament) got to “pick the winner” in a situation (1997) that saw two parties tied for the plurality of seats. The author concludes that “fears of a similar confrontation [between president and sitting prime minister] may have led some Caribbean leaders to reconsider their support for republicanism.”

However, there is no necessary reason why the roles of head of state and head of government need to be separate. Nor must it be left to discretion by the head of state when there is an unclear result of the election. These states could adopt something like the Botswana and South Africa models: The parliamentary majority elects a single individual to serve in both roles. Call the person the “president” or the “prime minister” as you wish. But as long as he or she, and the cabinet collectively, depend on confidence of the majority, it is still a parliamentary democracy (albeit maybe not a Westminster system).

In the most recent election (2018) the Barbados Labour Party won all 30 seats. It was a huge win in votes, too, with 72.8%. (In only two of the single-seat districts did Labour win less than 60%.) Still, it would seem that perhaps a more pressing matter might be not the head of state but electoral reform to avoid total sweeps like this.

Attorneys General–institutions matter

Now that indictments have been announced against the (outgoing–dare I say?) Prime Minister of Israel, it is worth reviewing the institutional basis of the office of Attorney General in Israel.

I am seeing some casual takes on Twitter about why the US doesn’t have an Attorney General who takes a tougher line against law-breaking at the top of government. But the offices could hardly be more different. The US Attorney General is a cabinet appointee. The President picks who holds that position, subject only to Senate majority confirmation. Of course, Trump has had a highly compliant Senate majority throughout his presidency.

Trump could not have had occupants of the office that have been as awful for the rule of law as they have been, if the office were structured like Israel’s. So it is worth sketching how the process of appointing the Israeli Attorney General works. My source for this is Aviad Bakshi, Legal Advisers and the Government: Analysis and Recommendations, Kohelet Policy Forum, Policy Paper No. 10, February 2016.

a. There shall be formed a permanent selection committee that shall screen suitable candidates, one of which shall be appointed to the position by the government. The term of each committee shall be four years. 

b. The chairman shall be a retired justice of the Supreme Court who shall be appointed by the President (Chief Justice) of the Supreme Court upon the approval of the Minister of Justice, and the other members shall be: a retired Minister of Justice or retired Attorney General appointed by the government; a Knesset Member elected by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset; a scholar elected by a forum comprising deans of law schools; an attorney elected by the Israel Bar Association. 

c. The AGI term duration shall be six years, with no extension, irrespective of the term of the government. 

d. The government may remove the AGI from his position due to specific reasons.… These reasons include, in addition to personal circumstances of the AGI, disagreements between the AGI and the government that prevent efficient cooperation. In such an event the selection committee shall convene to discuss the subject and shall submit its opinion to the government, in writing. However, the opinion of the committee is not binding, and the government may decide to remove the AGI contrary to the recommendation of the committee. The AGI shall have the right to a hearing before the government and before the committee. 

All of this makes for a reasonably independent office. Even if appointment and dismissal are still in the hands of the government, the screening and term provisions make it an arms-length relationship. The occupant of the post is obviously not a cabinet minister, as in the US, and is not a direct appointee of the head of government or the cabinet.

Worlds apart, institutionally.

And this is even before we get into the parliamentary vs. presidential distinction. A president is–for better or worse–meant to be hard to indict, let alone remove. That’s why the main tool against a potentially criminal executive in the US and many other presidential systems is lodged in the congress, through impeachment, and not in a state attorney. A prime minister in a parliamentary system, on the other hand, by definition has no presumption of a fixed term.

The normal way to get rid of a PM is, of course, a vote of no-confidence or the PM’s own party or coalition partners withdrawing support. But that’s the point–they are constitutionally not protected when the political winds, let alone the legals ones, turn against them.

In the broader institutional context of a parliamentary system, it is presumably much easier to take the step of also designing an independent Attorney General’s office that has the ability to indict a sitting head of government.

On the other hand, there is still no obvious way to remove Netanyahu from office any time soon, unless his own party rebels against him. Even though Trump’s own party will probably block the super-majority in the Senate needed to remove him from office*, the resolution of the case against Trump might happen considerably sooner than any resolution of Netanyahu’s case. Barring a rebellion by his current allies, Netanyahu may remain PM fore another 4-5 months, through a now-likely third election (since last April) and the post-election coalition bargaining process.

* Assuming the House majority impeaches him, which now looks all but inevitable.

UK MPs “plot” to do their job

As the expected “meaningful vote” on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement looms, and the legally mandated Brexit day (29 March) draws closer, it is worth thinking clearly about what the relationship is between the House of Commons and the executive in the UK system. As it happens, this is the week in my Ph.D. seminar on party and legislative organization in which we read a couple of items specifically about this relationship. Understanding the relationship is important if for no other reason than to inoculate oneself against headlines like this one in the Sunday Times yesterday:

Revealed: Commons plot to seize control from Theresa May ahead of Brexit vote

The print version even had a headline about a “coup”. It is bad enough when the newspapers and talking heads refer to a vote within a party on the continuance (or not) of its leader as a “coup”. It is just that much worse when the possibility of elected representatives taking back power from the executive is so branded.

To be clear, when a collective body to whom a leader (or other collective body) is responsible seeks to replace or diminish the authority of the latter, it is not a coup.

The specific potential actions that got the Times and “one senior figure” quoted therein so worked up is summarized as:

At least two groups of rebel MPs are plotting to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, upending the centuries-old relationship between executive and legislature.

Let’s be clear about something, shall we? The executive in a parliamentary democracy is an agent of the assembly, not vice versa. Thus if a majority of the House of Commons seeks to clip the wings of its agent, this is a principal acting as it should.

It is a separate question as to whether existing statutory law permits a change in control over the order of business, or whether statute first would have to be changed. That is, parliament may already have delegated away some of its rights to make day-to-day changes in business. If that is the case, these “rebel MPs” may be out of luck in the short term, and given the press of time (the Brexit deadline), the short term is rather important. Yet clearly they would have the right, under the structure of the political system, to make an effort to take back powers currently given to the executive.

A second critical point here is that the claim of a “centuries-old relationship” is just plain wrong. On this point, it is indeed helpful that I have just re-read Gary W. Cox’s masterful The Efficient Secret (1987), wherein the author traces exactly the process by which backbenchers relinquished their capacity for legislative initiative (and the emergence of an electoral connection between voters and the executive). The timeline provided by Cox makes clear that there was no single watershed date on which parliamentary power of initiative was abolished. More to the point of the preceding quote from the Times, Cox shows that this process of delegation took place in the middle of the 19th century. Thus we have something less that a “centuries-old” precedent, even if it is undoubtedly true that the executive generally has dominated the agenda of the House for quite a long time.

Cox also makes clear that this relinquishing of initiative did not take place without a fight–MPs regularly resisted efforts to centralize agenda power, but ultimately gave in because it served their own collective interests.

Of course, if a delegation of authority ceases at some moment to serve the collective interests of parliament, what has been delegated can be taken back. At least in principle, as again, if it requires statutory change rather than a procedural motion, it is somewhat more difficult to pull off.

Nonetheless, the governing Conservative Party (which is in a minority in the House) is evidently worried. Today in the House proceedings, there was a series of Points of Order, including several raised by Conservative MPs about scenarios like those sketched by the Times. The exchange is worth watching, at least for those of us interested in parliamentary procedure and executive-legisaltive relations. The exchanges run just over 16 minutes, from around 18:11 (when Prime Minister May answers her last question about her earlier statement to the House) to 18:27 (the last response by the Speaker to the various Points or Order).

The Speaker indicates in one of his responses (to Charlie Elphicke) that it is indeed his understanding that a “statutory instrument” currently can be raised only by a Minister of the Crown. Nonetheless, the next MP to raise a Point of Order (Nigel Huddleston) asks the Speaker to clarify whether MPs are indeed equal, with full access to information about any changes of procedure. (This is a pretty remarkable question!) Then in response to the final Point of Order of the exchange (Matt Warman, who says his constituents have raised doubts about the role of the Speaker), the Speaker says he will defend the rights of the House against “agents of the executive branch”.

Today’s discussion comes against a backdrop of a claim by hardline Brexiteer Tories that the Speaker upended some precedent on procedures in December and again just last week. The issues in question concern what the House can do if, as widely expected, the meaningful vote results in parliamentary defeat of the withdrawal agreement.

The upshot of all this is that the House is not quite as weak as it is often portrayed, and it may be prepared to reassert itself. As Ed Miliband stated in an intervention in today’s debates, the executive works on behalf of the parliament. It may be something that gets forgotten at times, especially by journalists and taking heads. But it is a basic fact of parliamentary democracy.

It is not only journalists and talking heads who forget about the importance of parliament. It is also academics, as another book on my seminar reading list for this week notes. Meg Russel and Daniel Gover’s Legislation at Westminster (2017) offers a much welcome corrective to the mainstream understanding. They push against the “parliamentary decline thesis” and offer a rich analysis, both quantitative and qualitative, of how parliament (both chambers) actually has substantial influence on legislative output. Some of this influence is due to relatively recent changes in parliamentary organization (e.g., changes in the 1970s to institutionalize the select committee system). Again, this serves as a reminder that “precedent” that gives a dominant role to the executive comes with all sorts of caveats, and is subject to occasional rebalancing. In any case, it is not a “centuries-old” precedent, but rather more recent. And it could be that Brexit is showing that it is rather fragile, too.

We may be witnessing a reassertion by the House of its rightful role in determining what course of action its agent, the executive, shall follow.

Spill time?

So, who is the PM of Australia at the moment? It’s getting interesting. Again.

Second and third questions: What is the origin of the term, spill, to refer to an intra-party leadership challenge? Is Australia the only country where this term is used?

And for some comparative data context, see this planting from 2010.

There also has been an ongoing conversation about the current case at a planting from 2015. This topic of spills really overflows down under.

Turkey, 2018: Unusual alliance behavior

On 24 June, Turkey has concurrent presidential and assembly elections. These will usher in the new constitution, under which Turkey becomes a presidential system. (The current system is premier-presidential, having changed from parliamentary with the adoption of direct presidential elections.)

The election was called earlier than necessary in an attempt by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to catch the opposition unprepared. However, unexpectedly, several opposition parties have assembled joint lists an alliance (see clarification below) to contest the assembly elections. Polling suggests that they could win a majority.

The coalition behavior of the opposition is unusual in that it features parties running in a pre-election coalition for assembly elections while running separately for a concurrent presidential election. I know of few cases of major parties behaving this way. It makes sense, however, in that Turkey’s 10% nationwide threshold for assembly seats makes for potentially high disproportionality (so much so that I questioned whether it was “democratic” several years before the crackdown that followed the attempted coup). On the other hand, the presidency is elected by two-round majority, meaning first-round divisions do not necessarily prevent a group of parties eventually getting one of their own elected. (See Chile 2005 for another example of such unusual alliance behavior.; also Taiwan 2012.)

The Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), which counts on Kurdish support, is running separately. It cleared the threshold in both elections of 2015 (a, b), and may do so again.

______________

Zeynep Somer-Topcu clarifies, regarding the assembly alliances:

Ballot had each party and then a larger box for the alliance. You could just stamp anywhere within the box for alliance (if no party preference). Threshold applies to alliance but each party’s MPs enter based on their parties’ vote shares once alliance passes threshold.

(via Twitter, presented here with her OK)

I think it is quite unusual for alliances to work this way, allowing vote pooling across separate lists to help drag smaller parties over a threshold.

Italy “coalition of populists” back on

If Spain this week has shown parliamentary democracy working at its “constructive” best, what can we say about Italy? After it seemed earlier in the week as if an interim “non-political” government would be formed to lead the country until early elections, now the seemingly aborted coalition of “populist” parties is back on.

The president has approved Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and a cabinet consisting of ministers selected by the Lega and M5s parties.

Aside from what a topsy-turvy week it was, and from the perils of this combination of parties governing, a notable feature of the government the Prime Minister is not actually the head of either party in the coalition. (Each party head will be a Deputy PM and hold other portfolios as well.) I will have to remember to insert the word “usually” into my lectures when I say that in a parliamentary democracy, the PM is the head of one of the parties in parliament. Of course, this is not totally unprecedented in parliamentary democracies, but it is indeed not usual.

I invite the creation of a list of PMs who are not a party head in parliamentary democracies, excluding cases of caretakers or “technical” governments appointed for an interim period (like the one Italy seemed earlier in the week to be getting). Manmohan Singh in a Congress-led government of India in the recent past comes immediately to mind.

Spain, constructively

Earlier today, the Spanish parliament (specifically, the first chamber, known as the Congress) voted to replace Mariano Rajoy (Popular Party) as prime minister with Pedro Sánchez (Socialist). This is the first case of a “constructive” vote of no confidence under Spain’s constitution.

The constructive vote requires an opposition motion proposing removal of the prime minister and cabinet to state who the new prime minister would be. If the motion receives a majority in favor, the proposed replacement takes office, without need of a further investiture vote. Germany and a few other countries have similar provisions.

The vote was 180-169 in the 350-seat chamber. The farther-left Podemos and several regional parties voted in favor, while the Ciudadanos voted with the Rajoy government.

It is remarkable in that the Socialists won just 24% of the seats in the most recent (2016) election. Thus the new government will be a rather extreme minority government. (I am assuming no coalition partners will be brought into the cabinet.)

This is the system working exactly as intended. In fact, I would call this an example of parliamentary government at its best. The now-ousted government was itself a minority government, and it received only a plurality of members (170) voting in favor of its investiture when it was formed (thanks to 68 deputies abstaining). The replacement has now received, as required by the constitution, a majority. This combination of provisions makes it relatively easy* to form a minority government when the bargaining situation in parliament is difficult, as it was following the 2016 election. Yet such a government, once formed, will be quite stable because it is more difficult to vote it out than if no-confidence votes required only a negative vote against the incumbent (with its replacement to be subject to subsequent bargaining).

The new government surely will not have an easy time passing policy. It is not required to pass a new budget, nor does failure to pass a budget necessarily require a government to resign in Spain–another stability-enhancing mechanism. It seems likely that an election will come earlier than the end of a full term (2020), however. In the meantime, it is probably stable in the sense of not likely to be removed by parliament, given that such a vote would require a new majority to prefer someone else as leader.



* “Easy” here does not mean it might not take quite some time, just that it is not required to get parties comprising a majority to give the government an affirmative mandate. In fact, Rajoy’s minority government was approved just over four months after the June, 2016, election.

President of South Korea announces constitutional reform proposal

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced his support for amending the South Korean Constitution to allow presidents to serve two four-year terms, instead of the current non-renewable five-year term. Moon, of course, came to office following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, who became embroiled in a corruption scandal at the end of her non-renewable term: a similar fate befell her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who was recently arrested for a wide range of corruption charges.

Presumably, the idea behind this proposal is that it will encourage presidents to improve their behaviour at the end of their terms, given that they will be entitled to seek re-election. The proposal would also mean that members of the National Assembly would serve terms of the same lengths as the President, although elections to the two offices would not become concurrent–indeed, given that Moon’s term expires in 2022, and that the National Assembly’s term expires in 2020, it would shift South Korea to having legislative elections consistently in the middle of presidential terms.

The proposal has a number of other features. The Prime Minister will no longer be expected to act “under order of the President”, the voting age will be lowered from 19 to 18, and the President is no longer able to appoint the head of the Constitutional Court. However, there would appear to be no change in how the Prime Minister is appointed or removed: the Assembly can only pass a motion recommending that the PM or a minister may be removed, which both Samuels and Shugart (2010) and Robert Elgie have interpreted as not being sufficient for semi-presidentialism. The Prime Minister will also remain nominated only by the President (subject to Assembly confirmation).

Passage of the amendments requires approval of two-thirds of the National Assembly and majority support at a referendum with a majority turnout threshold. Moon’s Democratic Party only holds 121 seats in the 300-member assembly, and the opposition right-wing Liberty Korea Party holds 116, giving that party veto power over any potential amendment. That party appears to oppose the amendment proposal, instead apparently supporting a switch to semi-presidentialism, although the Democratic Party could block that. Moon’s proposal has greater public support, although the vast majority of the electorate support at least some change.