Comparative Lessons for Democracy Sample Lesson Print

Sample Lesson

POWERS OF THE PRESIDENT: THE CASE OF LATVIA

There is a danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty. —John Adams (1772)

Summary of the Lesson

    By studying the constitutional powers and limitations of the Latvian presidency, and analyzing one of four problematic executive power scenarios in small groups, students will gain insight into theexecutive branch of government within this parliamentary system. They will then compile respective press releases on behalf of the Latvian president, based upon their understanding of relevant articles in the Latvian Constitution (Satversme). This lesson's comparative focus enables students to gain further comprehension of the powers and limitations of the U.S. presidency as well. Through this analytical process, students will better understand the system of checks and balances evident in both constitutions.

Objectives

    • understand the powers and limitations of the Latvian president as outlined in the Latvian Constitution (Satversme),
    • apply understanding of relevant sections of the Latvian Constitution to one of four scenarios,
    • participate in small group discussion, problem-solving, writing, presentation and defense of a press release,
    • compare and contrast the powers of the Latvian president with those of the U.S. president.
  • Students should be expected to

Background Material for the Teacher

    See background material Powers of the President of the United States in this lesson.

    For additional information on the separation of powers, see Lesson 23: "Constitutional Separation of Powers: The Russian Federation and the U.S." For more opportunities to compare the role of the president across different contexts, see Lesson 24: "'I Do Solemnly Swear': Presidential Powers in Four Countries."


The Lesson Plan

Opening the Lesson

    Describe the following situation to students:
    Country A is considered an important ally of the United States for both economic and political reasons. As a democratic state, Country A is constantly threatened by hostile, authoritarian regimes on its borders. News reports from the region have just alleged that Country A is under attack from Country B, a military dictatorship on its eastern border. The president of the United States calls a press conference and announces that American troops are already en route to Country A to help defend this ally against its aggressor. In an emotional appeal to the country, the president explains that "as commander-in-chief, I assume full responsibility for the lives of these American soldiers in this time of war."
    Ask students if the American president has the power to make this decision. What limits the president's power in this situation?

    Explain that the U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to make foreign policy but that only Congress has the power to declare war. Congress can also raise and support armies, maintain a navy, and make rules governing land and naval forces.

    Also, according to the War Powers Act of 1973, (passed over President Nixon's veto) the president is forbidden from committing troops for more than 60 days without congressional notification within 48 hours. Almost every president has challenged the constitutionality of this law. So, although the president is the commander-in-chief, s/he does not have the power to declare war.

    Ask students what advantages and disadvantages exist in forcing the executive and legislative branches to be dependent on one another in this situation.

    Explain that this separation of powers is often considered one of the most important principles for defining a democracy. Latvia is an example of a country which is in the process of establishing a democratic form of government.


Developing the Lesson

    1. read the case and discuss the questions with their group members,
    2. consult the information adapted from the Satversme and identify which parts of the Latvian Constitution are applicable to their case,
    3. prepare a press statement from the president's office explaining the situation and either why s/he is justified in pursuing the actions identified in the case and cite the appropriate measures from the Constitution OR why the president cannot pursue the course identified in the case and the provisions in the Constitution which prohibit this action.
  • Divide the class into four (or eight-depending on class size) groups. Tell students that each group will be analyzing a separate case study (and that these are different scenarios than the one given earlier).

    Have students read the student handout Powers of the President of Latvia, reprinted from the Satversme, the Latvian Constitution. (Note: the complete Satversme is in the appendix of this collection of lessons, as is the U.S. Constitution.) Suggest that they first read through the handout to get a general sense of the material, then examine it more closely in their groups, after they have been assigned a specific task.

    Distribute one case to each of the four groups (or, if there are eight groups, the same case will be given to two groups). Explain to students that they are to

    (Note: Each group should elect one student to record the group's decision(s), as well as someone who will read the press release to the rest of the class. All other group members should be prepared to answer questions that may arise about the decision(s).

    Allow 30-40 minutes to accomplish the task.

Concluding the Lesson

    Have each group's designated representative read his or her respective press release in front of the rest of the class. Students should act as reporters and challenge the statement according to their knowledge, interpretation and understanding of the relevant articles of the Latvian Constitution. Again, group members should be prepared to respond to such questions.

    After every group has presented, ask students to identify other ways in which the powers of the president are limited by the Latvian Constitution. Then, discuss the ways in which the powers of the American president are limited. (See background material Powers of the President of the United StatesNote: This piece does not include an exhaustive listing of all constitutional references to executive power. Rather, these selections could be considered sufficiently relevant for the purposes of this comparative discussion.) Lead students in a discussion about why the writers of both the American and Latvian Constitutions felt it was important to create a balance of powers. What are the disadvantages of distributing power across different branches of government?

     

Extending the Lesson

    Have students write essays in which they identify the pros and cons of a separation of power. These essays could be used as the basis for a class debate in which students assume one position or the other. Also, students might be asked to create cases of their own, using either the Latvian or the U.S. Constitutions. 

    Using the information provided in the handouts which summarize the powers of the presidency in the United States and Latvia, have students develop a chart which compares and contrasts these two executive offices. These charts could be used to develop essays.

    Have students engage in a simulation by adding several other countries to the above scenario. Assign roles to each student and designate a forum for discussion, such as a U.N. conference on the issue of executive power.

    Have students research specific instances (in the U.S. or elsewhere) when executive power has been challenged. What were the issues involved? What were the results?


Background Material

Powers of the President of the United States

The following is a limited selection of sections from the Constitution of the United States which refer to the powers of the U.S. Presidency:

Article II [The Executive Branch]
Section 1. [President and Vice President]

    1. The Executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America....

    8. Before he enters on the execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath of Affirmation: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Section 2. [Powers of the President]
    1. The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

    2. He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law. But the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

    3. The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

Section 3. [Duties of the President]
    He shall from time to time give to Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
Section 4. [Impeachment]
    The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.


Student Handout

Powers of the President of Latvia

The following is a limited selection of articles from the Latvian Constitution (Satversme) which refer to the powers of the of the Latvian president. Note that the Saeima is the Latvian parliament and that the president is referred to here as "President of State." Although the references in this translation refer to a male president, there are no stipulations limiting the rights of women to serve as president.

Section 3. [The President of State]

    40. On assuming office at the first sitting of the Saeima after his election, the President of State shall take the following solemn oath: "I swear that all of my efforts shall be devoted to the good of the people of Latvia. I will do everything in my power to promote the well-being of the State of Latvia and its population. I will hold sacred and observe the Constitution and the state laws of Latvia. I will be just to all persons and I will fulfill my duties to the best of my ability."

    41. The President of State shall represent the State in an international capacity; he shall accredit Latvian representatives abroad, and receive accredited representatives of foreign states. He shall carry out the decisions of the Saeima concerning the ratification of international treaties.

    42. The President of State shall be the chief of the armed forces of the State. In a time of war, he shall appoint a Commander-in-Chief.

    43. The President of State shall declare war on the basis of a decision of the Saeima.

    44. The President of the State shall have the right to take steps indispensable to the military defense of the country, if another State has declared war on Latvia, or if an enemy is attacking Latvian frontiers. At the same time, the President of State shall immediately convene the Saeima, which shall decide upon the declaration of war and the commencement of hostilities.

    45. The President of State shall have the right to pardon criminals undergoing penal sentences. This right of pardon shall not apply to cases where the Law provides a different mode of pardon. This right of pardon shall not apply to cases where the Law provides a different mode of pardon. Amnesty shall be granted by the Saeima.

    47. The President of State shall have the right of legislative initiative.

    48. The President of State shall have the right to propose the dissolution of the Saeima. This shall be followed by a referendum. If in the referendum more than one-half of the votes are cast in favour of dissolution, the Saeima shall be considered as dissolved and new elections shall be proclaimed. These elections shall take place within two months after the dissolution of the Saeima.

    49. Upon dissolution of the Saeima, its members shall retain their powers until the newly-elected Saeima has assembled. The former Saeima may only assemble on being convened by the President of the State. The agenda for such sittings shall be determined by the President of State.

    50. If in the referendum the dissolution of the Saeima is opposed by more than one-half of the votes cast, the President of State shall be regarded as dismissed and the Saeima shall elect a new President of State for the remaining period of office of the President who has been dismissed.

    51. On the motion of not less than one-half of the members of the Saeima, the Saeima, at the sitting to which the public is not admitted, may decide by a majority vote of not less than two-thirds of their number, to dismiss the President of State. After this decision, the Saeima shall immediately elect a new President of State.

    52. Should the President of State resign from his office, die or be dismissed before the end of his office, the duties shall be carried out by the Chairman of the Saeima, pending the election of a new President of State. Likewise, the Chairman of the Saeima shall take the office of the President of State, should the latter be absent from the territory of Latvia or in any other way be prevented from fulfilling his duties.

    53. The President of State shall not bear political possibility for his actions. All decrees of the President of State shall be countersigned by the Prime Minister, or by the Minister concerned, who shall thereby assume full responsibility for the decrees, except in cases foreseen in Articles forty-eight and fifty-six.

    54. The President of State may be held criminally accountable if the Saeima sanctions thus with a majority vote of not less than two-thirds of its members.

Section 5. [Legislation]
    65. Draft laws may be presented to the Saeima by the President of State, the Cabinet, the Committees of the Saeima, no less than five members of the Saeima or, in cases and in a manner provided for in this Constitution, by one-tenth of the electors. 

    69. The President of State shall promulgate [proclaim] laws passed by the Saeima not before the seventh and not later than the twenty-first day after their adoption. If no other term is fixed, the laws shall take effect fourteen days after their promulgation.

    70. The President of State shall promulgate laws according to the following formula: "The Saeima (i.e. the People) has adopted and the President of State promulgates the following law: (text of law)."

    71. Within seven days after the adoption of a law by the Saeima, the President of State shall be entitled to ask, by means of explanatory letter addressed to the Chairman of the Saeima, for the review of that law. If the Saeima does not amend the law, the President of State shall not have the right to raise any further objections.

    72. The President of State shall have the right to suspend the promulgation [proclamation] of a law for a period of two months. He shall suspend the promulgation at the request of not less than one-third of the members of the Saeima...[continues in more detail].

    75. Should the Saeima determine the urgency of a law with a majority of not less than two-thirds, the President of State may not demand a second review of the law; it may not be submitted to a referendum and shall be promulgated within three days after the President has received the adopted law.

    78. Not less than one-tenth of the electors shall have the right to submit to the President of State a fully elaborated draft for the amendment of the draft law, which shall be submitted to the Saeima by the President. If the Saeima does not adopt this draft law without substantial amendments, it shall be submitted to a referendum.


Student Handout

Case #1

Scenario
    A crisis has arisen in the state as the result of economic difficulties. In all major cities, workers are on strike and transportation is paralyzed. Some political groups are planning an armed plot against the president. There is discussion that voters may move to dismiss the government. Demonstrations are widespread and there is some violence. Several people have been seriously injured. The Cabinet cannot control the situation in the country. The president decides that it is necessary to proclaim a "State of Emergency," calls in the army, proclaims that the country is under martial law and makes other necessary steps to provide stability.
Your task
    1. Does the president have the right to act as s/he decided?
    2. What should the president do, according to the Satversme?
  • You are the advisory group for the president. You have to decide how the president should act, according to the Satversme. Answer the following questions:
    Write down your decisions and indicate the articles of the Satversme that identify the legal guidelines for action in this case.


Student Handout

Case #2

Scenario
    Latvia imports a lot of grain from various foreign countries. The grain is cheap because trade tariffs are low, according to agreements with the European Union. There is growing discontentment among Latvian farmers; many of them face bankruptcy because they cannot compete with the lower prices from countries with more advanced agricultural technology. Each day there are more and more demonstrations against the government. The president decides s/he wants to raise trade tariffs, making the imported grain more expensive and the Latvian grain more competitive.
Your task
    1. Does the president have the right to act as s/he decided?
    2. What should the president do, according to the Satversme?
  • You are the advisory group for the president. You have to decide how the president should act, according to the Satversme. Answer the following questions:Write down your decisions and indicate the articles of the Satversme that identify the legal guidelines for action in this case.


Student Handout

Case #3

Scenario
    During the last three months the president did not sign any law made by the Saeima (the parliament). The president also did not return the laws for the Saeima to revise them. The president's representatives have explained the passivity of the president by saying that he is preparing a very important visit to the U.S. and thinks that the recent laws are less important than the upcoming visit. The members of the Saeima are publicly attacking the president, claiming he is irresponsible and more worried about foreign policy than domestic issues.
Your task
    1. Does the president have the right to act as s/he decided?
    2. What should the president do, according to the Satversme?
  • You are the advisory group for the president. You have to decide how the president should act, according to the Satversme. Answer the following questions:
Write down your decisions and indicate the articles of the Satversme that identify the legal guidelines for action in this case.


Student Handout

Case #4

Scenario
    The president of Latvia decides that the Latvian military force is too weak. To strengthen the national defense, the president starts reorganizing the army's forces. Using presidential power, the president appoints a new commander-in-chief, orders him to mobilize 2000 more recruits and make new positions in the army's organization. The president also appoints some other high commanders and commands the army forces be in a higher state of readiness for action. The president is being criticized for interfering too much with the military and appearing to threaten Latvia's neighbors.
Your task
You are the advisory group for the president. You have to decide how the president should act, according to the Satversme. Answer the following questions:
  1. Does the president have the right to act as s/he decided?
  2. What should the president do, according to the Satversme?
Write down your decisions and indicate the articles of the Satversme that identify the legal guidelines for action in this case.