Tag Archives: Presidential power scores

Anna Fruhstorfer – Constitutions and Presidents. How formal rules constrain and empower

This is a guest post by Anna Fruhstorfer. It summarizes the main argument and findings of her PhD thesis, Constitutions and Presidents. How formal rules constrain and empower, which was Defended at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in July 2015 (PhD committee: Silvia von Steinsdorff, Zachary Elkins, Ellen Imoergut.



Although presidential power is a hot topic in political science research, little attention was paid to presidents in non-presidential systems with a powerful parliament and prime minister. So far, scholars have mostly been focusing on semi-presidential systems, whereas parliamentary systems with an indirectly elected president like in Germany or Estonia are hardly ever discussed (with the exception of Tavits 2009). Thus, in my research, I study presidential power in both parliamentary and semipresidential systems. In addition, little is known about the role of constitutions in presidential power. Treating constitutions as the explanatory variable is unusual. However, some influential studies have sought to explain the central role of constitutions in the conceptionalization of presidential power. From different angles, Amorim Neto and Strøm (2006), Tavits (2009), Schleiter and Morgan-Jones (2010) or more recently Bucur (2013) have significantly contributed to our understanding of presidential power. Nevertheless, because these studies are mostly concerned with explaining why a discrepancy between constitution and reality occurs, they do not pay much attention to how constitutions influence reality. In my thesis I answer the how question. I argue that specific characteristics of constitutional power make presidential institutions more sensitive to outside influences than others. Therefore, presidents that act within these institutions adapt their behavior accordingly. What emerges from these actions and what we can observe are different patterns of presidential leadership.

Empirically, that means that I conduct a comparative case study of 46 countries for a time frame of up to 75 years.[1] First, I compile an original dataset for these countries (CPS dataset)[2], which is based on a new measurement tool of constitutional presidential strength (CPS index). Secondly, using the dataset, a principal axis factor analysis is used to confront the unidimensional perspective of presidential power and form two dimensions of constitutional power. This two-dimensional perspective then lays the ground for the third step; a typology of presidential institutions with four types (CPS typology).

Measurement of constitutional presidential strength

In the course of the development of the stated argument and the conceptualization of power, it became clear that established measurement tools of presidential constitutional power do not always adequately describe the president’s role in parliamentary systems. Nevertheless, these facts were necessary for my research project. Hence, I have developed the index of constitutional presidential strength (CPS) for this study. It advances established tools to better capture the functional logic of parliamentary systems, to facilitate both low-level and high-level constitutional competences, and to enhance methodological and conceptual issues.

Conceptually, the CPS index emphasizes the functional logic of parliamentary systems. This means that it treats the power distribution with the government’s survival placed in the parliament’s hands as its most important element. Methodologically, the CPS index builds on Fortin’s (2013) description of measurement shortcomings of other measurement tools. The CPS dataset, established by implementing this measurement tool, provides a unique data collection of presidential power. From a historical-comparative perspective, the measurement and the data display a picture of great diversity of presidential power within a system of checks and balances. As a result, I observe consistently higher values compared to the normalized overview proposed by Doyle and Elgie (2015), as well as to individual measurement tools. The main reason for these differences is that the CPS index provides a more pronounced portrayal of the presidential role in power-sharing modes. The differences in the constitutional power in Germany and India as parliamentary systems and Austria and Mozambique as semi-presidential systems stand in stark contrast to each other. Some directly elected presidents are therefore not even strong on paper, such as in Austria, Iceland, Ireland, Macedonia or Montenegro, while indirectly elected presidents are already strong on paper, e.g. Bangladesh (1972-1974; 1991-2013), Estonia, India, Latvia, or Slovakia.

From a large-N perspective, empirical evidence shows that the two groups of directly and indirectly elected presidents differ significantly from each other. Hence, statistically, direct election goes hand in hand with a higher level of constitutional power (as well as the president’s role in the cabinet and the command of the armed forces)

T-Test for differences between directly and indirectly elected presidents

Levene’s Test for Equality of Variances t-test for Equality of Means
F Sig. t df Sig. (2-tailed) Mean Difference Std. Error Difference 95% Confidence Interval of the Difference
Lower Upper
Constitutional Power Equal variances assumed 129.167 .000 -22.415 3285 .000 -6.12560 .27329 -6.66143 -5.58977

Patterns of presidential de-facto power

Based on this comparative perspective, I further stressed the effect of constitutions on how their power shapes and determines presidential behavior in decision-making. Whereas these effects are diverse, there are also clear patterns. The strong-weak spectrum of constitutional power cannot fully account for these different patterns of de-facto power. An exploratory factor analysis (PA) of the measurement data indicates that constitutional power is indeed a two-factor construct (see also Fortin 2013).

These 2 dimensions are the basis for a typology of presidential institutions with 4 types, which can be characterized by the differences in their level of discrepancy between constitution and reality. Semi-presidentialism research has already shown that countries have alternate patterns of leadership (Elgie 1999, 283). These patterns vary between “dominant pattern(s)” (ibid.), be it either a dominant president, a dominant executive, or “a shift from one dominant pattern of leadership to another” (ibid.). What I argue and provide evidence for on a case-based description, is that these patterns are driven by the constitutional structure.

Presidential institutions labeled the notary (e.g. Austria, Germany, Albania, Czech Republic), i.e. with little power on both dimensions, are not able to change their de facto role. Empirically neither a patrimonial leadership legacy combined with a problematic democratic development, such as in Albania, nor exceptional political situations, such as in 1999/2000 Austria, nor even the newly introduced direct election in Czech Republic allow for an increase of presidential de-facto power.

The same pattern can be observed for presidential institutions like the almighty (e.g. Georgia, Bangladesh, Ukraine). Presidencies with above-average competences on both dimensions are so powerful, that they do not (have to) vary their de facto role. These almighty presidencies are largely insensitive to outside influences. Their dominance in most power-sharing situations offers hardly any room for other political actors to establish an influential position. The strong negative correlation with the democracy level of this type is therefore no surprise.

For presidencies labeled custodian and firefighter (e.g. France, Slovenia, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine), varying patterns of de facto power can be observed. These cases confirm expectations and established literature regarding the questions of why the de-facto power of presidents varies[3] – surprisingly both for directly and indirectly elected presidents within these two types. The Estonian case (and Moldova after 2000), for example, provides some evidence for different patterns of presidential de-facto power. Presidential involvement or ‘activism’ (Köker 2014) increases in times of cohabitation; Estonian Presidents for example veto legislation more often and with a higher frequency in this situation. In times of cohabitation, indirectly elected presidents do not have roots in the ruling party. In most cases, the constitution does not even stipulate a role in cabinet meetings. Presidents therefore lose any influence on the decision-making process within the cabinet and the parliamentary majority. Thus, it is no surprise that these presidents use their legislative veto power frequently.


Research on presidential power points to multiple, interrelated causes for the varying de-facto power of presidents. I claim that constitutions structure the choices and thereby create a path for the direction of the power distribution. By defining how the game is played and laying the ground for the battle, they frame who gains and who loses power. This argument has been illustrated for several countries, but this can only be the starting point for further research. A large-N test of this may use for example the number of candidates in presidential elections as proposed by Cheibub and Chernykh (2008) as a dependent variable for a comparison of presidential de-facto power in different democratic and regional settings.


Amorim Neto, Octavio, and Kaare Strøm. 2006. “Breaking the Parliamentary Chain of Delegation: Presidents and Non-partisan Cabinet Members in European Democracies.” British Journal of Political Science 36 (4): 619–43.

Bucur, Cristina. 2013. “Who fires ministers? A principal-agent approach to ministerial deselection.” PhD Thesis, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

Cheibub, José A., and Svitlana Chernykh. 2008. “Constitutions and Democratic Performance in Semi-Presidential Democracies.” Japanese Journal of Political Science 9 (3): 269–303.

Doyle, David, and Robert Elgie. 2015. “Maximizing the reliability of cross-national measures of presidential power.” British Journal of Political Science.

Elgie, Robert. 1999. “Semi-Presidentialism and Comparative Institutional Engineering.” In Semi-Presidentialism in Europe, edited by Robert Elgie, 281–99. Comparative European Politics. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press.

———, ed. 1999. Semi-Presidentialism in Europe. Comparative European Politics. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press.

Fortin, Jessica. 2013. “Measuring presidential powers: Some pitfalls of aggregate measurement.” International Political Science Review 34 (1): 91–112.

Hicken, Allen, and Heather Stoll. 2013. “Are All Presidents Created Equal? Presidential Powers and the Shadow of Presidential Elections.” Comparative Political Studies 46 (3): 291–319. DOI: 10.1177/0010414012453694.

Köker, Philipp. 2014. “Czech Republic – A new government and the evolution of semi-presidentialism.” Accessed October 20, 2014. http://presidential-power.com/?p=701.

Schleiter, Petra, and Edward Morgan-Jones. 2010. “Who’s in charge? Presidents, assemblies, and the political control of semipresidential cabinets.” Comparative Political Studies 43 (11): 1415–41.

Tavits, Margit. 2009. Presidents and Prime Minsters. Do Direct Elections Matter? Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press.


[1] For this I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Comparative Constitutions Project, in particular the University of Texas, Austin.

[2] I label this constitutional presidential strength (CPS) to avoid any possibility of confusion with the different conceptualizations of presidential power presented and with other measurement tools.

[3] This list of arguments explaining why presidential de-facto power varies under certain conditions is infinite. Every country holds its unique set of surprises. One important explanation that proves solid is the role of the president as de facto party leader (Bucur 2013). Additionally party cohesion in combination with cohabitation (Amorim Neto and Strøm 2006), (Elgie 1999), and the proximity of presidential and parliamentary elections (Hicken and Stoll 2013) explain the situation in a variety of countries.

Anna Fruhstorfer is a postdoctoral researcher at Humboldt University Berlin at the Department of Social Sciences. Her main area of research is Comparative Politics, with a regional emphasis in Eastern Europe. Her research concentrates on presidents, parliaments and the relation of law and politics, in particular constitutional politics. She is also affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin via the Comparative Constitutions Project.

A new dataset of presidential power scores

This is a post by David Doyle and Robert Elgie

Since the beginning of the 1990s there has been ongoing debate about the relative effect of different regime types, specifically presidentialism, semi-presidentialism and parliamentarism. From the very beginning of this debate, there has been an acknowledgement of variation in presidential power not just across these three regime types, but also within each regime type. This within-type variation causes a problem for cross-national studies. If the within-type variation is large, then estimating the effect of regime types themselves may lead to spurious results. For this reason, Crisp, Desposato and Kantha (p. 447) have stated that there is a “need for more explicit theoretical depictions of the institutional variation in the class of regimes referred to as presidential as well as the need for a systematic empirical exploration of the impact of that diversity on regime performance” (1).

In this context, some observers have preferred to estimate the effect of presidential power on outcomes rather than the effect of regime type more broadly. For example, Hicken and Stoll (p. 1114) note that the power of the Colombian president has varied over time as a result of constitutional amendments, even though Colombia has maintained a presidential regime throughout. As a result, they prefer to measure variation in presidential power over time and estimate the effect of such variation. They note: “our overall index of presidential powers reveals variation within each type of regime that the simple trichotomy [of presidentialism, parliamentarism, and semi-presidentialism] obscures. It is this greater level of precision that leads us to prefer the index”.

However, while there is now a well-established literature demonstrating that variation in presidential power has consequences across a range of political and economic outcomes, there are many different measures of presidential power. In fact, we have identified 19 separate and original measures of presidential power, plus a further 16 studies that used one of these measures with different countries, time periods, and/or scores from the original study.

This range of measures raises a number of issues. Individual measures are sometimes poorly correlated with each other, meaning that findings are sensitive to the particular measure of presidential power that is used. There is also a considerable loss of information across the set of measures as a whole as countries are included in some measures but not others and then for only certain time periods. More generally, as Jessica Fortin has recently shown, there are no theoretical priors to tell us which indicators of presidential power we should choose or how the scores for the individual indicators should be aggregated (3).

We agree with Fortin’s analysis. However, we draw a different conclusion from her. She concludes very skeptically, effectively questioning whether any measure of presidential power is likely to be valid. By contrast, we assume that most social science concepts, such as voter turnout, social equality, corruption, and so on, suffer from equivalent problems of construct validity. Therefore, we should not give up on the effort to generate a dataset of presidential power scores. Instead, we should focus on the reliability of the data that underpins the concept we are trying to capture.

We wish to generate a time-series cross-sectional dataset of presidential power scores with country years as the units of observation. To do so, we choose not to construct a new measure of presidential power from scratch. Instead, we draw upon the comparative and local knowledge already embedded in the existing measures of presidential power that we identified. To maximize the reliability of the scores we derive them solely from measures that are based on institutional indicators of presidential power and on the basis of a method that accounts for potential idiosyncrasies of country scores in the existing measures. In addition, we report the standard errors and the confidence intervals for all the country years in our measures, providing information with which scholars can make an informed choice about whether or not a particular country should be included in an estimation and which of our measures might best be used in comparative studies.

The paper outlining our full methodology will soon appear in British Journal of Political Science and is available in advance here. In the meantime, we are making available the full set of presidential power scores, including standard errors and confidence intervals for each country time period, in a separate page at the header of this blog. We also provide more detail about the scores.

Overall, we encourage people to keep developing new measures of presidential power and to update existing measures for as many countries and as long a time period as possible. One of the advantages of our approach is that new country scores can be easily incorporated into the method we have used, creating the potential for country coverage to be further extended, for existing country scores to be updated, and for cross-national measures to become even more reliable.

(1) Crisp, Brian F., Scott W. Desposato, and Kristin Kanthak. 2011. Legislative Pivots, Presidential Powers, and Policy Stability.” Journal of Law, Economics and Organization 27 (2): 426-452.

(2) Hicken, Allen, and Heather Stoll. 2008. “Electoral Rules and the Size of the Prize: How Political Institutions Shape Presidential Party Systems.” Journal of Politics 70 (4): 1109-1127.

(3) Fortin, Jessica. 2013. “Measuring presidential powers: Some pitfalls of aggregate measurement.” International Political Science Review 34 (1): 91-112.