Category Archives: Presidentialism and parliamentarism

Armenia – From semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism?

A constitutional referendum is expected to take place in Armenia by the end of the year. In the event of a positive popular vote, the current semi-presidential political system will be transformed into a parliamentary one. At this stage, the reform is strongly favoured by the ruling party, the Republican Party (HHK) while the opposition is divided.

The transformation into a parliamentary system would dramatically change a key feature of the Armenian political system: the preponderance of the presidential office. The first post-independence constitution (also called by its critics “super-presidential”), in vigour since 1995, gave extensive power to the president over all the three branches of government. The second constitution, approved by referendum in 2005, introduced some limits to the power of the president and, conversely, enhanced the prerogatives of the parliament. However, given that for the past 16 years the same party (HHK) has dominated both the executive and legislative branches, no practical change has been observable[1]. The outcome of the referendum (a mandatory step to reform the constitution and expected to take place by the end of the year) may completely shift the distribution of power.

Departing from the past, the constitutional reform would make the presidential office largely ceremonial. More specifically, instead of being the head of the executive, the successor to Mr Sarkisian, would not be directly elected anymore but would be nominated by an electoral college, and would in effect be a super partes figure with limited leeway for autonomous action. In fact, he would have practically no room for intervention in legislative matters. By contrast, the prime minister, who at the current stage has limited personal power, would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy[2]. The President would still formally perform some relevant state activities, such as changing the composition of the government, appointing or recalling diplomats and approving (or suspending) international treaties. However, all those actions should be initiated by proposal of the prime minister[3].

The recent publication of a constitutional draft is the result of almost two years of work. On 4 September 2013 President Sarkisian set up a Commission on Constitutional Reforms. In November of the same year Mr Gagik Harutyunyan[4], the coordinator of the aforementioned Commission and President of the Constitutional Court of Armenia, asked the Venice Commission, which is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, for some assistance in the drafting of a new constitution. The demand was accepted and a group of rapporteurs was constituted. After various rounds of meetings and opinions, in July 2015 a partial first draft was submitted to the Venice Commission. The advisory body praised the effort but also highlighted some points of concern. One of them, pertinent to the parliamentary elections, was the mandatory second round of voting (between the first two parties) in the event that a clear parliamentarian majority failed to emerge. In the draft of July 2015 this point was disciplined by article 89, which provided detailed disposals on the conduct of the second electoral round as well as, for example, the obligation to present the candidate prime ministers. This point, also as result of numerous consultations with opposition parties, has been modified. In fact, in the new version of the text, a run-off vote “may be held” instead of “shall be held”. Additionally, all the details have been removed and transferred to the electoral code.

The run-off issue raised a concern not only in the Venice commission but also in most opposition parties (with the sole exception of ARF). In fact, the opposition feared such a provision would give a disproportionate advantage to the current ruling party such that, if the change had been included, it would have almost certainly recorded a clear-cut victory for the ruling party[5]. For this reason, until the beginning of the summer, the reform lacked broad political support. After the government declared its intention to exclude the aforementioned run-off vote from the constitutional draft, Prosperous Armenia (the second party in the parliament) agreed to back the proposal. Other parties, namely the Armenian National Congress (ANC) and Heritage party, continue to refuse to support the process. The reason for this inflexible attitude is that, even though in principle they may favour a parliamentary system, they fear that President Sarkisian could take advantage from the reform and extend his power beyond the end of his presidential mandate in 2017.

Under the current disposal, the president cannot run for a third term. Consequently Mr Sarkisian, who is already serving his second mandate, should step down after next election. Designating a successor is no guarantee on that he or she would be willing to accept Mr Sarkisian’s influence after the election. In fact, the current president enjoys limited popularity in the country and could be easily marginalized by any heir apparent[6]. Given that, critical voices argue that adopting a parliamentarian system may enable Mr Sarkisian to retain political power beyond the end of his term. As member of the National assembly, he could prolong his duration in power either as prime minister (though it is an option that he openly excluded), or as head of the ruling party. In brief is suspected that, instead of promoting the long-term stabilization of Armenia, the main goal of the reform is to ensure the permanence in power of the current political elite[7]. This vision is also shared by former president Kocharian (1998-2008), who bluntly declared that: “Any modification of the constitution for the sake of politicians’ current interests is a sign of the country’s degradation.” and by the former ministry of foreign affairs Oskanian (1998-2008).  Mr Oskanian also considers that the current government does not enjoy enough political legitimacy to promote such a dramatic change.

Civil society, even though during the summer it was mainly mobilized around the “Electric Yerevan issue”, has shown some interest in the topic. In the past months, the civic initiative “You won’t pass it” has been voicing its concern and trying to fundraise both domestically and abroad in order to rent conference halls and print leaflets. In September 2015 the initiative “NO” appeared. Looking at the population at large, a recent survey shows limited knowledge of the domestic political system. In fact, most respondents believed the country to be a presidential republic rather than a semi-presidential one[8].  Mr Armenak Minasyants[9], a Visiting Scholar in Public Administration at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, comments that the public debate around the issue has not focused on the legal aspects or content of the proposed reform but more notably on the implication for the distribution of power in the short run. The lingering question in almost all the talks is whether the president will step down or not after the term. Given the on-going mainstream narrative, the forthcoming referendum is likely to be perceived as a sort of popular confidence vote on Mr Sarkisian.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

[1] Mikayel Zolyan, Parliamentary Democracy or One-Party State: What is behind Armenia’s Constitutional Reform, Staff Analysis, Regional Studies Center (RSC), Vol.4 No.3, September 2015, .

[2] Kathleen C. Weinberger, Armenia’s Constitutional Reforms: Forward Movement or Momentous Fallacy?, Staff Analysis, Regional Studies Center (RSC), Vol.4 No.4, September 2015, .

[3] Draft Constitution (July 2015), articles 131 and 132, .

[4] A well-recognized legal scholar and practitioner, he contributed to the drafting of all the Armenian constitutions, including the 2003 version that was rejected by referendum and not adopted. Mr Harutyunyan, convinced that the Constitution of 2005 did not fully match the Armenian political context, is believed to have played a strong role in the initiation of the Commission on Constitutional Reforms (Armenak Minasyants, phone interview, 13 September 2015).

[5] Zolyan 2015

[6] Zolyan 2015

[7] Weinberger 2015

[8] Ibidem

[9] Phone interview, 13 September 2015.

Jean Blondel – The presidential idea

This is a guest post by Professor Jean Blondel, Professor Emeritus, EUI, Florence


In the course of the last few years, I became increasingly concerned with the apparent contradiction between the rapid development of regimes in which the role of the president is dominant and the impression that these regimes were at least very often giving way, at any rate temporarily, to what is conventionally regarded as ‘usurpation’. The ‘presidential republics’ which had emerged in the newly independent Spanish American countries in the first decade of the nineteenth century could be regarded as providing evidence for the view which was put forward by Linz and Valenzuala in 1994 in their two volume study, namely that, on the whole, ‘presidential democracy’ was a ‘failure’. The case of France’s ‘Second Republic’ of 1848-51 was also an example of such a ‘failure’ as the model was the America: thus only the successful duration of the US Constitution of 1787-9 made it impossible to adopt such a view as a ‘universal’ proposition. As a matter of fact, the fate of subsequent ‘presidential experiments’ in Europe in the interwar period seemed to confirm the validity of ‘pessimistic’ views, Finland having been the only European exception among them.

Yet this state of affairs did not prevent the multiplication of ‘presidential republics’ in Africa from the late 1950s to the 1970s and beyond; there was more reluctance in Asia and indeed in Europe as well, except for the fact that Gaullist France, alone in Western Europe, adopted presidentialism in 1958-62. Indeed, in the 1990s, a further boost for the model of the ‘presidential republic’ resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Yeltsin adopted the ‘model’ for the new Russia he created, a move which was closely followed by ten of the other eleven ex ’Soviet’ republics which did not join the European Union in 2004. A majority of the countries of the world had come to be presidential as a result (see Table 1 below)!

Table 1

World regimes in 2013 (countries of 100,000 inhabitants or more only)

Region Total Pres Parl. Rep Monarchies Usurp Communist Decentralised Unclassified
West/W. Europe 23 2 9 11 1
E. Europe in EU 11 2 9
E. Europe not in EU 7 3 3 1
Asia 39 11 10 13 1 3 1
Pacific 7 2 3 1 1
Africa 53 45 2 3 3
Amer. (not West) 30 21 1 7 1
Ex Soviet Union 11 11
Total 181 95 36 37 2 4 3 4

Details are given in the volume about the regimes adopted by individual countries in the various parts of the globe.

Even if many of the countries concerned (except in Europe) were affected by ‘coups’, the fact that the ‘presidential idea’ had spread so widely in the twentieth century in particular suggested that, on the basis of what had been truly an institutional ‘invention’ in the United States in 1789, a new ‘constitutional’ formula was being adopted in a context in which ‘new’ countries emerging from colonialism, with difficulty, admittedly, but with also some successes, particularly over time, as Latin American experience seemed to be showing especially from the 1990s and indeed even in some ‘new’ African countries as well, while there might otherwise have been a universal spread of ‘usurpation’ in the ‘new’ ex-colonised countries which were appearing on the scene.

My new book on the ‘Presidential Republic’ is thus an attempt at mapping out the difficult historical development of the ‘presidential republic’ since it was invented in the United States. The ‘presidential republic’ in its various forms is indeed, it seems to me, a genuine success, once we take into account the fact that decolonisation produced a large number of countries in which the legitimacy of the nation was, to say the least, very limited: what may be the case is that presidents in charge of the executive and in office for a number of years, as the United States constitution stipulated for the first time in the history of mankind, might be gradually the key instrument as a result of which usurpation may no longer periodically prevail.

Jean Blondel is a political scientist in the field of comparative politics. He became Professor of Political Science at the EUI in 1985 and was an External Professor from 1994 to 2000. Prof. Blondel set up the Department of Government at the University of Essex in 1964 and co-founded the European Consortium of Political Research. He was the winner of the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science 2004. He has been awarded honoris causa doctorates from the University of Salford, the University of Essex, the University of Louvain-la-Neuve, the University of Turku, the University of Macerata (2007) and the University of Siena (2008).

Kyrgyzstan – Talks of constitutional reforms and the next Presidential election


On December 1, the Kyrgyz President, Almazbek Atambayev, declared that he was not willing to change the constitution in order to be eligible to be re-elected for another 6-year term. In sight of the next presidential election, scheduled for March 2017, and considering recent calls for amendments to the constitution, Atambayev’s declaration is very relevant as it could set the context for the next presidential race while reinforcing Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary institutions. Indeed, it might further mark the difference between Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian republics, where presidents have shown no reluctance to deploy constitutional reforms to remain in power.

Atambayev became president of Kyrgyzstan in 2011 after the constitution was amended in 2010. Currently, the constitution allows presidents to exert power for a single term. They cannot be re-elected subsequently after that term is over. Besides making it clear that he will not infringe this constitutional limitation, Atambayev also recalled how difficult it was to be the president of a country that ‘has already suffered from two revolutions’ and where ‘control over the current situation after the revolution is just a ball-breaker, especially if you really work, not steal’.

In recent months, proposing for constitutional reform have been on the rise. Despite this, the current constitution does not allow for any change until 2020, with the goal of stabilizing the political situation in the country while protecting the current constitutional architecture from change and instability. This is the reason why the proposal advanced by the leader of the Ar-Namys party, Feliks Kulov, to change Kyrgyzstan’s name through a referendum set of heated discussion in the country and abroad. Indeed, according to many analysts and to Atyr Abdrahmatova, leader of the civil society organization Civic Union for Reforms and Results, the suggestion was simply a pretext for testing how the Kyrgyz public would react to the idea of amending the constitution through yet another referendum. If the reaction was positive, then political forces could have added additional questions to the agenda of the referendum, such as transforming the distribution of power between national institutions. Another MP, Karganbek Samakov, who recently left the governmental Ata Meken faction, proposed a draft law that would have repealed the ban on the constitutional reform. He declared that ‘the constitution is a living and moving body and it needs to be changed when necessary. Especially now, some of its rules are often violated, are not always enforced and are contradictory in their content.’ Samakov enjoys the support of some of his colleagues, who noticed that the new Parliament, which will be elected in 2015, might be positive towards reforming the basic law.

These initiatives are seen as not coincidental and potentially prepare the ground for the next possible modification of the country’s constitution, which would open new scenarios for the country. Furthermore, local experts suspect that the president is maneuvering to remain in office beyond his current term. According to political scientist Uran Botobekov, the President might be preparing to run for re-election in 2017. That said, Atambayev clearly stated that he has no intention to change the country’s constitution in his favour as his predecessors did and will not become an authoritarian leader.

Csaba Nikolenyi – Indirectly Elected Presidents: The Importance of the Rules of the Game

This is a guest post by Csaba Nikolenyi of the Department of Political Science, Concordia University

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 19.55.34

In my newly released book on Institutional Design and Party Government in Post-Communist Europe (Oxford University Press), I devote a chapter to the assessment of the relationship between the rules of indirect presidential elections and divided government. In democracies, where the chief executive is elected directly by the voters, the notion of divided government refers to split partisan control of the executive and legislative branches. In democracies with indirectly elected presidents, however, the notion of divided government is much less explored. In my study, I do not approach the question of presidential choice and divided government from the perspective of the head of state; instead, my interest is in understanding how particular institutional conditions help, or not, the governing majority of parties to acquire control over the presidency where the constitution provides for an indirectly elected head of states.

Among the ten post-communist EU member states, there are four that had indirect presidential elections as of 2010: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Latvia. Since then, the number has dropped to three as a result of the Czech Republic having adopted a constitutional amendment that made the presidency a directly elected office in 2012. I find that in all four cases the rules of the game, specifically the congruence of the presidential election process with the selection of the prime minister, has systematically affected whether the incumbent government coalition of parties will capture the presidency or not. In Hungary and Latvia the rules of winning both the legislature and the executive favor the majority coalition in government. As a result, we tend to see few instances of divided partisan control over the two branches. In contrast, the presidential election rules in the Czech Republic, until 2012, and in Estonia, make it very difficult for the governing coalition to do so: in the former case the selection of the president required bicameral assent, and, in the latter case the winning candidate needs a qualified 2/3 majority in the unicameral Riigikogu. As a result, divided government has been a more frequent outcome in these latter cases.

Do these differences matter? After all, conventional wisdom has it that indirectly elected heads of state tend to have more of a symbolic role than effective political power. I suggest the contrary. Margit Tavits has convincingly shown that presidential power is not always and directly a function of the way in which the chief executive is chosen. At times, an indirectly elected head of state can wield more power over parliament, and political life in general, than a directly elected one depending on factors such as the prevailing balance of powers among parties, personal assets, and, very importantly the formal powers of the office. In the context of East Central Europe, for example, Vaclav Klaus, former (indirectly elected) president of the Czech Republic, was well known for his ability to wield power far beyond what many other directly elected presidents in the region could. In short, it does matter who wins an indirectly contested presidency and, therefore, the rules of the game are very important.

The process of finding the next head of state can be in and of itself an important factor that either supports the institutionalization of the democratic system or paralyzes it. Slovakia abolished the indirectly elected presidency after multiple rounds of balloting in 1998 failed to produce a winning candidate leaving the office vacant for six months and creating considerable political and constitutional turmoil. Similarly, the election of Vaclav Klaus in 2003 was the end product of a prolonged sequence of three rounds of ballots that left the Czech Republic paralyzed for two months. In addition to producing divided government, Klaus’ eventual victory also led to continued acrimony within the ranks of the governing coalition. In fact, it was during the 2003 presidential election process that serious calls in favor of moving to a direct presidential election, as Slovakia had done a few years prior, surfaced. The case of Latvia shows that even a simple majority requirement, that should favor the candidate of the governing coalition, may not be sufficient to generate a straightforward presidential election if the party system is too fragmented: in 1999 it took six rounds of balloting in the Saeima to find the winning candidate, Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

All of this leads to a specific recommendation that institutional designers may take to heart. Juan Linz famously argued that presidentialism, i.e. having a powerful directly elected head of state, is perilous for a new democracy for several reasons including the divisive zero-sum nature of the presidential election. I argue that an indirectly elected presidency may be just as divisive and perilous for a new democracy unless the rules of the game are planned carefully. If the constitution calls for an indirectly elected presidency it is best to have such rules in place that will keep the number of rounds, and the possibility of a protracted or failed balloting, to a minimum. Having a presidential election rule in place that requires the winning candidate to have a special qualified majority tends to exacerbate political divisions in two ways: i) they tend to lead to divided government and conflict between the legislative majority and the head of state; ii) and they increase the likelihood of protracted or failed votes. The current political crisis in Lebanon, where the legislature has failed to elect a new president after thirteen rounds of voting at the time of writing, is a stark reminder of the negative political consequences of such rules in a different part of the world. Simple majority rules allowing for limited rounds to elect the head of state may reinforce the political power of the governing majority by reducing the likelihood of divided government. As such, they lead to greater concentration of power than qualified majority election rules do. Nonetheless, they lead to smoother, more efficient and more predictable outcomes that reduce the strain on the institutional structures of a new democracy.

Csaba Nikolenyi received his PhD from the University of British Columbia in 2000 and was hired by Concordia University the same year. His research focuses on the comparative study of political parties, electoral systems and legislatures in post-communist democracies as well as on the political systems of Israel and India. He was former English Co-Editor of the Canadian Journal of Political Science (2006-11). He served as Code Administrator in the Faculty of Arts and Science between 2009 and 2011 and as Chair of the Department of Political Science between 2011 and 2014. Currently, he is the Director of the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies. Dr. Nikolenyi has published extensively in comparative politics journals and has authored two books: Minority Government in India (Routledge 210) and Institutional Design and Party Government in Post-Communist Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2014). He was a Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2007-8) and the Centre for European Studies at the Australian National University (2012).

Afghanistan – Ex-presidential rivals strike power-sharing deal. Ghani new president

Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

After months of mutual accusations and threats of major political turmoil and mobilisation, the two rival presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, reached an agreement to solve the national crisis and form a government of national unity. In a televised ceremony on Sunday, they signed a power-sharing agreement that makes of Ghani the new President of Afghanistan and Abdullah the Chief Executive Officer of the government, a new office for Afghanistan similar to a Prime Minister. Abdullah might also nominate someone else to occupy the office. Ghani is expected to be sworn in as the new President of the country on Sept. 29. This agreement and the formation of a government of national unity have been greeted by the international community as welcome news, since the atmosphere of bitter conflict and political uncertainty was damaging the already fragile security of the country.

From a technical point of view, the agreement changes quite significantly the structure of government of Afghanistan. The highly-centralised presidential system will now have to face a number of challenges to integrate the new role, the CEO, in its functions considering that it will share a number of prerogatives with the president, such as for instance control over key institutions including the Army.  The agreement gives substantial powers to the newly created position, defining it as having the functions of an executive prime minister. According to the agreement, a new institution is created, the council of ministers, which will work in parallel with the President’s cabinet. The council of ministers will be headed by the CEO and will include two deputies and all cabinet ministers. The council will implement the executive decisions of the government. As for the President’s cabinet, it will be headed by the President and will include all ministers. The CEO will be responsible for managing the cabinet’s implementation of government policies, and will report on progress to the president directly and in the cabinet. Another clause calls for parity in the selection of personnel between the president and the CEO at the level of head of key security and economic institutions.

Although relief is understandable, there are a number of unclear points that cast a certain shadow on the optimism. First of all, the Taliban have already expressed their opposition to the pact and rejected the national unity government pact as a ploy orchestrated by the US administration. This means that national security is still in danger and that this government will not be a government of national unity. Secondly, it is not clear how the power-sharing agreement will work, and how the role and notion of a CEO will be received by the population and local elites. Given the rather conflictual relationship between Abdullah and Ghani, it is not certain that the national unity government, with two powerful offices within it, will be actually able to work or whether will be torn apart by internal conflicts. Thirdly, the technical implementation of the agreement might take a long time, as the CEO is a new institution that needs to be integrated in the Constitution. Under current provisions, the agreement calls on the Loya Jirga to amend the Constitution to create the position of an executive prime minister within two years.

The new president and the new government are expected to rule Afghanistan during very sensitive times, as the withdrawal of US troops is to be completed by December 2014.

Vanuatu – Choosing a president

On 2 September the search for a new President of Vanuatu officially commenced when the five-year term of the incumbent, HE Iolu Johnson Abbil, came to an end. The country now waits on the deliberations of an Electoral College comprising of all 52 members of parliament and the presidents of Vanuatu’s six provincial governments to find out whom the next president will be. Early indications are that a politician attached to the main governing party and from Malampa Province could be the front-runner to be the next Head of State. The usual process is that the Electoral Office declares the position vacant and invites applications, with political parties nominating candidates. In 2009, 11 of the 13 people who applied for the position were subsequently approved by the Electoral Office to stand as candidates. Abbil eventually won the support of the Electoral College after two days of voting.

In line with the conventions of its Westminster-inspired parliamentary system, Vanuatu’s president has historically served a ceremonial non-executive function similar to that of a Governor-General. Vanuatu is a cultural and linguistically heterogeneous country but Anglophone-Francophone cleavages have played an important role in post-colonial politics – Britain and France shared administrative responsibility for the New Hebrides colony under a ‘condominium’ arrangement until independence in 1980.[i] The early dominance of the Vanua’aku Pati in post-independent politics meant that it wasn’t until 1994 that a Francophone candidate, Jean Marie Leye, was elected president. This transfer of power and authority from English-speaking to French-speaking leaders has led some commentators[ii] to argue that despite having limited involvement in the day to day operation of government, the office has the potential to facilitate an ‘integrative nation-building processes in which marginalized minority elements are brought into high status decision-making positions’.

On the other hand, what makes the outcome of the ballot somewhat uncertain is that since 1991 Vanuatu has seen successive coalition governments who are regularly subject to votes-of-no-confidence. The current government, for example, was installed in May of this year after successfully bringing down the previous coalition in a no-confidence vote. In such circumstances, while the position itself is largely ceremonial, any such appointment is subject to intense political manoeuvring in a context where the allocation of power and patronage is finely balanced. Indeed, some commentators have argued that disagreement over how to divide the spoils of office have underpinned the collapse of successive coalitions governments since 1998.[iii] So, while in theory the government has the majority, in practice wheeling and dealing is required, especially as the expanded Electoral College alters the numbers.

One prominent example is the 2004 presidential ballot when friction between government and opposition, and within both camps, led to the election of a compromise candidate who it later turned out was under a suspended sentence for fraud (they were forced to resign weeks later).[iv] In this instance, dissatisfaction with the way the prime minister handled the matter led to the disillusionment of parliament and fresh elections. Indeed, while a ceremonial role has been the norm, the presidency of Vanuatu has been known to attract controversy. Most prominently, the inaugural president, Ati George Sokomanu, was dismissed by the Electoral College in 1989 after his decision to dissolve parliament, call elections and appoint an interim government, led by his nephew, was deemed unconstitutional (he was initially arrested and convicted of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government, among other things, but the charges were later dropped on appeal).[v] So, while the position is largely ceremonial, and the institutional procedure for electing a new president relatively straightforward, the politics of presidential appointments in Vanuatu can be more complex and uncertain.

[i] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[ii] Levine, S., and N. Roberts. 2005. “The Constitutional Structures and Electoral Systems of Pacific Island States”. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 276-295.

[iii] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[iv] Van Trease, H. 2005. “The Operation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote System in Vanuatu.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 43(3): 296-332.

[v] Van Trease, H. 1995. “Years of Turmoil: 1987-91” In H. Van Trease (ed.) Melanesian Politics: Stael Blong Vanuatu. Christchurch and Suva: Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies and the Institute for Pacific Studies, p. 73-118.

Iran – Intraelite conflicts keep Rouhani’s government in check


The moderate president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has again come under attack from conservative political groups, in stark contrast to the beginning of his mandate more than one year ago. Conflicting positions over nuclear negotiations with the West, over the Internet-freedom and, more recently, the impeachment of Reza Faraji-Dana, Rouhani’s reformist Minister of Science, Research and Technology, seem to signal that Rouhani’s conservative rivals are gaining momentum.

Within the institutional system of the Islamic Republic, the President is a crucial office, but it is the Supreme Leader, namely Ali Khamenei, who enjoys massive power and extensive control over the policy-making process and pivotal institutions, such as the judiciary system, the media, security forces and, notably, the Sepah-e Pasdaran or Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) (all potential proxies to deploy in the Leader vs President opposition). Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic indeed, successive oppositions between these two offices have brought about numerous institutional crisis and stalemates, which experts have operationalised into the notions of ‘suspended equilibrium’ and ‘dual sovereignty.’

Currently, the Supreme Leader can not only count on his constitutional extensive power, but also on the conservative-led majority in the Parliament, which is very vocal in its opposition to Rouhani’s policies inspired by diplomatic and cultural easiness.

In June and July, after conflicts between Rouhani and the IRGC Commander Major General Ali Jafari, the conservative factions attacked Rouhani’s government-led diplomatic efforts in the context of the nuclear negotiations, with the purpose of condemning Rouhani’s rapprochement with the West, which they consider as dangerous for the revolutionary nature of the Islamic Republic. ‘Negotiations on behalf of the system of the Islamic Republic must follow the path of Islamic ideals,’ declared Karimi-Ghadoosi, an hardline MP, while accusing the incumbent Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, of ‘selling out Iranian interests.’ Fears of ‘cultural invasion’ on the part of the West, should conflicts with the US and the EU be resolved, seem to be the most pressing concern for conservatives, in particular after the boosting of regional turmoil during the summer which have secured Iran’s safety in the region. According to Payam Mohseni indeed, conservatives in Iran are ‘very confident about their rising power and regional standing, and there was no sense of urgency or need to compromise and resolve the nuclear standoff.  They believed to have gained much from the regional turmoil in Syria and recently in Iraq with the rise of ISIS.  Most elites also discussed the sanctions as an opportunity and divine gift for economic development and self-sufficiency – a threat that could be handled and overcome. The main difference between moderates and hardliners was that the latter were more skeptical of the utility of nuclear negotiations and the benefit of cooperating with the United States on regional matters.’

In addition to the nuclear program, conflicts between the moderates and the conservatives have also emerged over cultural freedom. A well-known case is the one of the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, who declared that Iranian authorities should introduce measures that would prevent access to the ‘negative, un-Islamic features’ of high-speed Internet and 3G services, whose licenses have just been awarded to three mobile broadband companies, in order to prevent the spread of corruption. Rouhani responded by urging clerics not to oppose the Internet and not to ‘cut off’ Iran from the rest of the world. Noting that the internet is vital to the younger generation, he said: ‘If we do not move towards the new generation of mobile today and resist it, we will have to do it tomorrow. If not, the day after tomorrow.’ This is just the last chapter of an older struggle between the conservative establishment and the government over Internet freedom.

Along with conflicts over Internet freedom and nuclear negotiations, the President is also facing the conservative-led Parliament’s attacks over his government. After conflicts over cabinet appointments, on August 20th the Parliament successfully impeached the Minister of Science, Research and Technology Faraji-Dana. With this move, the most conservative elements in Parliament have had a significant political impact. Faraji-Dana was particularly popular among academics thanks to his efforts for de-securitising and revitalising Iran’s universities, in accord with Rouhani’s stance on academic freedom. Moreover, Faraji-Dana brought back to universities the so-called ‘starred’ students and professors, namely those who were expelled because of their political views expressed during and after the highly-contested 2009 presidential election. The Minister’s impeachment was criticised by relevant political personalities backing Rouhani’s administration. The factional conflict is however ongoing as the first vice-president declared that the government’s investigation over the handling of student scholarships will continue despite the Minister’s impeachment, in a bid of unveiling the politically motivated management of grants in favour of conservative students and to the detriment of reformist ones during Ahmadinejad’s mandates.

Despite the relevance of the ongoing struggle between the moderate administration and the conservative establishment, this is ‘politics as usual’ in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, neither impeachments of moderate ministers nor attacks on moderate presidents are breaking-news in the country. Not only is the conflict between moderate reformists and conservative not a novelty, but also the fact those factional groups are proxies of the President and the Supreme Leader does not constitute any surprise. Indeed the contraposition between Khamenei and Rouhani mirrors previous President vs Leader contrappositions, and therefore is in continuity with the political and historical trajectory since 1979.

Peru – Congress (finally) ratifies Humala’s new cabinet

Last Tuesday, Peru’s congress approved President Ollanta Humala’s proposed new cabinet.[1] However, this was the third time that Congress voted on this issue, and it was a very close call: 55-54 in favor, with nine abstentions. Somewhat dramatically, Humala’s cabinet was only saved by Ana María Solórzano, the President of Congress, who was the last to vote and tipped the balance in favor of the government.

Humala and his party, Gana Perú, do not have a majority in the legislature, and the government has been relying on the support of a number of smaller parties, primarily comprised of a conservative block of legislators, affiliated with former presidential candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, for their legislative initiatives. However, support for the government has haemorrhaged following the stagnation of the economy, and amidst criticism of prominent members of Humala’s cabinet.

The new cabinet, to be led by Ana Jara Velásquez, only managed to receive approval third time round because the embattled Humala agreed to suspend new rules for private pension funds and withdraw his nominee for the Organization of American States (OAS). The weakness of Humala’s government is evident. This is Humala’s sixth cabinet and his last President of the Council of Ministers was only approved on the third vote. This was the first time in ten years that Congress has refused to ratify the president’s cabinet.

This conflict between the legislative and executive branch provides us with an important insight into the variation in regime type across Latin America. There is a general tendency for people to treat all Spanish-speaking South American democracies (and Brazil) as pure-presidential. This however, is not accurate. At least one democracy in South America is a hybrid regime – Peru. Argentina is a possible second although this is a slightly more contentious case (see this discussion over at the Semi-Presidential One). In fact, Peru is what David Samuels and Matthew Shugart class as ‘president-parliamentary’, that is when the prime minister and the cabinet are dually accountable to the president and assembly majority (p. 30).[2]

The current conflict in Peru revolves around the legislature’s refusal to approve the Presidente del Consejo de Ministros (or President of the Council of Ministers), in this instance, the aforementioned Ana Jara Velásquez. To all intents and purposes, this position is akin to a prime minister, and together with the cabinet is ‘dually accountable’ to the president and Congress. Clearly, given it was ten years since the last time Congress refused to accept the president’s cabinet, this rarely occurs, but that misses the point. It can happen, as constitutionally, the prime minister and cabinet are accountable to the legislature and so this is an important distinction between Peru and pure-presidential regimes, because in the Peruvian case, this confidence vote places Congress in a powerful position, particularly in the context of a weak and unpopular president.

Although Humala has a fixed term, the refusal of Congress to ratify his cabinet further undermines his political legitimacy and weakens his popular support. This leaves Humala looking like a lame duck.

[1] Thanks to John Carey for suggesting this post and highlighting the importance of the confidence vote in Peru.

[2] David Samuels and Matthew Shugart. 2010. How the Separation of Powers Affects Party Organization and Behavior. Cambridge University Press.

John Carey – Presidentialism 25 Years After Linz

From the archives

This is the consolidated version of three guest posts by Professor John Carey. The posts are based on the keynote address that he gave to the Conference on Coalitional Presidentialism at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, on May 2, 2014.

John Carey

Presidentialism 25 Years After Linz

Does constitutional regime type affect outcomes we care about? One of the most influential answers to that question was offered by Juan Linz about 25 years ago. At the time, most of Latin America was emerging from long stretches of military authoritarian rule. Politicians, activists, and academics were asking whether anything could be done to minimize the risk of repeating the region’s longstanding pattern of democratic breakdowns. I first encountered Linz’s paper on the Perils of Presidentialism, which was circulating in samizdat form in the late 1980s, just as I entered grad school.

I would summarize Linz’s central claim as, “If Latin America had had parliamentarism instead of presidentialism in the mid-20th Century, it might have avoided Pinochet’s regime in Chile, 20 years of military dictatorship in Brazil, Argentina’s Dirty War, Operation Condor (which pioneered the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ before that term was ever dreamed up), and a host of other catastrophes.” As a new grad student, this struck me as an incredibly exciting proposition – that if we could just get the formal rules right, we could avoid incalculable injustice, violence, and suffering. What more important challenge could political science take on than to figure out whether this was actually right? Could we figure out how to engineer constitutions to minimize the risk, even on the margin, of democratic breakdowns, and the parade of horrors that can follow?

With the wave of democratizations cresting in Latin America, and building in sub-Saharan Africa and throughout Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it was a no-brainer that the survival of democratic regimes mattered. The effects of non-democracy in all these contexts were so apparent. And Linz made a compelling case that presidentialism undermined democracy. What’s more, of all the ways presidentialism did this, in Linz’s account, stifling the development of strong parties and stable party coalitions was the most important. Democracy didn’t endure on a national level without competition among viable political parties, and the central pillar of Linz’s critique was that parliamentarism fostered strong parties and collective accountability whereas presidentialism undermined them.

Linz’s concern, amplified by Mainwaring’s seminal article on the “difficult combination” of presidentialism and multi-partism, had a huge impact on how a whole generation of scholars studied presidentialism. An avalanche of research followed into whether and how presidentialism affects democratic outcomes, much of which directly challenged Linz’s claims.

What are the central post-Linzian lessons on presidentialism? One is that, Linzian skepticism notwithstanding, presidentialism, and its hybrid cousins that combine popularly elected presidents with some measure of cabinet dependence on parliament, have multiplied far more rapidly than pure parliamentarism in recent decades, to the point where there are now about equal numbers of regimes in each category. The research also showed that presidentialism is not necessarily a recipe for democratic regime collapse, or for the impossibility of stable party coalitions in support of presidents. Along similar lines was the evidence that strong formal authorities for presidents don’t necessarily doom presidential democracy. They might even provide tools for the maintenance of coalition-based presidentialism that is distinct from a Madisonian vision based on conflict between the elected branches.

A lot of the most influential scholarship came out of Brazil, a country that commands our attention for a variety of reasons. One is, of course, is that Brazil is a giant. Another is that it produced a remarkable cohort of scholars, both Brazilian and others, who have focused on Brazilian presidentialism. But as important as any of this is the drama of the story they had to tell. Remember that Brazil was often singled out in the early presidentialism scholarship as an institutional basket case – fragmented, personalistic, clientelistic parties, untrammeled presidential powers. Twenty years ago, it was seen as the perfect presidential storm, yet it transformed into everyone’s darling. For classic liberals, the former dependency theorist who used the presidency to deliver economic stabilization without ignoring poverty was irresistible. For the left, successive Worker’s Party presidents who extended social welfare programs and oversaw measurable reductions in economic inequality looked even better.

But if the evolving accounts of Brazilian presidentialism presented challenges to Linz, the post-Linzian comparative scholarship also provided support for a number of his original claims. Presidential democracies do operate differently from parliamentary ones on a number of counts. Legislative parties and coalitions exhibit lower voting unity under presidentialism than under parliamentarism. Presidents have lower “batting averages” than do parliamentary executives in getting their policy initiatives approved as law. There are more broken campaign promises and less ‘mandate accountability’ under presidentialism than under parliamentarism.

So is it possible to size up the progress in the study of presidentialism? What approaches have provided the most traction? I think the advances beyond Linz followed from two key shifts in how scholars of comparative institutions approached the study of presidential systems, but that each of those shifts has brought its own set of limitations and challenges.

One shift was the increasing appreciation of the problems that omitted variables, and endogeneity, present for the comparative study of institutions. Jose Cheibub’s focus on presidentialism in the aftermath of military dictatorships was a huge advance here, demonstrating that, planted on similar soil to parliamentary regimes, presidential democracies were not more likely to collapse – but that the soil conditions where presidentialism takes root are systematically less hospitable to democracy. Robert Elgie’s efforts to parse the impact of variants of semi-presidentialism on regime collapse were similarly exemplary. (And I, for one, am sympathetic to the argument that divided control over the cabinet encourages regime crises.)

Lurking behind the whole question of whether and how regime type might matter to democratic performance was a question Adam Przeworski posed in a paper about ten years ago called “Is the science of comparative politics possible?” The point – not really new then, and even more familiar by now – was that institutions are the products of context, and the array of factors encompassed by the word “context” here inevitably shapes the outcomes we care about – stability, democracy, prosperity, equality, justice, security, public goods provision, etc. Przeworski’s concern, of course, just foreshadowed the “identificationist” wave that was about to wash over our discipline.

We have to ask: Can presidentialism research respond to changing expectations and standards for inference that the identificationists demand? I’m not asking this question in a kind of rhetorical build-up to a big reveal. I honestly cannot think of a research agenda in political science that presents bigger challenges for identification and inference than the study of how constitutional regime type at the national level affects the quality of democracy. I don’t have a solution, but it would require an ostrich-like capacity for denial not to acknowledge the problem in a review of this sort.

The other key post-Linzian shift was the influence in research on comparative presidentialism of theories of legislative politics initially developed in studies of parliamentary democracy and of the US Congress. The list of names here is long – and includes Tsebelis, Laver, Shepsle, Schofield, Strom, Huber, Krehbiel, Cox, McCubbins, Feddersen, Diermeier, and others. I won’t risk tedium by rehearsing the long list of studies that have applied or adapted their theories by testing them against evidence from presidential regimes. What I want to do, instead, is to raise a warning flag that we have, I think, occasionally prioritized the theories as objects of our research over more basic questions about the quality of democracy – the sort of questions Linz would not have lost sight of.

In the last decade, I have reviewed more manuscripts than I care to recall that stated their central goals as “filling gaps” in the empirical examination of existing theories. Let me suggest that when we find ourselves describing our motivation this way, it’s time for a little introspection. I’m not without blame here. I’ve spent plenty of time deep in the weeds of legislative roll calls or district-level election returns, parsing data for evidence to support hypotheses the fascination of which escapes most of my colleagues – and reviewers – never mind my parents, siblings, or children.

I’m not saying all of our research needs to reveal how to prevent the next Dirty War. Shedding light on the factors that tip the balance of influence between executives and legislatures in one direction or another is a time-honored vocation. But Madison and Montesquieu and Locke all made the case that the balance of powers mattered because it affected the likelihood of tyranny. They persuaded their audiences that the separation of powers could affect outcomes that everyone recognized as important. And remember that, for Linz, too, tyranny was front and center. My worry is that, for all the theoretical advances in the study of presidentialism since Linz, we have too often lost sight of why we, or our audience, should care.

In an article published just recently in Democratization, Paul Chaisty, Nic Cheeseman, and Timothy Power emphasized why we should care, even if we now know (or are reasonably confident) that presidentialism does not necessarily pave a straight road to tyranny. They write: “Twenty years of research have shown presidentialism to be remarkably durable, and in particular its multiparty variant has vastly over-performed relative to early predictions … [However, the authors go on to wonder whether] … The very same presidential tools that enhance governability may also undermine accountability.” I agree that the governability—accountability trade-off is what scholars of presidentialism should be studying, and I want to highlight some recent studies of presidentialism that imagine new ways to think about accountability – ways that I think would be relatively easy to explain to your aunt at Thanksgiving, or if you got interviewed by Terry Gross or Melvyn Bragg.

In an article forthcoming in Comparative Political Studies, “The Successor Factor: Electoral Accountability in Presidential Democracies,” Ignacio de Ferrari builds on the tradition (from Powell, to Stokes, to Samuels & Hellwig) of measuring accountability as the ability of voters to reward or punish an incumbent, governing party for economic performance. De Ferrari codes presidential candidates from governing parties as either incumbents (who were eligible to run again), successors (candidates anointed by outgoing incumbents), or non-successors (unconnected to incumbent presidents).

De Ferrari shows that the link between economic performance and the incumbent party candidate’s electoral fate varies systematically with incumbent/successor/non-successor status. This isn’t shocking – indeed, it would be pretty surprising if this were not the case. But then consider that de Ferrari finds no relationship between the economic performance of the incumbent government and the status of the candidates the president’s party nominated. That is, economically successful presidents were no more likely than unsuccessful ones to be able to anoint their successors. These are puzzles, and they suggest that the factors that determine whether we are in the world of high or low accountability (at least as measured by electoral rewards for economic growth) are opaque in many presidential systems.

Consider also a couple of papers by Ryan Carlin and Shane Singh, also based on data from Latin America. In one, “Executive Power and Economic Accountability,” the authors show that the stronger the constitutional and partisan powers of the president in a given country, the stronger is the relationship between a survey respondent’s evaluation of the economy and her evaluation of the president. Again, not surprising – maybe even reassuring – this suggests that citizens, in the aggregate, adjust their expectations for presidential performance according to the authorities their president wields. Yet in an article forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly, “Happy Medium, Happy Citizens: Presidential Power and Democratic Regime Support,” Singh and Carlin show that respondents’ satisfaction with the performance of democracy in their country is non-monotonically connected to those same formal authorities. The conditions that foster the tightest possible bond between economic performance and presidential approval are not the same ones that foster the greatest satisfaction with democracy more generally. So accountability in presidential democracies is not an easy animal to track and hunt.

What I’m suggesting is close attention to how we assess accountability, about what citizens want from their democracies, and what those democracies ought to deliver. If GDP growth is our indicator of good economic stewardship, then we should fear for accountability when a political system does not appear to reward growth. But maybe citizen satisfaction, measured in surveys, is a more appropriate measure of good performance. Or some measure of agreement between public support for policies and their rate of adoption? Or something else altogether?

n a spasm of curiosity, I collected data on regime type (presidential, parliamentary, or semi-presidential hybrid) from Robert Elgie’s website for 131 countries with populations above 1,000,000. Of these 41 are parliamentary, 43 are presidential, and 47 are hybrids. 97 of  the 131 (34, 33, and 30, respectively) had Polity scores of 5 or higher in the most recent year. Then I collected data from the World Bank, Polity IV, the United Nations, and Transparency International on the most recent annual measures on a wide range of regime performance and policy outputs that I think any sentient observer ought to care about: levels of democracy and stability, poverty, economic inequality, taxation, corruption, physical insecurity, and the rule of law.

Parliamentary regimes are, on the whole, wealthier than presidential ones and than hybrids.  This graph shows the distributions of Purchasing Power Parity across the regime types:

Figure 1

A lot of the performance indicators I’m going to look at here are correlated with national wealth, the distribution of which is skewed and the effects of which are likely subject to diminishing returns. So the graphs that follow will be scatterplots, and some fitted plots, of various outcomes we should care about against a log transformation of per capita wealth. Presidential regimes are marked by red Xs, parliamentary regimes by green dots, and hybrid regimes by blue triangles.  We can look quickly at the scatters and size up whether one regime type or another is over-performing or under-performing, relative to others at the same level of wealth.

Looking first at democracy levels, as measured by Polity IV. Wealthier countries are more democratic, but there’s no clear pattern of any of our three regime types systematically over- or under-performing.

Figure 2

The same is true for regime stability, as measured by the World Bank’s Stability Perceptions Index, which reflects“perceptions of the likelihood that the government will be destabilized or overthrown by unconstitutional or violent means, including politically-motivated violence and terrorism.”

Figure 3

So – so far, my crude, cross-sectional snapshots are consistent with the more systematic evidence presented by Cheibub and others that presidentialism, per se, is not inconsistent with democratic stability. But when we look at some further indicators of regime performance – again, with my crude measures – the picture for presidentialism is less encouraging.

Taxation is the cornerstone of government capacity to deliver public goods. We know that wealthier states tend to tax at higher rates, and of course parliamentary regimes are better represented at that end of the scale. Nevertheless, if we look at the distribution of regimes above and below the best linear fit line, parliamentary regimes are about twice as likely to be over-performers than under-performers, and for presidential regimes, the reverse is true.

Figure 4

In this plot, the green line shows the linear fit for the relationship between per capita wealth and taxation for presidential regimes, and the blue line shows parliamentary and hybrids pooled, and we can see that the positive relationship is driven by the latter set.

Figure 5

We might ask whether the distinct patterns for presidential and other regimes are driven by the inclusion of non-democratic cases, but dropping all regimes with Polity scores below 5 only strengthens it. Wealthier presidential democracies actually tax marginally less as a share of GDP than do poorer ones; the reverse is true among parliamentary and hybrid regimes.

Figure 6

Maybe the tax share of GDP is not an ideal measure of government accountability. Let’s consider some other things that are affected by government policies in pursuit of public welfare. The next graph shows Gini indices of economic inequality plotted against per capita wealth.

Figure 7

There’s substantial dispersion but, on the whole, wealthier societies are slightly less unequal than poorer ones. But again, look at the relative distribution of presidential, as opposed to parliamentary regimes above and below the best fit line. Or easier, here are the linear fits for presidential regimes and for the pooled set of parliamentary and hybrids.

Figure 8

Economic inequality rises with wealth among presidential regimes whereas it declines in the others. In an article entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” forthcoming in Perspective on Politics, but already lighting up the wonkosphre, Gilens and Page make the case that there is massive elite bias in influence over public policy outcomes in the United States. This graph raises the question: Does the Gilens and Page result generalize beyond the United States to other presidential systems?

If we look at poverty rather than economic inequality, we don’t get as dramatic a difference between regime types – richer countries tend to have lower poverty rates across the categories – but presidential regimes again under-perform on poverty mitigation.

Figure 9

There is a discernible difference between presidential regimes and others, with poverty rates about 10% higher across the range of income levels.Figure 10

Another conventional indicator of government accountability is corruption, so let’s take a look at Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. (Remember, higher TI scores represent less perceived corruption among its survey respondents.)

Figure 11

The pattern here is a little less stark, but the fitted plots suggest that, as countries increase in per capita wealth, the rate of improvement on corruption is flatter among presidential regimes than among parliamentary systems and hybrids.

Figure 12

We get a similar kind of pattern if we consider another key government function – guaranteeing individual physical security. The data here show homicide rates from the comprehensive United Nations report released last month. Again, there’s a general pattern of greater security in richer countries, but the rate of improvement with wealth is flatter among presidential regimes than the others.

Figure 13

Finally, we can look at the less concrete, but more catholic conceptions of Rule of Law, or of Accountability, compiled by the World Bank as Governance Indicators. These are based on a combination of survey responses and expert assessments. On both their Rule of Law index, and their Accountability index, we see the same familiar pattern, with improvement across wealth levels in presidential regimes lagging that in parliamentarism and the hybrids.

Figure 14

Figure 15

I want to emphasize that these scatterplots are just suggestive. I collected the data because, as I thought about what we’ve learned about presidentialism since Linz, I went back to Linz’s essay, and then reviewed much of the literature on presidentialism that followed. In part, I found myself conducting the inevitable scorekeeping exercise. Linz appears to have been more right about some things than others. (By the way, when I’m done playing, I’d be happy to have a record even close to his.) But when you read Linz, why he cared about regime type is never in doubt. So much outstanding research has followed Linz. My words of encouragement as we continue this work is that our scholarship should be as clear as Linz’s was with regard to why we care about the phenomena we study.

John M. Carey is the Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences, and the chair of the Government Department, at Dartmouth College.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the author of 5 books and of over 50 academic articles on democratic institutions.  Research, datasets, and further information about his work are available on his website at

José Cheibub – The Constitutional Foundations of Democratic Consolidation

From the archives

This is the consolidated version of two guest posts by José Cheibub, Boeschenstein Professor of Political Economy and Public Policy in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


In this post, I discuss the role of political institutions in democratic consolidation. Regarding the forms of democratic government, I like to think that there are essentially two: those with a separation of powers and those that require assembly confidence. The first are typical presidential democracies, systems with constitutions that prescribe a fixed term in office for both a popularly and independently elected president and a congress. The second are the parliamentary and semi-presidential democracies, in which the government must be at least tolerated by a parliamentary majority in order to exist.

I will therefore focus on the effect of political institutions, whether parliamentary or presidential, on democratic consolidation. I start by briefly reviewing the earlier debate on the relationship between democratic form of government and consolidation. I then discuss what I see as two challenges we face today to advance the study of democratic consolidation: its proper definition and conceptualization, an to understand how the phenomena of democratic breakdown and consolidation changed since we first started to think about them. I conclude with a few remarks on the kind of advice political scientists can give regarding the best constitutional form for the consolidation of democracy.

The impact of separation of powers or assembly confidence on democratic consolidation is no longer at the center of the democratization research agenda. Probably everyone is familiar with the argument, first developed by Juan Linz, according to which presidential institutions are likely to lead to crises that may ultimately cause the breakdown of democracies.[i] Although Linz offered more than one reason for the observed negative correlation between presidentialism and democracy, most important, in my view, was his argument about incentives for coalition formation. This argument was also the most fully developed in subsequent studies. His reasoning was as follows: presidential institutions fail to generate incentives for cooperation among individual politicians, among parties and between the legislative and executive powers. Because presidentialism provides no incentives for inter-branch cooperation, presidential democracies are characterized by frequent minority governments as well as conflict and deadlocks between the government and the legislature. Because presidential regimes lack a constitutional principle that can be invoked to resolve conflicts between the executive and the legislature, such as the vote of no confidence in parliamentary democracies, minority presidents and deadlock provide incentives for actors to search for extra-constitutional means of resolving differences. As a consequence, presidential democracies become more prone to instability and eventual death.

Thus, according to Linz, presidential institutions are simply not conducive to governments capable of handling the explosive issues that are central to the new democracies in the developing world. These issues make governing difficult under any circumstances. Governing becomes almost impossible when the institutional setup is likely to generate governments with weak legislative support as well as parties and politicians whose dominant strategy is to act independently from one another. Given the lack of constitutional solutions to the crises that are almost inevitable in these countries, political actors have no choice but to appeal to those with the means to resolve their differences, even if at the price of democracy itself.

Here is not the place for rehashing the debate around these ideas. Let me simply say that Juan Linz’s view of the negative impact of presidentialism on democratization was critically examined along two main lines. The first focused on the fact that parliamentary democracies were not altogether immune to the institutional crises that were supposed to characterize presidential ones. The second sought to show that the sequence of events that would lead to the breakdown of presidential democracies did not materialize with the frequency implied by the argument. Consequently, if the relationship between presidentialism and democratic breakdown is causal, the mechanism might not be the one postulated by Linz.

Of course, the discussion around the “perils of presidentialism” did not represent the last word in the debate about the impact of forms of government on democratic consolidation. This question still generates considerable interest, as it should. The correlation between presidential institutions and democratic breakdown is still a reality and hence the intuitive arguments that have been made connecting the two still resonate. But to move forward it may be helpful to address some unresolved issues while recognizing how the political reality has changed since Linz’s theory was formulated. Even though not a long time has passed since that moment, it is fair to say that the features of many of the cases we are confronted with today are quite different from the ones confronted by Linz.

The original argument about the detrimental effects of presidentialism for democratic consolidation must be understood in the context of the virtual disappearance of democracy from Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1960 and 1975, almost every Latin American country experienced a democratic breakdown. Most of these democracies collapsed in the hands of the military, who inaugurated what O’Donnell called a new type of dictatorship – the bureaucratic-authoritarian regime. As a matter of fact, during the Cold War, the vast majority of democracies collapsed as the result of a military coup, in a pattern that, at least superficially, corroborated Linz’s view of a conflict between a fixed-term executive who did not have the support of a majority in congress.

Democratic breakdown happens nowadays in a very different way. Institutionalized militaries cannot be counted on to intervene into politics and take the reins of government from the hands of civilian politicians. If democracies fail to consolidate today, authoritarian regimes that replace them are more likely to be led by civilians, often the elected incumbent who, by a process of overt and covert manipulation, progressively removes the conditions necessary for competitive elections to occur in the future. To use the terminology employed by Adam Przeworski and his co-authors,[ii] transitions to authoritarianism after the Cold War are more likely to be “from above” and occur at the hands of the incumbent. They are likely to violate two of the three conditions which the above mentioned authors identified as necessary for a democracy to exist: “ex ante uncertainty,” namely, the requirement that electoral outcomes are not pre-determined, and “repeatability,” that is, the requirement that democratic incumbents hold competitive elections such as the ones that brought them into office.[iii]

Thus, if it is true that there is a correlation between presidentialism and the recent failures of democratic consolidation (something that has not been established yet, as far as I know), and if it is true that these episodes of failure rarely if at all involve a military coup, we need to formulate new explanatory hypotheses. What is it about presidentialism that may lead to the entrenchment of incumbents in power? Conversely, which characteristics of parliamentary institutions might prevent such entrenchment?

One thing is sure, namely, that the Linzian approach to these questions will not take us far. The reason is that this approach is focused on the problem of legislative support for the executive, that is, on how parliamentarism virtually assures that such support is present, and (multiparty) presidentialism virtually assures that it will be lacking. However, some of the contemporary cases suggest the opposite: democracy may be “saved” by the fact that the government does not have strong support in the legislature and it may be threatened in situations when the executive enjoys sufficient backing of the legislature to shut off the opposition.

Take a few recent examples. In Slovakia, Vladimír Mečiar was hampered in his authoritarian ambitions by repeated defections from his coalition, which eventually resulted in a vote of no-confidence in 1994 and the failure to form governments in 1998. This happened in spite of Mečiar’s control of a plurality of legislative seats. In Hungary, on the other hand, the overwhelming legislative support for Prime Minister Victor Orbán allowed him and his party to introduce changes that are widely seen as non-democratic. Similarly, as Sebastian Saiegh shows using an example of the fall of Bolivian president Sánchez Lozada in 2003,[iv] the danger for democratic consolidation posed by an unconstitutional transfer of power should be attributed to situations which are in their nature opposite to deadlocks. As Saiegh suggests, in some circumstances the government may actually govern too much. Consequently, what threatens democracy is not so much that there is a deadlock between a constitutionally irremovable president and legislature but the fact that the two are aligned and can change the status quo in a direction that may suit their interests but not those of democracy. Deadlocks and minority governments may be precisely what save democracy from being suffocated by aspiring autocrats. If this conclusion reminds the reader of Madison and his view about separation of powers, it is not a mere coincidence.

Thus, the correlation between presidential institutions and (failure of) democratic consolidation in the contemporary world, if it exists at all, should not be considered intuitive and explainable in terms of hypotheses generated from a framework that sees the lack of legislative support for presidents as the crux of the problem. That framework was generated with a specific set of historical examples in mind, and it became popular in the context of the debt crisis in Latin America and the concerns about the ability of governments in the region to implement structural policies that were at the time considered necessary. While implementation of these policies required the preference alignment of the executive and the legislature, all countries operated under a constitution that provided no such guarantee. By contrast with presidentialism, assembly confidence was seeing as the institutional mechanism that assured support of legislative majority to the executive and parliamentarism as the form of government that would prevent the failure of the new democracies in Latin America and Eastern Europe. We know where this story went: few democracies, parliamentary or presidential, failed in the way that was then expected. Perhaps this is the fact that requires explanation.

What kind of constitution is best suited to help consolidate democracy? Unfortunately, in my view, some scholars believe that there is a clear answer to this question and are not shy to advocate their views. For instance, in an opinion piece published in July 2013, Bruce Ackerman, a professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, stated that the failure of the military rulers who had just taken power in Egypt to replace presidentialism with “a European-style parliamentary system,” “virtually guarantees a repetition of the tragic events of the past year.”[v] Furthermore, as he argues counterfactually, the adoption of a parliamentary constitution after Mubarak’s departure “could well have avoided the current upheaval and bloodshed in the first place.” The reason, according to him, is that “the presidency is a winner-take-all office,” which may be suitable for a country such as the United States, “where well-organized parties contend for the prize,” but “is a recipe for tyranny in places like Egypt, where Islamists have powerful organizational advantages in delivering the vote.” Although Ackerman stands out in the forcefulness and clarity with which he defends a constitutional overhaul in countries that adopt presidentialism, he certainly does not hold this opinion alone. Yet, we may ask: is this view warranted?

This kind of advice is based on generic and one-sided arguments, which are supported by scant historical and statistical evidence: isolated regime crises (Chile in 1973 is favorite, with Egypt beginning to trail behind) and references to the correlation between presidentialism and regime breakdown, as if correlation was evidence of causation. (But we know better than this!). Moreover, parliamentarism and presidentialism are very broad constitutional frameworks: as recent research has demonstrated, they can be configured in an infinite number of ways; they interact with other, small and large, institutional features of the political system; and, of course, they interact with non-institutional factors, unique to the country where they are being adopted. This last point is particularly relevant for Egypt. It is possible that Ackeman is right and a parliamentary constitution may do the trick in Egypt and allow for the peaceful processing of conflicts between Islamists and secularists. On the other hand, we have good reasons to believe that, given the nature of its military, the main problem in Egypt at this point is far from being institutional; perhaps given the presence of such an actor, any kind of constitutional arrangement would have failed. Thus, to reduce parliamentarism and presidentialism to one essential feature, to look at specific situations from the lens provided by this essential feature, and offer constitutional advice on the basis of this exercise requires courage, the courage of fools who believe that they have successfully found the solution to the problem that has eluded everyone else.

I thus end with a note which suggests more humbleness than confidence in our ability to provide positive advice of the sort given by Ackerman. The vast majority of studies have failed to establish convincingly that there exists a causal relationship between the form of government and democracy. Consequently, unless in some specific case there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum about the need for change, it is not certain that the benefit of adopting a new type of constitution will outweigh the costs of implementing it.

[i] Juan J. Linz, “Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does It Make a Difference?” in Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela, eds., The Failure of Presidential Democracy: The Case of Latin America, edited by (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

[ii] Adam Przeworski, Michael E. Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[iii] The one that is not violated is “ex post certainty,” namely the assurance that whoever wins the election will take office. Note that the “alternation” rule introduced by Przeworski et al. to operationalize the three conditions of democracy speaks directly to the problems related to the measurement of incumbent-caused subversions of democracy.

[iv], Sebastian Saiegh, Ruling by Statute: How Uncertainty and Vote Buying Shape Lawmaking (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[v] Bruce Ackerman, “To Save Egypt, Drop the Presidency,” New York Times, July 10, 2013.

A longer version of this post first appeared in the APSA Comparative Democratization newsletter, vol. 12, no. 2, May 2014