Have you ever thought about that exalted position of head of state? If you did, and tried to describe the position of a president, you may find some difficulty.
Yes, it is the head of state who without exception lives in beautiful premises, sometimes even palaces. State functions take place there and visiting statesmen and their wives are hosted at exquisite banquets, to which the county’s high society are invited and turn up in their finery.
Sometimes, important political decisions emanate from a private tête-à-tête across a coffee table decorated with the national flag of the visitor’s country. Unless they follow it with a press conference, all we see is a photo of smiling faces shaking hands, even when sometimes serious disagreements hide behind the public façade.
But, there are differences in the system by which such men or women accede to the position of president. In France for instance, if no candidate gains 50% of the votes, a second round is organized between the two candidates with the highest numbers of votes. The candidate with the absolute majority of votes cast is then elected.
The term of office is five years and at end, the incumbent may stand just once more as candidate for election. Unlike in the United States, once the official campaign has begun, each candidate must have exactly the same amount of airtime on TV and radio, and there is also a strict limit on election expenditure.
In Germany, the election of the state president is even more complicated. He or she is elected by a federal convention that meets only every five years for that single purpose. It is comprised of all members of the Bundestag, the German parliament and an equal number of members elected by the parliaments of the 16 Länder, the counties. The number of representatives which the individual Länder may send to the federal convention is calculated based on the population of each Land. The term of five years can be renewed multiple times. The procedure is then similar to the French system.
In some democracies, the president is installed by parliamentary vote and renewable after every term. Israel’s president, until now only male, is elected by parliament for one non-renewable term of seven years. He has no political power, although his usual previous experience in government or executive positions does command influence. All these are semi-presidential systems with both a president and a prime minister who is responsible to parliament.
Then there are countries where the presidency changes by a coup d’etat, the forceful acquisition of power by a general or another dictatorial strongman, who hopes to remain the head of state for life. They then exercise sole rule with dictatorial powers. That method is particularly prevalent in Latin American countries. Some dictators have adapted to present themselves as civilians, organizing sham elections and creating make-believe democracies. Many poorer countries in the southern hemisphere are subjected to such systems.
In some true parliamentary democracies like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden, the head of state used to be a queen or king, who ruled with absolute power and an iron hand. Today, their head of state is still a monarch, but a figurehead to preside at state occasions, such as the opening of a new parliamentary session.
Quite a different and unusual system remains in the Russian Federation. Although there is a parliament, however, since the turn of the millennium, the position of president and prime minister alternated between several ministers on the one hand and Vladimir Putin. Since 2012, he has remained president and recently enacted a law that guarantees his position until 2036. The prime minister is subservient to the president, who effectively rules with dictatorial power.
So, in different countries the state president is in office for different terms and with different powers.
While on the subject of Putin, it is not possible to avoid comment on his war in Ukraine. There, the situation changes very fast, so that any assessment is almost out of date before it is published.
It is believed that Russian intelligence was inaccurately informed about the determined will of the Ukraine population to oppose the invasion, which was to be a blitzkrieg during which they thought to be welcomed. Sources report that Putin has sacked several of his closest advisers, some were even sentenced to house arrest.
It is now obvious that everything did not go as planned and that the Russian Army was not prepared for the opposition that they met. Yet, Putin announced that the first phase of the operation has been successfully completed. Now, he is withdrawing from the cities northwest of the capital Kyiv, closely pursued by Ukrainian troops and leaving behind a land of scorched earth and cruel murder of civilians.
They have also left the area around the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, carrying contaminated soil in their tracks and wheels into Belarus. It is believed that the new Russian objective is to complete the line of occupation of southern Ukraine to prevent local access to the Black Sea ports for supplies by sea.
On the other hand, if Turkey would heed Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenzky’s pleads and decide to close the Bosphoros Strait to Russian ships, those in the Black Sea would not be able to leave, nor any others enter and supplies to the Russian occupied Crimean Peninsula would be severely curtailed.
I believe that the only alternative for Putin without losing face is to concentrate on consolidating his hold on the Donbas region in the eastern part of Ukraine, where he has support from the ethnic Russians, who comprise an estimated 30% of the population of that area. That would serve as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations with Ukraine.
In the meantime, Putin continues to punish Ukrainian cities with heavy bombardment and artillery fire. That tactic has already been condemned as war crimes by the Western world, which has called for a Nuremberg style war crimes tribunal.
The writer, 98, holds both Guinness world records as the oldest working journalist and oldest active radio show host. He presents Walter’s World on Israel National Radio (Arutz 7) and The Walter Bingham File on Israel News Talk Radio. Both are in English.