Thomas Sedelius – Semi-Presidentialism and Intra-Executive Conflict

This is a guest post by Thomas Sedelius, Dalarna University, Sweden.

Thomas Sedelius

The journal East European Politics (EEP) has awarded the 2013 EEP prize  to Thomas Sedelius & Olga Mashtaler for their article “Two Decades of Semi-Presidentialism: Issues of Intra-Executive Conflict in Central and Eastern Europe 1991-2011” as “the most outstanding article in the field of study from the previous year’s volume”. This post summarises the argument in the article. 

As semi-presidentialism has become a very popular form of government worldwide and has appeared as the most common one in Central and Eastern Europe, there are strong reasons for the academic community to go further into analysing the operation of semi-presidentialism and its sub-types.

A built-in risk of semipresidentialism is the occurrence of intra-executive conflict between the president and the prime minister. Although there are few empirically oriented studies substantiating the assumed risks associated with intra-executive conflict, there is a belief in the literature that intra-executive conflict is a “peril” of semi-presidentialism. With few exceptions (e.g. Protsyk 2005, 2006; Sedelius and Ekman 2010) the phenomenon of intra-executive conflict in semi-presidential regimes remains underexplored. From Eastern Europe there are a number of cases where we can observe that intra-executive conflict has been present and has resulted in negative effects such as political instability and stalemate policy situations, e.g. between President Walesa and several prime ministers in Poland 1991–95, between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych in Ukraine 2006–07, and between President Basescu and Prime Minister Ponta in Romania 2012, just to mention a few.

Our article systematically examines intra-executive conflict in eight semi-presidential countries in Central and Eastern Europe from 1991-2011. We ask: To what extent is intra-executive conflict a persistent phenomenon in post-communist semi-presidential regimes? How does the type of semi-presidentialism matter to the frequency of conflict? Has the nature of conflict shifted over the course of the post-communist period in terms of issue and character? Do intra-executive conflicts primarily include differing policy orientations between the president and the cabinet, or do they predominantly reflect power struggles over constitutional prerogatives and domains of influence? Our premier–presidential cases are Bulgaria 1991–2011, Croatia 2000–2011, Lithuania 1991–2011, Moldova 1991–2000,3 Poland 1991–2011, Romania 1991–2011, and Ukraine 2006–10.The president–parliamentary cases are Croatia 1992–2000, Russia 1991–2011, Ukraine 1991–2006, and 2010–2011.

We adhere to the standard academic definition that semi-presidentialism is where the constitution includes both a popularly elected president and a prime minister and cabinet accountable to the parliament (Elgie 1999). In addition, we separate premier-presidentialism, where the prime minister and cabinet are collectively responsible solely to the legislature, from president-parliamentarism, where both the prime minister and cabinet are collectively responsible to both the legislature and the president (Shugart and Carey 1992). Intra-executive conflict is defined by us as struggles between the president and the prime minister/cabinet over the control of the executive branch. In order to have a more operational definition, the relationship between the president and the cabinet is considered as conflict-ridden when there has been an observable clash between the president and the prime minister and/or between the president and other government ministers, manifested through obstructive or antagonistic behaviour from either side, directed towards the other. The level of intra-executive conflict is then compressed into ordinal estimations of low and high conflict.

Initially we formulated some theoretically derived propositions regarding the trend and issues of conflict. We expected:

1) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflict under premier–presidentialism than under president–parliamentary systems,

2) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflict under cohabitation (premier-presidentialism only) than under a united executive.

3) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflicts in the earliest period following the transition and then a gradual decrease as the institutionalisation process continued.

4) conflicts emanating from confrontations over formal rules of the game to be most frequent in the earliest period following the transition and then a gradual decrease as the institutionalisation process continued.

Based on expert survey data as well as indicators derived from documents and literature analysis, 76 instances of intra-executive relations between 1991 and 2011 were examined.

Strong support was provided only for the second proposition above, i.e. intra-executive conflict has clearly been more frequent under periods of cohabitation than under united executives. The remaining three propositions found weak or no support in our data. Intra-executive conflict has occurred frequently under both types of semi-presidentialism, and has persisted at similar levels throughout the post-communist era. In addition, we found that over time the character of conflicts have only slightly changed from being predominantly power struggles over formal rules and competences to being more issue-specific and policy-oriented.

Reservations regarding the limited number of cases are of course necessary, especially when separating between premier-presidentialism and president-parliamentarism.

Intra-executive conflict illustrates one of the main challenges of semipresidentialism, i.e. the often vaguely defined, and partly overlapping, competences between the president and the prime minister. Many conflicts are essentially a pure struggle for domination, power, and influence within the executive branch. Clashes over appointments, dismissals, policy reforms, and constitutional prerogatives are often logical expressions of the institutional competition embedded into the dual executive structure of semi-presidentialism. Apparently, intra-executive conflict has not led to the collapse of democratisation in the premier–presidential systems of Central and Eastern Europe. Periods of strong conflict may in fact demonstrate a normal and healthy sign of any maturing political system and the absence of such manifest conflicts (e.g. Putin’s Russia) could be a worrying sign of increasing authoritarianism. But intra-executive conflict poses considerable strains on transitional countries since it negatively affects cabinet stability and policy effectiveness. We need to know more about if, when, and under what conditions intra-executive conflict may also pose a serious threat to democratisation and regime stability.

References

Elgie, Robert, ed. 1999. Semi-Presidentialism in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Protsyk, Oleh. 2005. ”Politics of Intra-executive Conflict in Semi-presidential Regimes in Eastern Europe.” East European Politics and Society 18 (2): 1–20.

Protsyk, Oleh. 2006.”Intra-executive Competition between President and Prime Minister: Patterns of Institutional Conflict and Cooperation in Semi-presidential Regimes.” Political Studies 56 (2): 219–241.

Sedelius, Thomas & Joakim Ekman. 2010. “Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe.” 45 (4): 505–530.

Sedelius, Thomas & Joakim Ekman. 2010. “Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe.” Government and Opposition 45 (4): 505–530.

Shugart, M. S., and J. M. Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The full text article is free to download here [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21599165.2012.748662#.VNS56k10ylY]

Thomas Sedelius is Associate Professor in Political Science at Dalarna University, Sweden. His research covers semi-presidentialism, political institutions, transition, democratisation, and East European politics. In addition to a number of articles, his publications include The Tug-of-War between Presidents and Prime Ministers: Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe (Örebro Studies, 2006) and Demokratiseringsprocesser: nya perspektiv och utmaningar (Studentlitteratur, 2014, with Joakim Ekman & Jonas Linde). Thomas currently leads a research project (2015-2018) financed by the Swedish Research Council on semi-presidentialism and governability in transitional countries.

Olga Mashtaler is a researcher and PhD student at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”, Kiev. She currently (2014-15) holds a guest scholarship at Örebro University granted by the Swedish Institute. Her research covers political culture, political institutions, semi-presidentialism and East European politics.

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