Huang-Ting Yan – Comparing the democratic performance of semi-presidential regimes in the post-communist region: Omnipotent presidents and media control

This is a guest post by Huang-Ting Yan of the University of Essex. It is based on a  recent article in Communist and Post-Communist Studies.

Since countries in the post-communist region have adopted semi-presidentialism as a constitutional design, their democratic performance has varied. Stable democracies have persisted in most countries in Central and Eastern Europe, but Eurasian countries appear to be transitioning into an enduring dictatorship. Why does democratic performance vary across semi-presidential regimes in the post-communist region?

A comprehensive review of the existing literature shows two major theoretical interpretations. The first is constitutional heterogeneity. Semi-presidentialism is divided into premier-presidentialism and presidential-parliamentarism. Of these, premier-presidentialism functions better than presidential-parliamentarism because control over the government is clearly assigned to the parliament. Put another way, a premier-presidential country is less likely to suffer from the situation under which both the president and parliament claim constitutional legitimacy to control the government (i.e. the use of extra constitutional power to solve a political stalemate). Further, presidential-parliamentarism endangers a democracy because over-concentration of power by the president marginalises the prime minister and the parliament. In such situations, the system of checks and balances is insufficient for limiting the exercise of presidential power.

The second interpretation zeroes in on political circumstances despite an unreached agreement. For example, a president politically at odds with a prime minister exacerbates the risk of democratic collapse in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This political stand-off does not have a significant effect on regime survival when more countries are added into the analysis. It is also theoretically plausible that when neither the president nor the prime minister—not any party or coalition—enjoys a substantive majority in the legislature, executive/legislative deadlock paves the way for democratic failure. Empirical analyses, however, cannot confirm this theoretical expectation.

This article supports the concept that a constitutionally powerful president impedes democratic development but argues regarding whether a president effectively exercising power granted by the constitution is dependent on political circumstances. First, under the cohabitation, a president’s influence decreases because the prime minister from the other party or coalition—who holds most seats in the parliament—will scrutinise a president’s actions. A president also finds it difficult to employ constitutional power when he/she is from the same camp as a premier, though the president faces an oppositional majority in the parliament. Further, a president is not immune from a coalition partner’s restrictions on either personnel appointments or policy making if a coalition government forms. Finally, imposing preferred policies is much more difficult for a president without the certain support of parties in a hung parliament. By contrast, a president that coexists with a co-partisan prime minister leading a single-party majority government often enjoys parliamentary support. This situation acts in his/her best interest. This research, therefore, argues that a constitutionally powerful president supported by a single-party majority cabinet leads to poor democratic performance.

What is the causal pathway behind a powerful president buttressed by a single-party majority cabinet towards poor democratic performance? For autocrats in electoral authoritarian regimes—to which all post-communist semi-presidential dictatorships belong—, how to prevent a divided opposition from coalescing in elections is a key to maintaining durable dictatorial rule. Media freedom plays an important role. Media facilitate power struggles that emerge between the authoritarian camp and the opposition by shaping public discourse and providing a collaborative forum for opposition voices. Media freedom also permits recruitment and mobilisation of the public to participate in public actions, which empower inefficient collective actions against dictators and promote democratisation. For the reasons outlined above, media control is necessary for a dictator or powerful president whose party holds most seats in the parliament and who probably enacts media-related laws without hindrance, using them to discourage oppositional mobilisation through the free media. The result in such cases is defeat that gradually nibbles away at the opposition in the next several elections. This paper, therefore, argues that the causal pathway from a constitutionally powerful president to poor democratic performance is buttressed by a single-party majority cabinet and a higher level of media control.

Using a quantitative analysis and comparative case studies of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, this paper verifies the convergent pathway from powerful presidents’ media control to poor democratic performance. As for the quantitative analysis, this research found —compared with other types of cabinets—that a constitutionally powerful president combined with a single-party majority cabinet decreased democratic performance, and media control mediated the partial effect of this type of combination on poor democratic performance.

In terms of comparing the two cases, a similar pathway to poor democratic performance was identified. First, Presidents Heydar Aliyev (Azerbaijan) and Nursultan Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan) monopolised the process of drafting the constitution and chose the presidential-parliamentary system, which granted them more power. Second, the ruling parties, the New Azerbaijan Party and Nur Otan, respectively established and led to the division and marginalisation of the opposition by employing executive resources. Thus, they swept elections. Third, an over-concentration of power by the president, in which the combination of presidential-parliamentarism with a single-party majority cabinet resulted, increased a president’s room to act peremptorily. As a result, stricter control over the media, which aimed to impede the opposition from disseminating information detrimental to the incumbent and organising through communication tools, decreased the opposition’s probability of replacing existing institutions in elections, facilitating the emergence of a closed polity.

In conclusion, this research verified that a constitutionally powerful president coupled with a single-party majority cabinet puts democratic performance at risk through media control. The implication is that an appropriate strategy for improving democracies in the post-communist region should focus on two dimensions: constitutional design and political circumstances. Further, media control, the author strongly believes, is not the only reason to account for internal causal mechanisms, so future research should identify more common explanatory factors that mediate the relationship between an omnipotent president and poor democratic performance. Finally, in addition to cabinet types which relate to parliamentary support for the executive, it is also important to take the president’s role in the party into consideration. That is, presidents without power to control elites of their parties are less likely to exercise power in their interest even if granted considerable power by the constitution and buttressed by a single-party-majority cabinet.

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