This is a guest post by Thomas Sedelius, Dalarna University, and Jonas Linde, University of Bergen. It is a summary of their co-authored article that was recently published in Democratization. The full text article is free to download here.
Do semi-presidential regimes perform worse than other regime types? Following the classical argument once raised by Juan J. Linz (1990; 1994) that presidentialism and semi-presidentialism are less conducive to democracy than parliamentarism, a number of studies have empirically analysed the functioning and performance of semi-presidentialism. With the notable exception of Elgie (2011), however, there is a lack of large-N studies where democracy and government performance are actually measured across the two subtypes of semi-presidentialism (premier-presidential and president-parliamentary regimes). Robert Elgie’s systematic and comprehensive study offers several important findings on the performance of two types of semi-presidentialism, but it does so in isolation from parliamentary and presidential regimes. Our study is an attempt to address this gap in the literature.
By using indicators on regime performance and democracy from a dataset containing 173 countries, we examine the performance records of premier-presidential and president-parliamentary regimes in relation to parliamentarism and presidentialism.
Guided by Linz’s argument on the “perils of presidentialism”, and by Matthew S. Shugart and John M. Carey’s (1992) proposition that president-parliamentary regimes are more perilous to democracy than other regime types, we test three basic hypotheses.
H1: Parliamentarism performs better than other regime types in terms of democracy and government performance.
H2: Premier-presidentialism performs better than president-parliamentarism and presidentialism in terms of democracy and government performance.
H3: President-parliamentarism performs on a par with, or worse, than presidentialism in terms of democracy and government performance.
For measuring democracy, we select four frequently used indicators: Freedom House’s index of civil liberties and political rights and Polity IV combined, Polity IV on its own, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy, and the Executive Constraints indicator from Polity IV, which refers to the extent of institutionalized constraints on the decision-making powers of chief executives. For measuring government performance, we use the Government Effectiveness indicator from the Worldwide Governance Indicators, the Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International, the Empowerment Rights Index from CIRI Human Rights Data Project, and the Human Development Index from UNDP.
Following a series of descriptive reports, we run some basic multivariate analyses with a conventional set of controls including GDP/capita, population size, ethnic fractionalization, proportional representation, and different world regions.
Overall, our findings do not support the proposition that parliamentarism performs better than all other regime types in terms of democracy and government performance (H1). Rather we observed a pattern where premier-presidentialism performs almost as good – and on some measures even better – as parliamentary regimes. Neither the measures of democracy nor the measures of government performance show significantly better records for parliamentary regimes than for premier-presidential ones. This indicates that a parliamentary constitution with an indirectly elected president does not necessarily go along with better political performance than a premier-presidential one with a popularly elected but weak or medium weak president. Thus, to the extent that we think about semi-presidentialism in terms of premier-presidential regimes, we have reasons to question strong propositions about the “perils of semi-presidentialism”.
However, the picture certainly looks different with regard to president-parliamentary regimes. While premier-presidential regimes are closer to parliamentary regimes, president-parliamentary regimes display performance records more similar to pure presidentialism, and it performs even worse on most indicators (H2, H3). When it comes to the level of democracy, the only regime type to perform significantly worse than the parliamentary one – on four separate measures and with conventional controls – is the president-parliamentary regime type. The differences in terms of government performance are less pronounced. Although there is a tendency of slightly poorer performance by presidential-parliamentary regimes also in terms of government performance, and significantly so on one indicator, our results demonstrate that the type of constitutional system seems to affect democracy more strongly than government performance.
Shugart and Carey’s general recommendation to stay away from the president-parliamentary form of government certainly finds support in our data. In our study, we mostly refrain from making claims about causal mechanisms behind the observed pattern. However, we allow some general comments on the importance of presidential powers in relation to the four regime types. We show how variation in presidential powers follow closely the four regime types – weakest among the parliamentary regimes and strongest among the president-parliamentary regimes. We know that case studies on e.g. post-Soviet countries where the system has shifted from president-parliamentary to premier-presidential constitutions provide additional support to the negative impact of president-parliamentarism on democracy. For instance, Elgie and Moestrup (2016) show that reduced presidential powers and a shift to a more balanced semi-presidential system have been associated with better democracy records in e.g. Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. A general trend among the post-Soviet countries is that the presidents have used their control over the administration to curb the opposition and thereby directing the trajectory of constitutional developments in their own favor. The outcome has been increased power of already powerful presidents – a straight road to the consolidation of autocracy.
Our study is limited to the extent that it draws on cross-sectional data only, and we acknowledge the need for more sophisticated analyses. In addition, the study can make no valid claims of having disentangled endogeneity challenges regarding institutions and political outcomes. Yet, we reveal a general pattern with regard to the four regime types on performance. Based on our findings, we claim that democratic performance is likely to be better with a parliamentary or premier-presidential form of government. If the most positive accounts about semi-presidentialism are relevant, such as executive flexibility, power-sharing, and a uniting president, those are most likely to be identified under the premier-presidential form of government. Our data give no support for general recommendations to avoid dual executives or popularly elected president with limited powers.
Finally, and well in line with more recent scholarship, we argue that discussions about the pros and cons of semi-presidentialism should include the distinction between its sub-categories as well as considering dimensions of presidential power.
Elgie, Robert. Semi-Presidentialism: Sub-Types and Democratic Performace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Elgie and Sophia Moestrup (Eds.). Semi-Presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Linz, Juan J. “The Perils of Presidentialism.” Journal of Democracy 1, no. 1 (1990): 51-69.
Linz, Juan J. “Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference?” In: Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela. (Eds.) The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, 3-87.
Shugart, Matthew S. and John M. Carey. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
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. His work on semi-presidentialism has appeared in journals such as Democratization, Government and Opposition, and East European Politics, and also include The Tug-of-War between Presidents and Prime Ministers: Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe (Örebro Studies, 2006). Thomas currently leads a research project (2015-2018) financed by the Swedish Research Council on semi-presidentialism and governability in transitional countries.
Jonas Linde is Professor of Political Science at the Department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen, Norway. His research has dealt with different aspects of political support, perceptions of corruption, quality of government, e-government and post-communist democratization. Linde’s works have been published in journals such as Governance, European Journal of Political Research, International Political Science Review, Political Studies, Government Information Quarterly and Government and Opposition.