How are Presidents elected around Europe?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 5th January 2022

2022 is a big year for presidential elections in Europe – with the Italian (24th January), German (13th February) and French presidencies (10th April) all open over the next few months. Of course, these are very different roles – the French President has significant executive powers, while the Italian and German Heads of State are largely ceremonial, performing a similar role to our Queen. But, regardless of their constitutional functions, let’s look at how these presidents will be elected.

How are Heads of State chosen around Europe?

System Countries
Two-Round System Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Georgia*, Lithuania, Moldova*, North Macedonia*, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia*, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine*.
Alternative Vote Ireland.
First Past the Post Bosnia-Herzegovina*, Iceland.
Indirect Election Albania*, Armenia*, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary*, Italy, Latvia, Malta, San Marino, Switzerland.
Monarchies Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom.

* Not classed as a fully free democracy by Freedom House.

Direct Election

The French President may be unusual in western Europe in being a Head of State with substantive influence over day-to-day government policy, but the presidency does stick to the norm of a popularly-elected president – it is chosen using the Two-Round System. There are a few variations to the rules of the Two-Round System, but the one used for the French President is what you might call the ‘classic’ version: If a candidate wins more than half of votes in the first round, they are elected. If not, the two candidates with the most votes proceed to a second round where the winner will take both a majority of votes and be elected.

Nearly all of Europe’s other directly elected presidents are also chosen using the Two-Round System. Ireland is one of the few to buck the trend – opting instead for the Alternative Vote, still a majority-based voting system, but one that saves them the expense of a second round of election and is in keeping with their tradition of preference voting. Other exceptions are the President of Iceland and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three Presidents who are all elected by First Past the Post.

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Indirect Election

However, not all of Europe’s presidencies are directly elected. Some, including Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Latvia, are instead chosen by legislators in special sessions. Rules vary from country to country, but generally, the winning candidate requires the support of at least the majority of national legislators – though higher thresholds and representatives of subnational parliaments, governments or councils are often involved.

The Italian President is elected by a joint session of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, as well as 58 representatives chosen by Italy’s regional councils (each get three representatives, except the tiny Aosta Valley who only get one). Unlike most elections, there are no explicit candidacies – electors are free to choose any eligible citizen, though parties will often have a preferred candidate. For the first three rounds of voting, a candidate requires two-thirds of votes to be elected, with this being reduced to a simple 50% threshold from the fourth round. Italy’s fractured party system has meant the vote has sometimes gone on for days, with the 1971 election taking 23 rounds of voting before a winner emerged.

Germany’s President is chosen by a specially convened Federal Convention comprising all members of the Bundestag and an equal number of delegates elected by the state parliaments. The election has a maximum of three rounds. In the first two, support from a majority of delegates is required, but this is reduced to a simple plurality for the third. Candidates often receive the formal support of more than one major party – for instance, parties in coalition together usually field a joint candidate. Some, such as the incumbent Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the centre-left SPD in 2017, have even been supported by all four major parties.

The Italian Presidential election will start on the 24th of January; the incumbent Sergio Mattarella declined to seek re-election, although he was eligible to do so. The German Federal Convention meets on the 13th of February; Frank-Walter Steinmeier is seeking re-election. The first round of the French presidential election is on the 10th of April, with the likely second-round pencilled in for the 24th; incumbent Emmanuel Macron is also seeking re-election.

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