This is a guest post by Steffen Ganghof, Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Potsdam
I recently introduced the concept of semi-parliamentary government as part of a comprehensive typology of democratic forms of government 1 (Ganghof 2018). The typology sees “semi-parliamentary government” as one of six basic ways to structure the principal-agent relationship in a democracy (Table 1). It exists when the legislature is divided into two parts, both of which are directly elected, but only one of which has the constitutional right to dismiss the cabinet in a vote of no-confidence.
The typological innovation had three related goals: (1) to apply the existing typological approach more consistently, (2) to highlight semi-parliamentary systems as a neglected form and (3) to theorize new semi-parliamentary designs as reform options in democratic nation-states as well as the European Union. Here I will focus on the first goal.
One worry raised by Robert Elgie (2018, blog post) is that my approach has too many classificatory clauses or dimensions. Yet we must not conflate two separate issues. One is whether we should include criteria other than the origin and the survival of the executive, in particular the rules of assembly dissolution. As I never proposed this (see Table 1), there is no disagreement here and no need for adjectives like “semi-fixed”.
The real disagreement concerns what the consistent application of the established criteria requires (Ganghof et al. 2018b). Robert maintains in his post that “[i]f we stick to the separate origin and survival of the executive and legislature, we get the three standard categories (presidentialism, semi-presidentialism and parliamentarism).” I think this statement is incorrect and that it shows the predicament of the existing approach.
To see this, let us first ignore the internal divisions within both the executive and legislature. The focus on the origin and survival then gives us a four-fold table (consisting of the two outer columns in Table 1). It distinguishes pure parliamentarism and pure presidentialism from the two “mirror hybrids” that exist in Switzerland (assembly-selected fixed-term cabinet) and existed in Israel (directly-elected but assembly-dependent prime minister). In this elegant and consistent typology neither semi-presidentialism nor semi-parliamentarism are distinct types; both are merely sub-types of parliamentarism.
To delineate semi-presidentialism as a distinct type, as Robert wants to do, he has to make a further distinction between “single” and “dual” executives in otherwise parliamentary systems. Indeed, other leading scholars like Samuels and Shugart (2010: 27) first distinguish between systems with single and dual executives and then use the fourfold table to subdivide the single-executive systems. This two-step classification procedure is straightforward, but also somewhat ad hoc and inconsistent. For if we introduce the internal division of the executive into the typology or classification, we ought to do the same for the legislature. After all, just as only one part of the executive may be dependent on assembly confidence, only one part of the legislature may be required to supply it. There is a logical symmetry here that existing classifications neglect. Their asymmetric focus on the internal division of the executive would at least have to be justified, but I am not aware of any such justification.
The same asymmetry and inconsistency shows when we consider the criterion used to distinguish semi-presidential from parliamentary systems. The criterion is the direct election of the president. This criterion is usually not justified explicitly and, again, not applied consistently. If direct election is used as a criterion for an agent’s sufficient democratic legitimacy – for being a primary rather than subsidiary agent of voters – then it ought to be applied to the legislature as well. This is what my typology and the concept of semi-parliamentarism do. They systematically consider the role that direct election plays in constituting a typologically relevant internal division within executive and legislature.
In sum, I contend that the proposed typology results from a symmetric application of long-established criteria. In contrast to Robert, I think it is inconsistent to treat semi-presidentialism and semi-parliamentarism differently. Either both are sub-types of parliamentarism or both are distinct types. The two forms of hybridization can also be combined, as is the case in the Czech Republic, but there is no logical reason to see the semi-presidential characteristic of this case as being conceptually prior to its semi-parliamentary characteristic.
As mentioned, the proposed typology has two other goals. One is to conceptualize and analyze a neglected form of government. A recent symposium in the Australian Journal of Political Science has confirmed the usefulness of the concept of semi-parliamentarism in this regard. For example, Marija Taflaga (2018: 252) states that it “better describes politics as it really is practiced” and offers a “simpler and more coherent description of the Australian system.”
The other goal, and the most important one for me, is to guide our thinking towards new semi-parliamentary designs as reform options for democracies, not only but especially for presidential systems (Ganghof 2016, 2018). In my view, this heuristic function is an important purpose of typologies. And if this is the purpose, the number of democracies that fall into each category is quite irrelevant. The current empirical predominance of democracies with directly (or at least popularly) elected presidents certainly tells us nothing about their normative justifiability.
A crucial insight of the analysis of semi-parliamentary constitutions is that they can potentially reap all the alleged benefits of presidential systems highlighted in the political science literature – constitutional separation of powers, pre-electoral identifiability, post-electoral clarity of responsibility, cabinet stability, a single system-wide constituency, and issue-specific coalition building in the legislature – but without the cost of concentrating massive executive power in a single human being and thereby “presidentializing” political parties (Samuels and Shugart 2010).
This raises deep and thorny questions about the democratic justifiability of presidentialism. As Josep Colomer (2013) and others have reminded us, presidentialism has deep monarchical roots. Maybe it is time for us to think about how we can separate what is good about presidentialism from what is dangerous for the quality and survival of democracy. The analysis of semi-parliamentarism would not be a bad place to start.
Colomer, Josep M. 2013. “Elected Kings with the Name of Presidents. On the origins of presidentialism in the United States and Latin America.” Revista Lationamericana de Politica Comparada 7:79-97.
Ganghof, Steffen. 2016. “Combining proportional and majoritarian democracy: An institutional design proposal.” Research & Politics 3 (3):1-7.
———. 2018. “A new political system model: Semi-parliamentary government.” European Journal of Political Research (57):261-81.
Ganghof, Steffen, Sebastian Eppner, and Alexander Pörschke. 2018a. “Australian Bicameralism as Semi-Parliamentarism: Patterns of Majority Formation in 29 Democracies.” Australian Journal of Political Science 53 (2):211-33.
———. 2018b. “Semi-parliamentary government in perspective: concepts, values, and designs.” Australian Journal of Political Science 53 (2):264–9.
Samuels, David, and Matthew Shugart. 2010. Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers – How the Separation of Powers Affects Party Organization and Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taflaga, Marija. 2018. “What’s in a name? Semi-parliamentarism and Australian Commonwealth executive-legislative relations.” Australian Journal of Political Science 53 (2):248-55.