Young Hun Kim – Democratic Performance of Semi-presidentialism: It’s the Presidential Powers

This post by Young Hun Kim is a summary of an article “A Troubled Marriage? Divided Minority Government, Cohabitation, Presidential Powers, President-Parliamentarism and Semi-Presidentialism,” (Government and Opposition 2015).

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Semi-presidentialism, with its combination of prime minister and directly elected president, is a common feature in many of the world’s new democracies. About 40 percent of countries that experienced democratization between 1974 and 2009 (40 of 103) are classified as semi-presidential systems. More interestingly, some presidential and parliamentary democracies have transformed to semi-presidential governance. For example, presidential Armenia and Georgia adopted a dual-executive system in 1994 and 2004, respectively. More recently, the parliamentary Czech Republic elected its president by popular vote for the first time in February 2013 and Turkey, another parliamentary country, in August 2014.

However, research to date generally views semi-presidentialism as a liability to democratic governance, since it is more likely to experience partisan infighting in the executive branch and to foster political fragmentation in the legislature. Thus semi-presidential regimes are thought to be prone to government instability, lower levels of democracy, and even democratic failure (see for example, Elgie 2008; Elgie 2011; Elgie and McMenamin 2008; Protsyk 2005; Roper 2002; Sedelius and Ekman 2010). Considering the high popularity of semi-presidentialism among new democracies, these pessimistic understandings do not seem to bode well for their democratic future.

A recently published article “A Troubled Marriage?” reassesses democratic performance in all new semi-presidential systems across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America from 1974 to 2009. By democratic performance, the study refers to three challenging tasks that new democracies often deal with at executive and system levels. The first one is executive stability measured by presidential impeachment attempts and prime ministerial turnovers. Impeachment attempts are efforts made by legislative deputies to effect a constitutional removal of a president. Prime ministerial turnovers are situations in which a prime minister is replaced by a new figure excluding changes immediately following parliamentary elections. The second is the levels of democracy which is measured by dividing democratic years into partial democracy (where a Polity2 score ranges from +1 to +5) and full democracy (where a Polity2 score ranges from +6 to +10). The last one is democratic breakdown defined as a situation in which new democracies cease to function due to a military coup or civil war.

For factors that may affect the democratic performance, the study focuses on divided minority government (where no party or coalition controls a majority in the legislature), cohabitation (where the president and prime minister are from different parties and the president’s party is not represented in the executive), unchecked presidential powers, and a president-parliamentary subtype (where the prime minister and cabinet are responsible to both the president and the legislature, and the president has power to dismiss the legislature) that previous studies have identified as risk factors for semi-presidential regimes.

The results are more encouraging than previous research has suggested. A divided minority government contributes to higher levels of democracy, even though it, along with president-parliamentarism, generally means presidents becoming more vulnerable to legislative impeachment efforts. And cohabitation poses less risk than previously thought. It has little effect on either executive stability or the level of democracy.

What does appear to be a great risk for semi-presidentialism is a failure to check presidential powers. As presidents enjoy more powers, the level of democracy tends to decrease. In addition, prime ministers’ tenure in office becomes less stable and presidents are more subject to impeachment drives.

What explains the negative effects of a strong presidency? It might be suggested that having a strong president would be an asset in semi-presidential systems. This is because strong presidents may effectively coordinate and undertake critical reforms after transition (Holmes 1993). But it should be emphasized that presidents with stronger powers are not likely to negotiate and compromise with other political actors mostly because they can get things done on their own. As a result, the horizontal accountability is prone to be compromised (Fish 2006). Also strong presidents are likely to personalize the political process. Overall, disadvantages of a strong presidency seem to trump any merits associated with it from the experience of new semi-presidential democracies.

The findings have a significant implication for countries that already practice semi-presidential governance or are contemplating a move in that direction: checking presidential powers is one of the key factors that will influence democratic consolidation in semi-presidentialism. In particular, executive powers need to be balanced between president and prime minister. Doing so would not require a major constitutional overhaul. What is necessary is a relatively minor constitutional amendment regulating the distribution of executive powers. If countries can successfully check presidential powers, then a semi-presidential system may appear to be a more appealing option than it does now for many young democracies.

References:

Elgie, Robert. 2008. ‘The Perils of Semi-Presidentialism. Are They Exaggerated?’ Democratization 15 (1):49-66.

———. 2011. Semi-Presidentialism: Sub-Types and Democratic Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Elgie, Robert, and Iain McMenamin. 2008. ‘Semi-presidentialism and Democratic Performance.’ Japanese Journal of Political Science 9:323-40.

Fish, M. Steven. 2006. ‘Stronger Legislatures, Stronger Democracies.’ Journal of Democracy 17 (1):5-20.

Holmes, Stephen. 1993. ‘The Postcommunist Presidency.’ East European Constitutional Review 2:36-9.

Protsyk, Oleh. 2005. ‘Politics of Intraexecutive Conflict in Semipresidential Regimes in Eastern Europe.’ East European Politics and Societies 19 (2):135-60.

Roper, Steven D. 2002. ‘Are All Semipresidential Regimes the Same? A Comparison of Premier-Presidential Regimes.’ Comparative Politics 34 (3):253-72.

Sedelius, Thomas, and Joakim Ekman. 2010. ‘Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe.’ Government and Opposition 45 (4):505-30.

Dr. Young Hun Kim (pokocham@hotmail.com) is a Visiting Assistant Professor at North Carolina Wesleyan College. He has earned his Ph.D. in political science in 2008 from the Pennsylvania State University. His research has focused mostly, but not exclusively, on comparative political institutions and democratization, with regional expertise in East Asia and Eastern Europe. More specifically, he examines sources and consequences of new types of presidential instability (interrupted presidencies and impeachment attempts), post-tenure fate of political leaders, and institutional determinants of democratic performance in presidential and semi-presidential systems. His research has appeared in Cross-Cultural Research, Democratization, Government and Opposition, and Journal of Politics.

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