Steffen Ganghof has recently introduced the concept of semi-parliamentarism. For him, parliamentarism is where all the directly elected chambers of the legislature (whether one or two) have the constitutional right to hold the government collectively responsible, whereas semi-parliamentarism is where only one of the directly elected chambers of the legislature can do so. In other words, under semi-parliamentarism there are two directly elected chambers, but one of them (usually the upper house) does not play a part in the collective responsibility of the PM and cabinet. There are currently two semi-parliamentary countries in the world – Australia and Japan.
I like this definition. It allows us to reliably classify a set of countries merely by applying certain rules to publicly available constitutional information.
Two points. First, I understand why Steffen wants to identify semi-parliamentarism as a separate category, but I wonder if it might not be better to think of it as a sub-category of parliamentarism. This allows us still to see the interesting constitutional feature of the Australian and Japanese cases without losing sight of the basic feature of parliamentarism in both, namely the government’s survival in office is not separate from the legislature. If so, we might think of Australia and Japan as being semi-parliamentary parliamentary regimes. (That is not a typo).
Second, it raises the question of how many consequential classificatory clauses we should include when defining regimes. If we stick to the separate origin and survival of the executive and legislature, we get the three standard categories (presidentialism, semi-presidentialism and parliamentarism). We’ve now added a semi-parliamentary clause. Yet, the semi-parliamentary clause also applies to semi-presidential regimes too. So, the Czech Republic could be classed as a semi-parliamentary semi-presidential regime. Actually, though, we might think of the Czech Republic as a semi-parliamentary premier-presidential semi-presidential regime (i.e. a semi-parliamentary sub-type of the premier-presidential sub-type of semi-presidentialism). We could go further still. There are currently only two semi-parliamentary regimes in the world, but there is a potentially important classificatory difference between them. In Japan, the lower house of the legislature can be dissolved early but the upper house cannot, whereas in Australia there can be a double dissolution of the two houses. So – and bear with me – let’s add a classificatory clause and label Japan a semi-fixed regime and Australia a flexible regime. If so, then Japan would be a semi-fixed semi-parliamentary regime or, perhaps, a semi-fixed semi-parliamentary parliamentary regime. Accordingly, the Czech Republic would be a semi-fixed semi-parliamentary premier-presidential semi-presidential regime.
There is a beautifully Linnaean aspect to this exercise that I find extremely attractive. The classification of the Czech Republic as a semi-fixed semi-parliamentary premier-presidential semi-presidential regime is reliable. It is based merely on the application of certain rules to publicly available constitutional information. There’s another aspect to this Linnaean-type classificatory exercise that could also be attractive. It’s not impossible to think that it might have empirical implications. Perhaps the Czech Republic’s combination of constitutional features is consequential relative to countries with a different combination of features. We would need some theories to tell us what we might expect from any particular combination relative to others. But we might end up with some hypotheses that could be empirically tested.
That said, I doubt that the classification of the Czech Republic as a semi-fixed semi-parliamentary premier-presidential semi-presidential regime is going to catch on very soon. More than that, there is no particular reason why we could not add other classificatory clauses too. Last week, I discussed the addition of a super-majority clause to constitutional classifications. It would be easy to think of other clauses that could be added. However, by the time we combine classificatory clauses, we can quickly end up with very small numbers of real-world examples. The number of semi-parliamentary parliamentary regimes in the world is already only two. The number of semi-fixed (and fixed) semi-parliamentary regimes in the world is just one. The number of semi-fixed semi-parliamentary premier-presidential semi-presidential regimes is also only one (I think). This is not empirically helpful.
The only way to reliably classify regimes is through the application of certain rules to publicly available constitutional information. Only by doing so can we avoid subjective, contestable, sometimes even esoteric country classifications. For sure, if we rely on only a small number of classificatory clauses, the resulting regimes can include a very heterogenous set of countries that render empirical application problematic. However, if we add more clauses, then we have a more homogenous set of countries in each category, but we can very quickly end up with the n = 1 problem that also renders empirical application problematic.
To me, the solution is to accept that there is a basic Linnaean-like classificatory exercise. This exercise is purely taxonomic. It does not necessarily generate categories that are empirically useful, but then that is not its purpose. This is how ‘Duverger’ problem was solved 20 years ago when it came to defining semi-presidentialism. It is also to accept, though, that there is a separate empirical exercise. Here, we need to be pragmatic. Sometimes, the Linnaean-like classificatory categories may be useful empirically, but sometimes they may not. So, we have theories whereby it can still make sense for us to compare the effects of presidentialism relative to parliamentarism, as well as premier-presidentialism relative to president-parliamentarism. However, I cannot imagine a theory whereby it would make sense for us to compare the effects of the heterogenous set of semi-presidential countries relative to anything else. Equally, comparing the effects of semi-parliamentary countries relative to others is problematic when currently the n = only 2. That said, we can, for example, compare the effects of semi-presidentialism relative to parliamentarism conditional upon some measure of presidential power. This condition allows us to disaggregate the heterogenous set of semi-presidential countries in a way that doesn’t undermine the Linnaean-Like classificatory exercise and that could still be empirically useful. By the same token, we can certainly have theories that tell us what the relative effect of semi-parliamentarism might be, even if the number of cases is currently so small that valid conclusions about those effects are difficult to reach.