The Polish president’s veto

Polish President Andrzej Duda has exercised his veto against two of the government’s bills to change the appointment of judges. Media accounts are treating this action as a “surprise”, but it really should not be seen as such. Both the government (premier and cabinet) and the president (directly elected) are of the same party, Law and Justice (PiS), yet the institutional dynamics make the action unsurprising.

First of all, such a possibility was signaled by the president on 18 July. Secondly, the theory of presidentialized parties (Samuels and Shugart, 2010) should make presidential action against their own governing party’s controversial decisions the default expectation. That is, the institutions “predict” such actions, and it is politics that sometimes intervenes and prevents the president from acting on his or her independent mandate. In this case, the institutions prevailed.

Duda is not the leader of the party in the sense of who holds the formal organizational title; that would be Jarosław Kaczyński, a former premier. But that fact only makes today’s veto by the Polish president an even better case for demonstrating the power of the argument. The fundamental point of my book with Samuels is that parties face a “moral hazard” problem under presidentailism, due to separate survival (fixed terms). Once a presidential candidate has won the election (separate origin), he is no longer an agent of the party. He now has (potential) incentive to respond to his wider constituency and head-of-state obligations, even when those might conflict with the party that nominated him. He is secure in his fixed term against efforts by the party to restrain him, unlike a prime minister (who, by definition, can be dismissed by the assembly majority or by the party).

One manifestation of presidentialization of parties can be the reversal of the principal-agent relationship, such that the president redirects his own party, making it his agent, rather than the other way around. But–we point out in the book–this is only one possibility. Another is that the president and the party face conflict–an intraparty separation of powers.

The latter seems to be the case here. I heard a BBC interview earlier this morning with an official of the PiS party. He slammed the president for going against the party’s manifesto, and said that the government (which is a single party, with a majority) should be allowed to implement its promises, including judicial reform. The statement overlooks a key institutional fact: Poland is not parliamentary, but semi-presidential. The president is freed from the manifesto by virtue of his separation of origin and survival–that is, his independent election and fixed term.

Duda received significantly more votes in winning the presidency (in a two-round election) than the PiS earned in winning its parliamentary majority. The governing party’s majority is manufactured by the electoral system (details in my earlier entry), whereas Duda’s was earned in the two-candidate runoff. In addition to the electoral system, the PiS surely owes its being in the position to gain that assembly majority from Duda–or, specifically to its own election in the “honeymoon” of Duda (again, see the earlier entry for details).

I do not know if the issue of judicial reform was raised in his own election campaign, but the wider point is that it hardly matters. He has the institutional capacity to act independently, and he did. He has the constitutional power of veto, and he exercised it.

For better or worse, this is how presidentialism (including semi-) is supposed to work. As a head of state (who must deal with other governments unhappy with Polish plans) and with a wider popular constituency (with many Poles in the streets over this issue), and protected by the fixed term, the president can act against the will of the government and its own parliamentary majority.

The veto takes a three-fifths vote of parliament to override, and the PiS is far short of this threshold. Unless it can bring other parties around to this bill, the president’s veto will stand. What this might mean for Duda and his relationship with his party is not for me to predict. But, based on the theory of presidentialized parties, what has happened today is far from surprising; it is predictable.

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Poland’s protests–and institutions

Protests in Poland have been making international news. The object of the protests is the government’s plans to undermine the independence of the judiciary. The case illustrates several important points about how political institutions affect policy (and can have potential international repercussions). The escalation of the crisis over these plans in recent days makes the decision some months ago to lead with Poland’s 2015 elections and their aftermath in the forthcoming Votes from Seats look like a good one.

We (Rein Taagepera and I) use the case to demonstrate how seemingly small institutional details can tip outcomes in favor of a party with a strong agenda that might undermine democracy itself. (Yes, the very first example mentioned in the book is the US presidential election of 2016.)

The background is that the Polish ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) has a majority of seats in the first chamber of the assembly (the Sejm). PiS also holds the presidency. It has a manufactured majority, despite the use of a proportional representation system. In fact, the party won only 37.6% of the votes. This would place the assembly majority on the short list of lowest vote percentages ever turned into a majority by a “proportional” electoral system. Moreover, it was a “honeymoon” election–the assembly was elected about six months after the president.

The manufactured majority was possible due to several factors. One is the use of D’Hondt divisors, which tend to boost the largest party’s overrepresentation, especially when it has a strong lead in votes over the runner up (in this case, Citizen’s Platform, with 24.1%). It is also due to the legal thresholds: 5% for a party and 8% for a pre-electoral alliance. This resulted in substantial wasted votes, particularly with the Democratic Left running as an alliance and getting 7.6% of the vote. Had it become a “party” it would have been represented, and the PiS surely would not have won a majority of seats. Or, obviously, had the alliance won just over 0.4% more votes, it would have won seats.

However, the 37.6% itself did not come in a vacuum. As noted, this was a honeymoon election: it was six months after the election of the president to a five year term. Based on a formula (purely empirical, but based on theory) in Votes from Seats, we expect an election with 10% of the presidential inter-electoral period elapsed to result in a modest boost for the newly elected president’s party. The formula (shown in an earlier post on the French 2017 elections) suggests what we can expect for the party’s assembly votes, expressed as a ratio to the president’s own votes (in the first round if a runoff system). We call that ratio the “presidential ratio” or RP. For elapsed time of 10%, we expect RP=1.13. Given that the president, Andrzej Duda, had earned 24.8% of the vote, we’d expect the party to get 39.3%. This is barely over what it actually got (37.6%). So, yes, honeymoon elections matter. (By comparison, PiS had 29.9% in the previous assembly election, in 2011.)

It was not even a sure thing that it would be the PiS that would benefit from the honeymoon boost. First it had to win the runoff, and it did so quite narrowly (51.8% to 48.4%).

So, the current crisis could have been averted, most likely, if any one of the following had been true, thereby preventing the PiS majority government:

(1) Duda had lost the runoff;

(2) The assembly election had not been scheduled so soon after the presidential;

(3) The electoral formula was some common proportional method other than D’Hondt;

(4) There was not a high threshold for alliances, or the Left had made itself into one party (or gotten just a small increase in its votes).

So, yes, institutions do matter!

And institutions may yet matter one other way to this story, and in a way relevant to a couple of my earlier co-authored books. The president has a veto that takes 3/5 to override, and Duda has indicated opposition to his own party’s proposals on the judiciary.  He may veto it. Presidents, after all, may help their parties gain power, but they are not beholden to them once in office. Under Poland’s semi-presidential system, the president and prime minister may disagree, even when from the same party. So the story may have at least one other act yet to come.

More parliamentarism in Central Asia

The Venice Commission has published an generally positive opinion on the Georgian government’s proposal for constitutional reforms. The reforms were proposed after the governing Georgian Dream party won 115 seats in the 150 member legislature in elections, slightly more than the three-quarters majority required to amend the document.

Specifically, the amendments propose repealing direct elections to the Presidency, replacing it with election by a 300-member electoral college composed of members of the national legislature and local councillors. In addition, most of the powers of the Presidency are stripped. This creates a parliamentary system, with a Prime Minister only removable through a constructive vote of no confidence.

The previously unicameral legislature will be replaced, nominally, with a bicameral legislature, comprised of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. However, the Senate specifically includes members elected from Abkhazia, currently under the control of a separatist government, and is only to be created after “appropriate conditions have been created throughout the territory of Georgia”. This would seem to imply that the chamber can only be created when Abkhazia returns to government control, and the Venice Commission’s report confirms that they understand its creation will be delayed.

In addition, there are changes to the electoral law. The existing mixed-member majoritarian system with a roughly even split between single-member constituencies elected using the two-round system and party-list PR with a 5% threshold will be replaced with a system of list PR only, still with a 5% threshold. While there is little elaboration, the document does specify that seats shall be allocated by the Hare quota, but instead of allocating seats by largest remainders, all remaining seats are allocated to the largest party (a method used in Greece in one of their endless electoral system changes).

The change bears some resemblance to the relatively recent amendments in Armenia. Like Georgia, a semi-presidential system with a legislature elected with a mixed-member system transitioned into a parliamentary one with a legislature elected under a list system with a bonus (though Armenia’s bonus is somewhat more elaborate, and guarantees a majority government in one form or another). While drawing broad conclusions off two examples is obviously bound to be, these two results may suggest that there is a shift away from politics centred around an all-powerful directly elected presidency, and towards more party-based politics.

A more tenuous argument along these lines could be made in relation to the electoral system. In both cases (along with Kyrgyzstan, which actually moved from single-member districts to MMM to party list), a system in which individual candidates were an important part of legislative elections (especially in the years shortly after independence) has been replaced by a system in which parties are the dominant actors. On the other hand, the pendulum has moved the other way elsewhere in the region, in Russia and the Ukraine.

The President, though endorsed by the Georgian Dream party at the 2013 election, does not appear to have been overly enthusiastic about the landslide victory. The Venice Commission did express some concerns about the power of a government with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, but that seems less likely in Georgia than in Armenia, owing to the more proportional system.

Turkey: referendum post-mortem

As most are undoubtedly aware by now, the package of constitutional amendments proposed by Turkey’s government passed narrowly in the referendum two weeks ago.

I feel like my first post on the subject did not adequately cover the already deeply authoritarian background in which the referendum took place. Freedom of speech and the press have never been fully established in Turkey, and their suppression has worsened over the last decade. Moreover, since AKP rose to power in 2002, the public sector has been subjected to repeated purges, and not just since last year’s failed coup. The referendum campaign itself was strongly affected by this, and the legitimacy of the outcome should certainly be questioned. Claire Berlinski writes[1]:

“The poll took place under a state of emergency. A third of the judiciary has been fired; some are still in jail. Three members of the Supreme Election Board are in prison, too. It’s possible that they’re mostly Gülenist coup-plotters as charged, and possible that jail is exactly where they ought to be, but this doesn’t obviate the point: Nothing like an independent judiciary buttressed this referendum. In some cases, authorities prevented “no” campaigners from holding rallies and events; those opposing the motion were tear-gassed (of course), and prohibited from carrying signs or assembling, or even beaten or shot at. The “yes” campaign received vastly more publicity; its supporters were given hundreds of hours on television stations. Opponents, almost none…

Hundreds of election observers were barred from doing their jobs, and at the last minute, the election board changed the standards required to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing. Many instances of voter fraud appear to have been captured clearly on camera. [my link]”

It is clear that many of these democratic deficits have existed for years now. Not just in terms of democratic rights or process, but also the constitutional checks and balances. As Berlinski argues, the referendum “merely legally formalized the longstanding de facto state of affairs”. Dissolution power, extensive decree powers, emergency powers – all existed already. The only difference was that they were mostly vested in the government. Under semi-presidentialism, president’s Erdogan’s position was already secure[2], but his power depended largely on being able to control the government.

In theory, under the semi-presidential system, AKP MPs (including the Prime Minister) could use their position to check the president’s power by scrutinizing the government and holding it to account. In practice, of course, they have little reason to do so. Therefore, the only situation in which the president (and the government) might be subject to meaningful check would be if the government ever lacked a majority in the Grand National Assembly – in extremis, this could have resulted in cohabitation, depriving Erdogan of control over the executive entirely.

My current theory is that AKP’s loss of its assembly majority in 2015a is what motivated Erdogan to seek a fully presidential system – completely eliminating the assembly’s confidence power over the government and vesting all executive power (plus decree powers) in the president and his agents. Now Erdogan will be secure in his position as president, as before, but his control over the executive will be secure too.

Therefore, despite this change to presidentialism (and earlier, semi-presidentialism), this democratic breakdown comes in the ‘parliamentarism’ column. Was it something inherent in parliamentarism that made, or allowed it to happen? Probably not. All else being equal, things could have easily followed much the same path.

What probably did make a difference, I think, is the electoral system – specifically the 10% threshold, which has a strong tendency to manufacture majorities[3]. At the 2002 election, the AKP came to power with a single-party majority gained off a mere 34.3% of the vote. Admittedly, at every election since (except 2015a), the AKP received more than 46% of the vote, vote shares which would have granted it majorities even in most proportional systems. But I wonder whether, under a truly proportional system for the assembly[4]:

  1. Fewer voters would have voted strategically for AKP (at the 2007, 2011, and 2015b elections), instead voting for other parties which would have been viable as a result of the lower threshold; and/or
  2. Lacking a majority from 2002 through 2007 would have prevented AKP from accruing an incumbency advantage (of any kind – democratic or not) at the 2007 election (assuming it would still have managed to form the government).

If either were true (and both seem likely to me), it is considerably more difficult to see how the party would have managed to undermine democracy and usurp power in the way it has. Without a majority, the other parties would have been able to check AKP’s consolidation of power, it would have been much more difficult for the party to change the constitution to introduce direct presidential elections (2007) or undermine the independence of the judiciary (2010), and it would have been difficult for it to force through its own choice of president in 2007. Even if the above propositions were not true, proportional representation and a multi-party legislature[5] would undoubtedly have delayed the erosion.


[1] I strongly recommend Berlinski’s account of the decline of Turkey’s democracy since 2002 (and the atrocious western response), Guilty Men: How Democracies Die.

[2] Meaning, he cannot be removed by majority vote in the assembly or by his party.

[3] Though I do not think this feature is inherently undemocratic, majoritarianism is problematic (especially in young democracies). If it is included in a system, it should always be balanced out by countervailing checks such as strong bicameralism and a well-entrenched constitution.

[4] At a minimum, this would mean a threshold reduction from the current 10% to 5%, ceteris paribus.

[5] Or a powerful upper house elected by proportional representation, especially with non-concurrent and/or staggered elections.

So much for fixed terms

Barring a further unexpected turn of events, it seems the UK government has an answer to the question of whether an early election can be called, despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. [Update: the measure to call the election has passed.]

Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated that she wants a snap election. In May, of course–Alas, no, it is actually on 8 June.

Under the FTPA, parliament can be dissolved early only if (1) the government loses confidence and a resolution of confidence in a government (whether the original or a new one) is not passed within 14 days, or (2) the House of Commons votes by two-thirds of its total number to dissolve itself.

May is seeking the latter, and with opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying he “welcomes” an election, the vote is likely to go ahead.

May’s Conservatives have a narrow majority in the current Commons. The snap election is likely to give the party a much bigger one. This may not do much to strengthen the government’s hand with the EU in Brexit negotiations (the ostensible justification), but it should strengthen its hand against its own back-benchers.

Recommended: Alan Renwick’s take.

Turkey referendum: Latin Americanization on the road to autocracy

Turkey will go to the polls on April 16th, to vote on a set of constitutional amendments which would change the country’s system of government to presidentialism. Though it seems that in Turkey, the current system is generally referred to as ‘parliamentary’, Turkey has actually been semi-presidential (specifically, premier-presidential) since the country’s first direct presidential election was held in 2014.

The amendments passed the three-fifths legislative majority necessary to put them to referendum with support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Introducing presidentialism has long been president Erdogan’s express wish. The idea has apparently been around in Turkish politics for a while before it was adopted by the Erdogan and his party, AKP. Full presidentialism seems to have been ‘plan A’, so introducing semi-presidentialism (passed in 2007, entering operation in 2014) was perhaps only ever meant as a way-station toward this goal.

The main details of the amendments are as follows:

  1. Establishing presidentialism:

As stated above the president is already elected directly, specifically using a two-round system. The president is to become both head of state and head of government, with the power to appoint and fire ministers and the vice president. There is no requirement for the Grand National Assembly to confirm appointments. Executive office is incompatible with assembly membership. Interpolation of ministers is to be removed from the constitution, leaving MPs with written questions.

  1. Legislative powers:

The president is to have veto power over legislation, subject to absolute majority override in the assembly. He is to have the power to issue decrees in “matters concerning the executive power” and regulations “to provide for the enforcement of the laws, provided they are not contrary to them”. These cannot affect fundamental rights, except under a state of emergency; an emergency can be declared by the president without confirmation by the assembly, but the latter must be notified immediately and can shorten or end it at any time. These decree powers are essentially the same as those currently held by the cabinet. The president would also dominate the budgetary process: the complete budget is to be proposed by the president and put to a straight up-or-down vote in the assembly without possibility of amendment, with failure to adopt a budget within a timeframe leading to continuation of previous arrangements.

  1. Term lengths and dissolution power:

The assembly’s term in extended to five years (from the current four) and legislative and presidential elections are to be held concurrently. If the presidency becomes vacant, fresh presidential elections must be held. If parliamentary elections are due within less than a year, then they too are held on the same day as early presidential elections; if the parliament has over a year left before its term expires, the newly elected president serves until the end of the parliamentary term, after which presidential and parliamentary election cycles are held concurrently again.

The president is to be limited to being elected twice, but there are some exceptions, the first of which is that a mid-term vacancy-filling election doesn’t count towards the total. The current presidential power to dissolve the assembly is retained, in addition to a new clause which enables the assembly to dissolve itself, by three-fifths majority vote – in either case, fresh elections are held for both president and assembly, who serve new five-year terms. Early concurrent elections triggered by the assembly can always be contested by the president.

  1. Impeachment

The president or any member of the executive is indicted by two-thirds majority in the assembly (upon which many powers, including dissolution, are suspended), which takes the decision on removal to the Supreme Court. A president which has thus been removed is ineligible for re-election.

  1. Judiciary

The acts of the president, previously protected, are now to be subject to judicial review. The structure of the judiciary will not change much – with the role of the president in appointments remaining quite strong. Of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the president is to appoint 6 and the assembly is to appoint 7 (4 of whom must be judges from the highest courts) – for renewable four-year terms. The Council appoints most (two-thirds to three-quarters) of the judges of each of the highest courts, with the rest being appointed by the president directly.

According to the BBC, Erdogan claims that the new system will ‘resemble those in France and the US’. There is clearly little truth to this. First of all, France is semi-presidential, specifically the premier-presidential variant. This means that the prime minister, while appointed by the president, can formally only be removed by the assembly – in other words, what Turkey has now. These amendments would outright abolish the prime ministership and parliamentary responsibility, granting the president (already in a position to play a dominant role in the country’s government) absolute control over the executive branch.

Does that mean that the new system will essentially be the same as the US? Not really. Presidential or not, the proposed system includes numerous features bearing little resemblance the American model of checks and balances. The amendments would invest the Turkish president with extensive constitutional decree powers, allow him to all but dictate the budget, but on the other hand leave him with a substantially weaker veto than the US. The absence of assembly confirmation vote for ministers, not to mention presidential dissolution power, are also alien to the US constitution. Overall, the proposed institutional framework is to bear far greater resemblance to past and present constitutions of Latin America, where assembly confirmation is non-existent, emergency and decree powers are common, while some of the other institutions in question have featured occasionally, e.g. presidential dissolution power (Ecuador, formerly Chile and Argentina) and weaker veto (Brazil, formerly Venezuela).

In any case, the proposed amendments represent an immense consolidation of power in the hands of president Erdogan. It would probably allow him to serve beyond the supposed limit of two five-year terms. Judicial appointments involve a somewhat greater degree of presidential influence over a judiciary that has already lost a great deal of independence in recent years. Judicial review, needless to say, will not amount to much. Furthermore, the requirement for judicial ratification may leave impeachment ultimately toothless even in the unlikely event that the requisite majority were achieved in the assembly. Meanwhile, the weak veto and the assembly’s own (weaker) power to call early elections is unlikely to provide much balance in practice. Though dissolution would entail new elections for both president and assembly, a president armed with the power to dissolve the assembly still seems more likely to have the upper hand in the exceptional situation his party ever lacks a majority there – exceptional because of the country’s majoritarian system, and because the president’s very power of calling early elections enables him to do so opportunistically, as Erdogan did in 2015[1].

The Venice Commission’s report characterises the proposed changes as “a dangerous step backwards” for democracy in Turkey. It certainly feels hard to disagree.


[1] One might add (as the Venice Commission does) the fact that elections will be concurrent, which is certainly true, though, as we have recently seen, it’s certainly possible (though still uncommon) for countries to elect a president in the second round that was not of the legislative majority elected concurrently with the first round (e.g. Argentina, Peru), while more generally, two-round systems cause vote fragmentation in the first round. If elections in Turkey remain competitive, it may be that the two round system will, in the long run, cause fragmentation which will spread to the assembly. Perhaps more likely is that once in a while, the concurrent elections could result in divided government as in the first scenario I mention here. A situation like that might provoke Linzian scenarios, but is probably most likely to simply result in early elections at some point, whose outcome would most likely be a reversion to the regular unified control.

Brazil: President ousted by Senate

As expected, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been ousted by a vote of the Senate following her impeachment trial.

Not much time for blogging right now (as has been the case for a while–obviously), but a few quick observations follow.

I said at the time that she needed to lose her reelection bid; it was quite close. While some folks are looking at this and saying it shows why Brazil should have adopted a parliamentary system, I actually think presidentialism serves Brazil pretty well. I admit it is harder (again) to make that case this year.

Another way of stating my point is that the PT was quite good for Brazil for 12 years. The PT needed presidentialism to make it into power. And, no, I know I am not supposed to evaluate a regime type based on who wins (although I liked presidentialism here better as soon as Obama won!). But I really think parliamentartism in Brazil would be an ugly mess; the PT is one of the few major parties that is at all programmatic. And it probably would have been consigned to permanent opposition under a parliamentary regime, with shifting coalitions based on particularism and cronyism and not much on policy responsibility.

In any case, actual parliamentarism was never really on the table in the period following military rule, as far as I know. Back in the 1980s when the current constitution was drafted, what was called the “parliamentary” option actually was semi-presidential. And that might not be such a bad option for Brazil, but given the nature of the party system, it would still likely lean pretty strongly presidential, more-or-less regardless of the formal powers.

Of all the news stories I pulled up in searching on this, I noticed that most of them said that the Brazilian Senate had “impeached” the president today. As I understand that term, no, she was impeached already by the Chamber. The term means to bring charges, after all. Today she was convicted and removed.

And, no, it is not a “coup”. This follows the constitutional procedures. Whether the charges are “valid” or not is a separate question; the constitutional bodies with the responsibility in such cases said they were.

Some have said it is a bad precedent. The main precedent is it’s really bad to fail to retain even one third of the legislators’ backing, even if you have a “fixed” term.