Steffen Ganghof – On consistently defining forms of government: A reply to Robert Elgie

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.

1 thought on “Steffen Ganghof – On consistently defining forms of government: A reply to Robert Elgie

  1. Vitaliy Lytvyn

    My congratulations, dear Steffen and Robert.

    This is a very interesting discussion. I have some questions and clarifications.

    1. Is not it better to talk about the origin (popularly elected or not) of the head of state and not the origin of the executive (as the first indicator of the proposed typology of systems of government)? I mean the moment when, in some countries, the head of the executive is the president (at the same time as the head of state), while in others it is not a president, but a prime minister (but it happens that both of them constitute the executive and this is provided for by the constitution). But instead, I’m afraid, there is the reason why they are equaled to the common denominator, really do not being one and the same. Especially against the backdrop of the second indicator of the proposed typology, which relates rather to the responsibility of the government/cabinet as a component of the executive. In my opinion, when we talk about the system of government, we should have in mind a system of inter-institutional relations in the triangle “head of state – government/executive – parliament”. Only the relationship between them (in the context of the delegation of powers and responsibility) consists a system of government.

    2. Is this correctly to speak about the systems of government exceptionally in the case of democracies? Is it better to assess the systems of government in all constitutional systems, whether they are democracies or autocracies? The moment is that they can generate a number of misunderstandings if they are imposed on the proposed model (see details the next item).

    3. How, for example, to explain the system of government in Armenia for the period of 2007-2015? Or the case of Ukraine, starting from 2014 (or during 2006-2010)? According to the proposed model, the two countries in the specified periods should be positioned as “prime-ministerial”. But this was too far from corresponded to reality, including with the other provisions of the constitutions and the real political process. A similar and even more critical situation concerns Azerbaijan (although there is a vote of no confidence in government, which is significantly limited by the president). In the same list I can include, for example, Portugal in 1976-1982, Romania (even despite the responsibility of the government in front of two chambers of parliament), etc. It seems that republics with popularly elected presidents and executives responsible to the only or simultaneously both chambers of parliament automatically cease to be semi-presidential (but instead they become “prime-ministerial”), even though they may contain a great deal of authority in the hands of the president (who may even be positioned as head of state and head of the executive, as in Azerbaijan). I understand that the constitutional system of government is not equivalent to a political or material system of government, but the proposed model makes them even more distinctively than Robert’s model.

    4. The question remains regarding the phrase “partly responsible to parliament”. I understand that the model speaks exclusively of responsibility to the parliament and not to other political actors. But in this case, where should be placed the countries, in which the governments/executives are responsible both to presidents and parliaments? Especially in the cases of unicameral parliaments and strong presidents.

    There are other questions, but they have personally less significance for me.

    I am extremely impressed by the proposed model (especially in the context of the systems where the executive and heads of state are not elected popularly), but I have questions and reservations about its operational efficiency and indicators in the case of popular election of heads of state and executives. As for me, “prime-ministerial” and “semi-presidential” systems in your model are both still the cases of semi-presidentialism. And not only actually, but even formally.

    It would be interesting to hear your position.
    Greetings and all the best.


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