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Veronica Anghel: a directly elected president may not be the best choice of structural reform

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PHOTO: Erakogu

Dear Estonia, it’s been one month since your successful presidential elections and three since your first attempt of August 29th. It was a challenge that gave you the right to voice frustration with a system that made you just as much of an observer as any foreigner.

Some of you want to see this changed. But if you think the election of your president by the parliament was a messy institutional set up, blurring it even more by converting from a parliamentary to a semi-presidential system in which you popularly elect a president would hardly make you happier.

Why all the drama?

To begin with, from a legal point of view, such a reform would not make as much of a clarifying difference as you would expect. Sure, you will have a direct say in choosing your president, but what does that amount to? Significant structural change comes with a decision to give major powers to the president alone, independent from the legislative. Examples of such “presidential regimes” are not found in the EU. For some hints at the difference, think about most of the Latin American countries, the USA, former members of the USSR (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan etc.) and African countries (Rep. of Congo, Ghana etc). A switch from a parliamentary to a presidential republic is an unlikely scenario for a modern European democracy such as Estonia and will not find its way into your debates of Constitutional reform. Deciding to have a popularly elected president would place you among countries such as Austria, France, Finland, Poland, Ireland, Ukraine, Russia, Romania etc.

As a result, your expectations for change should be quite moderate. As a parliamentary democracy, your president now has no real executive, but mostly formal powers. S/he mainly represents the state internationally, by coordinating activities with the government; s/he promulgates the national legislation at the parliament’s proposal and has the option to once return them to parliament and once to contest them in the Constitutional Court; s/he declares parliamentary elections; s/he formally accepts the election of a prime minister by the parliament and, under special circumstances, proposes amendments to the Constitution. Making a brief comparison to Romania, where the president is directly elected, you will not, in fact, see a remarkable difference. S/he is limited in opposing laws or proposals for ministers or prime ministers to once or twice.  S/he represents the country internationally, but to have any significant decision enacted on this front is subject to either the will of the government (if for nothing else but financial reasons) or the vote of the parliament. In matters related to national defence, s/he may head the Supreme Council for National Defence, but cannot take any decision as an individual. Even as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, there is still a parliamentary vote required for even partial mobilisation of the army. The key words remain “political consensus”.

The real change, however, is the increased authority of the president – who can claim the legitimacy of a nationwide vote, making him or her yet another significant competitor in the political game. At the same time, the parliament, with all its potential fragmentation, remains the most powerful and final decision maker. And if you were disappointed with the lack of consensus stemming from political scheming and shifting loyalties in the legislative for the election of your president, keep that sort of atmosphere in mind for the election of the prime minister and for negotiations for coalition governments (with which you are also familiar) and add to it the potential of disunity between the issuing government and the popularly elected president. We call these “happy times” in the political history of these countries cohabitation.

Parties would still run the show

While a defective cohabitation is, overall, a less often seen ugly cousin of “consensually united elites” that are at the basis of a healthy democracy, this can be one of the results of a dual legitimacy of executive power split between a directly elected president and a directly elected parliament. Romania marked, perhaps, the extreme end of this scale of political conflict in Europe. The country saw tensions running so high between a parliamentary supported prime minister and a directly elected president, that in 2012 the two were close to going at the same time, in different planes, to attend the European Council and fight over who gets to sit there. President Traian Băsescu was impeached twice after negotiations between parties in the parliament led to a change of political loyalties. If some of you voiced concerns about the time and financial resources that had been wasted during the five months of electoral campaign for a rather formal seat in the architecture of the Estonian state, imagine by comparison the cost of two referenda and political campaigning alone, on top of every other cost due to long institutional deadlocks.

Exception, you might say. But is it really? Increasing fragmentation of party systems and the inability to reach political consensus is a reality all throughout Europe. The informal authority of a directly elected president, which is believed to act in the spirit of mediation between parties in conflict, can easily backfire and create a new pole of competition. And even if it doesn’t, you might be disappointed to see that after lengthy debates and investments in the structural reform of the state, you will find yourself in the same place: parliamentary parties still run the political show. Popularly electing a president may sound like a simple way to avoid political drama in the short run, but it has implications for the running of the state that you might as well consider living without.

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