Another lesson for direct-election republicans

The other day, when I posted about Macedonia’s constitutional crisis, I introduced it on my Facebook page by saying, “Another president who thinks that being directly elected entitles him to follow his own political interests rather than his constitutional duty. Why did anyone ever listen to Peter Reith?”

Background for the young and the non-Australians: Peter Reith was a senior minister in 1999 when Australia held a referendum on moving to a republic. (He retired not long after, but is now running for president of the Victorian Liberal Party.) Polls showed that the majority favored a republic, but there was division as to which model to adopt. Reith was the spokesman for those who supported a “no” vote because they would not accept anything less than direct election of a president.

The referendum, which would have provided for an appointed president, was defeated. Despite the promises of Reith and his supporters, no alternative version was ever proposed and the issue was allowed to die.

So what has this got to do with Macedonia? Well, Macedonia does have an elected president, and, like many of the type, he seems to have inflated ideas of his own constitutional importance. His refusal to designate as prime minister the leader who has the support of a parliamentary majority is a gross breach of the rules of responsible government.

There are basically three views one might hold on how to appoint a president in a parliamentary system:

  1.  direct election is clearly the way to go;
  2.  indirect election is clearly the way to go; or
  3.  it doesn’t make much difference either way.

At the time of the 1999 referendum I held to 3. I have since changed my mind and would now subscribe to 2.

Of the 28 members of the European Union, seven are constitutional monarchies. Another five have presidential (Cyprus) or semi-presidential (France, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania) systems.* The remaining 16 combine a parliamentary system of responsible government with a president as ceremonial head of state.

In nine, the president is directly elected: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Finland, Ireland, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The other seven use some form of indirect election, usually by parliament: Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia and Malta.

Looking at the two lists, it’s hard to argue that either has a big advantage in terms of stable democracy. But the danger of a president deciding to behave like a politician instead of a neutral arbiter seems to arise only in the direct-election systems. It has been an issue, or at least a real threat of one, in at least Austria, Croatia, Czechia and Slovakia. Macedonia has now demonstrated the problem with particular clarity.

The introduction of direct election sometimes seems to work as a sort of Trojan horse for a shift towards a semi-presidential or presidential system: certainly the first Czech direct election produced a president with ambitions in that direction. And outside the EU, Turkey’s directly-elected president certainly threatens the abolition of parliamentary government, if not of democracy itself.

The danger the other way is supposed to be that an indirectly-elected president will lack the authority to exercise their powers when they are needed, and will become just a cipher for those in power. And looking down the indirect-election list it’s easy enough to find cases where a president with a bit more oomph might have been very useful in knocking a few heads together – Italy would be an obvious example.

Trouble is, there’s no real evidence that direct election does this. In Hungary, for example, an indirectly-elected president has failed to halt the country’s slide towards authoritarianism. But his directly-elected counterpart in Poland has done equally little – which is not surprising, since he was elected as a loyal member of what is now the ruling party.

So it seems we’re comparing the theoretical danger of a presidency with not enough status with the very real danger of a presidency with too much. That suggests that indirect election is the safer choice. If the issue ever forces its way back onto the agenda in Australia, let’s hope the European experience is not ignored.


* I’m using Wikipedia’s classification for convenience. The line between semi-presidential and parliamentary systems is not precise – Portugal, Croatia and Finland would be debatable cases – but this does not affect the argument.


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