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).

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