Presidential Government Research Paper

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Democratic governance takes two basic forms: parliamentarism and presidentialism; some people would add semipresidentialism, leaving aside the very unique Swiss institutional structure. Each of them presents a variety of forms that lead to question the dichotomy. There are a few defining characteristics from which many consequences can be derived. Each is identified with a paradigmatic case: the British Westminster parliamentarism, US presidentialism and the semipresidentialism of France. However, as Sartori (1994) notes, parliamentarism takes a variety of forms like the German Federal Republic—the Kanzler democracy—and the assembly parliamentarism of the Third and Fourth French Republics, and contemporary Italy.

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Presidential systems are based on an executive with considerable powers in the constitution, and generally with full control of the composition of the cabinet and the administration, elected by the people (directly or by an electoral college elected for that purpose) for a fixed period of time, and are not dependent on a formal vote of confidence by the democratically elected representatives in a parliament. The president is not only the holder of executive power, but is also the symbolic head of state who cannot be dismissed between elections except in rare cases of impeachment.

Two features stand out in presidential systems:

(a) Both the president, who controls the executive and is elected by the people (or an electoral college elected by the people for that sole purpose), and an elected legislature (unicameral or bicameral) enjoy democratic legitimacy. It is a system of ‘dual democratic legitimacy.’

(b) Both the president and congress are elected for a fixed term, the president’s tenure in office is independent of the legislature, and the survival of the legislature is independent of the president. This leads to what we characterize as the ‘rigidity’ of the presidential system.

Most of the characteristics and problems of presidential systems flow from these two essential features. Some other nondefining features of presidentialism are often associated with it, such as term limits or no re-election, automatic succession by a vice-president, more or less extensive rule making, and emergency powers. One characteristic, so normal that it can be included in the definition, is that the presidency is a unipersonal office. There have only been two cases of directly elected pluripersonal ‘presidencies’: the two-person Cypriot administration (1960–1963) and the Uruguayan Colegiado (which governed twice —1918– 1933 and 1952–1967).

The basic characteristic of the president is the full claim to democratic legitimacy. The claim very often has strong plebiscitary components, although some- times it is based on fewer popular votes than are received by many prime ministers in parliamentary

 systems heading minority Cabinets. The presidency gives the incumbent, who combines the qualities of head of state representing the nation and the powers of the executive, a very different aura and self-image, and creates very different popular expectations than those redounding to a prime minister with whatever popularity he might enjoy after his party receiving the same number of votes.

The most striking fact is that in a presidential system, the legislators, particularly when they represent well-organized, disciplined parties that constitute real, ideological, and political choices for the voters, also enjoy a democratic legitimacy, and it is possible that the majority of a legislature might represent a different political choice from that of the voters supporting a president. Who, on the basis of democratic principles, is better legitimated to speak the name of the people: the president, or the congressional majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their powers from the vote of the people, a conflict is always latent and sometimes erupts dramatically; there is no democratic principle to resolve it, and the mechanisms that might exist in the constitution are generally complex, highly technical, legalistic, and therefore of doubtful democratic legitimacy for the electorate. It is no accident that in some of those situations the military intervenes as ‘poder moderador.’

It could be argued that such conflicts are normal in the USA and have not led to serious crisis. It would exceed the limits of this essay to explain the uniqueness of American political institutions and practices that have limited the impact of such conflicts, including the unique characteristics of the American political parties that lead many American political scientists to ask for a more responsible, disciplined ideological party system (Riggs 1998).

In a unipersonal presidency there is only one winner who gains full control of the executive. It has been argued that in a Westminster parliamentary system a party winning an absolute majority is also (or even more) a ‘winner take all’ while in a presidential system it is less likely that a president will have an absolute majority in congress for the entire period of his mandate. However, it is a president, one person that wins control of the executive rather than a party, and that person gains that power irrespective of the size of his plurality or in a runoff in a narrowed competition in which necessarily one candidate will have a majority. The loser in a presidential election ends with no public office in contrast to the leader of a defeated party in a parliamentary election likely to hold a seat in Parliament. Part of the unipersonal election is, in many presidential systems, the succession by a vice-president chosen by the nominee using criteria that would not have been those of the electorate or a party leadership.

The plurality rule remains the most common method for electing presidents. However, the fear of a president being elected by a small plurality has led to introduce a majority runoff election among the two leading candidates (when no candidate has received a majority). The plurality rule (Shugart and Carey 1992) favors a two-party competition or at least the formation of broad pre-election coalitions and discourages candidates from minor parties. The runoff election, on the other hand, encourages a larger number of candidates in the first run, either in the hope to make it to the runoff (even with a modest number of votes) or place themselves in the condition to bargain for their support by one or the other of the two front runners.

Each procedure can have negative consequences. The plurality rule in a fragmented party system can lead to the election with the support of a small minority. The runoff in addition to encouraging party fragmentation in the first run, can create false coalitions (which will not hold after the election), or mortgages the candidate with allies which may exact a price or distort his image. It also generates in the winner the feeling that he represents the majority of the people, though in the first run he had weak support and his opponent might have been ahead.

In a multiethnic society the fear that a candidate from a populous state could be elected against those from other ethnic-religious communities, has led to a complex system of concurrent pluralities, to assure the election of a president with appeal across ethnic groups (as in Nigeria).

There are a few instances in which the popular vote, in the absence of a decisive majority, does not determine the winner. In Chile, before 1973, the Congress chose the president in the event that no candidate received a majority of popular votes among the top two contenders. Traditionally the one with the largest plurality was elected. In the USA, when in the nondeliberative electoral college no candidate obtains the vote of the majority of electors at the first count, the decision goes to the House of Representatives.

The fixed term of office of both presidents and congress introduces a particular rigidity. A failed president cannot be (normally) forced to relinquish power, but is obliged to continue governing, and he cannot (constitutionally) dismiss a congress committed to oppose his policies. A failed parliamentary prime minister can lose a vote of confidence, be replaced by another leader of his party or coalition, and if he feels that the opposition is wrong, call for an election hoping to discipline his party or coalition and/or revalidate his authority. The rigidity and the length of some presidential mandates leads to the frequent rule of no-reelection, or of no continuous reelections.

The dual legitimacy resulting from separate election of president and the legislature and their mutual independence can lead to ‘divided government.’ The congress and the presidency may be controlled by different parties (or factions of the same party) creating an impasse. How to govern?

Ackerman (2000) has developed three scenarios. The first emphasizes accommodation, based on bargaining, they may be called the Madisonian hope. Fiorina (1996) argues that American voters desire a divided government because they are uncertain about endorsing an ideological direction offered by either party. Mayhew (1991) argues that divided government has not impeded major legislation. The second involves constitutional breakdown, in which one or another power assaults the system and installs itself as a single lawmaker. A situation of this type is in Latin America, where traditionally the military as ‘poder moderador’ intervened temporarily, or more recently assuming complete power. Referring to my analysis (Linz 1994), Ackerman calls this breakdown the ‘Linzian nightmare.’ A third less dramatic alternative is backbiting, mutual recrimination, and partisan deadlock, which he calls ‘crisis of governability.’ To the use of constitutional or extraconstitutional decree powers, emergency legislation, patterns described in detail by Carey and Shugart (1998) and their collaborators in a chapter significantly entitled ‘Calling Out the Tanks or Filling Out the Forms,’ I would add a fourth alternative that explains the absence of recorded conflicts: the application of the ‘rule of anticipated reactions.’ The avoidance of conflict by not initiating policies is likely to lead to conflict even when desirable, necessary, and proposed by the president at the time of his election.

The disjunction between the image of the voters and the president himself as an initiator of major policies, reforms, and change, and the gridlock, mutual blaming, and/or of a frustrated president or congress confronted with decretazos, an avalanche of decrees as faits accomplis, reducing the legislature to impotence, does not contribute to political efficacy and the legitimacy of either or both institutions. The breakdown of democracy and the turn to unconstitutional rule or authoritarianism is only one possible outcome. ‘Formal’ democratic continuity, particularly in recent crises in Latin America (or the ex-USSR countries) is no proof that the system works.

The situation that Ackerman calls of full authority, when the presidency, the House and Senate are controlled by the same party and there is a favorable majority in the Supreme Court is rare and may last a short time. The result is a burst of legislation, lawmaking initiatives that will be strong in symbolic statement and difficult to change afterwards, with less concern about implementation. In a parliamentary system, where laws can more easily be changed with electoral defeat, governments are more interested in statutes framed in mid-sized concepts keyed to operational realities, to make them work.

Although the separation of executive and the legislative power, more accurately separate institutions sharing powers, implies that the bureaucracy (and the military) are the domain of the presidency, the fact is that they have two masters. Congress is perhaps increasingly adept to intervene in details of public administration and defense thanks to the prerogative of ‘oversight,’ of financing departments and programs, the long-standing freedom to investigate. A result is the dependence on both the presidency and the congress and indirectly the separation from both, and subordination to neither. A response to this situation has been ‘politicized professionalism’: the growing number of political appointees, the large number of in-and-outers, and the short tenure of those appointed who prefer to move to the private sector (and consequently the lack of accumulated experience and continuity in policies). The president turns to ‘loyalists’ rather than experienced civil servants who would be concerned about their relations with powerful congressmen or women.

In the ongoing debate over the success or failure of presidentialism it is important to distinguish:

(a) The basic theoretical issues derived from the defining characteristics of presidentialism (Linz 1994, Shugart and Carey 1992).

(b) The problems for presidentialism not derived from the basic characteristics; like no reelection, tensions with vice-presidents, mid-term congressional elections, etc.

(c) The problems with presidentialism and the actual breakdowns of presidential compared to parliamentary systems. A comparison plagued by a number of methodological problems; time period covered, regional comparisons, level of economic development (OECD vs. developing countries), and increasingly formal stability with ‘defective’ democracies (some actually authoritarian regimes) (Stepan and Skach 1994, Shugart and Carey 1992, Thibaut 1996).

(d) The absence of a possibility of a transition to parliamentarism and therefore the limited relevance of a theoretical comparison and the need to consider ‘improvements,’ modifications of presidentialism that correct some features contributing to some of its failures (Nohlen and Fernandez 1991).

(e) The need to keep the problems of semi-presidentialism, offered as a more viable alternative to presidentialism, separate. In this case, the lack of consensus on which countries are semipresidential and the small number of cases (at least before the new postcommunist regimes), makes an analysis like (c) difficult.

The basic argument for the separation of powers is that it provides mutual checks, enhancing freedom, preventing the concentration of power enjoyed by a British prime minister. Mutual checks, the greater difficulty in enacting policies, the opportunity for all interests to be heard and taken into account, the slowing down of the process, and the opportunity for vetoes, generate weak executives and block many of their initiatives, and this is presumably what the voters want when they split their vote for congress and the president. Perhaps this is an advantage in a society that works well independently of public policies, in a wealthy market economy with no major need for redistributive policies, or with independent nonpolitical agencies, but is unlikely to fit societies facing serious problems of underdevelopment and social injustice, requiring more effective government action.

Among the positive aspects of presidentialism its advocates list:

The separation of powers of congress and the executive allows the ‘representatives’ to act as representatives of interests, particularly of those with a geographical basis, since they are not bound to support the policies of the executive and no party discipline is needed to support a government. In the absence of proportional representation, they enjoy considerable independence from the party leadership and are more likely to represent interests rather than broad policy or ideological alternatives. All politics become local. As Sartori (1994, p. 84) writes: three factors ‘ideological unprincipledness, weak and undisciplined parties and locality centered politics, contribute to the working of US presidentialism.’

The separate election, particularly mid-term elections, and the limited influence of the president in many cases in the nomination or the making of lists of candidates (especially in federal systems) and in their electoral success, makes the representatives independent. Even their own partisans will owe them almost nothing and often doubt their usefulness in the elections. The selection by primaries has probably reinforced that tendency. This makes members of congress, compared to parliamentarians, better representatives of interests of their constitutents but less reliable in supporting a party (and presidential) policy program. In fact, that ‘representative’ function is seen (Shugart and Carey 1992) as one of the positive aspects of presidentialism.

One presumed advantage is the identifiability of presidents, compared to the incertitude of who will head the government in some parliamentary systems based on coalition-making among multiple parties after the election. However, in many parliamentary systems the voter knows well who will head the government if the party he votes for wins. Although presidential candidates identify themselves with certain policy goals, they are less bound to a program than a party and the prime minister it supports, or minor parties that make their coalition support dependent on certain demands (for example, national minority parties).

Shugart and Carey (1992, p. 44–45) consider the personal identifiability the basis for greater accountability. This might be true, except when reelection is barred and for the blaming game between the president and congress (particularly in the case of divided government).

Presidential elections allow the citizen to choose one individual to put his trust in—on account of real or perceived qualities and commitments without the mediation of complex institutions: a party, a legislature, or a plurality of actors like parties forming a coalition. That personalization simplifies the choice. It also permits outsiders, not identified with a party, who may not have held any office before, to appeal personally and directly to the voter: Collor, Fujimori, Tyminski, Perrot. That appeal requires access to the media, which in turn may involve access to funding— in some cases personal wealth—and considerable misunderstanding of what is necessary to govern. It may also appeal to ‘being above parties,’ perceived as divisive, somewhat like a monarch. The election of military leaders: Mannerheim, Hindenburg, De Gaulle, Eanes, even Eisenhower, reflects this desire. TV is particularly congruent with these patterns.

Latin American presidents greatly vary in terms of their constitutional powers, both reactive (veto power, for example) and proactive (decree legislation) and in terms of their partisan support in congress. The possible combinations (Mainwaring and Shugart 1997, pp. 40–54) are too complex to summarize here.

The difficulties with presidentialism in Latin America have generated two opposite responses: attempts to curtail the powers of the president out of fear of the abuse of power and authoritarian predispositions and efforts to strengthen the presidency as an answer to the weakness of the presidency, particularly in relation to congress.

Many presidential systems have a vice-president, with limited functions except when he has to step in to succeed the president for reasons of death, resignation, impeachment, or incapacity. He generally is not elected independently but on a ticket with the presidential candidate, chosen by him, often for electoral or personal reasons without concern about his or her qualifications. The frequent destructive conflicts between presidents and vice-presidents have led to recent constitutions to not include that office.

1. Semipresidentialism

Semipresidentialism as a distinctive form of organizing democratic political life, gained importance as a constitutional model and political reality with the consolidation of the French Fifth Republic defined by Sartori (1994, p. 132):

(a) The head of state (President) is elected by popular vote—either directly or indirectly—for a fixed term of office.

(b) The head of state shares the executive power with a Prime Minister, thus entering a dual authority structure whose three defining criteria are (c) to (e).

(c) The President is independent from parliament, but is not entitled to govern alone or directly and therefore his will must be conveyed and processed via his government.

(d) Conversely, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are president-independent in that they are parliamentdependent: they are subject to either parliamentary confidence or no-confidence (or both), and in either case need the support of a parliamentary majority.

(e) The dual authority structure of semipresidentialism allows for different balances and also for shifting prevalences of power within the executive, under the strict condition that the ‘autonomy potential’ of each component unit of the executive does subsist.

Shugart and Carey (1992) prefer to call this system ‘premier presidentialism’ and distinguish it from ‘presidential parliamentary’ (which others include under semipresidentialism) on the basis of the constitutional position of the president.

Since its inception in the constitution of the Weimar Republic (1918) and the Finnish Constitution, it has been the object of considerable dispute. Different terms were used to characterize it: bipolar executive, parliamentary presidential, and Duverger established the term semipresidentialism. The ambiguities surrounding it lead some authors to treat it as a variant of presidentialism, while others see it as a form of parliamentarism. This author, as Sartori, considers it a form sui generis distinct from both presidentialism and parliamentarism.

Bartolini (1984) has shown that semipresidentialism was introduced in countries that achieved independence and sought a symbol for the new nation (Ireland, Iceland, and earlier in Finland). In Portugal, it was an attempt to overcome the uncertainties of a transition to democracy.

The French semipresidentialism of the Fifth Republic after the introduction in 1962 of direct presidential election is a two-headed system. It makes possible the alternation—according to some authors— between presidential and parliamentary phases depending on the party or parties of the president having a majority in the chamber. Sartori, rightly, prefers to speak of ‘oscillation,’ since, in the case of split majorities—described by the French as ‘cohabitation’—the president retains some specific powers, particularly in foreign affairs and is not reduced to the status of a president head of state in a parliamentary republic. Nor can a president cum government, that has to govern with and through another body, be assimilated to a ‘pure’ president that governs alone, that is the government. The oscillation assures considerable flexibility and until now ‘cohabitation’ has worked relatively well.

Elgin (1999, p. 14) lists countries that he considers semipresidential: 6 in Western Europe: France, Finland, Portugal, Austria, Iceland, and Ireland; 5 in Central and Eastern Europe: Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia; 11 in the former USSR: Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Moldavia, and Belarus (of them in the Asian belt: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan; 5 in Asia and the Middle East: Lebanon, Maldives, Mongolia, South Korea, and Sri Lanka; 3 in America: Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Haiti; and 11 in Africa. A total of 42 countries, among which only 18 in 1999 were rated from 1 to 3 on the Freedom House index of political rights; 6 in Western Europe, 4 in Central and Eastern Europe, 1 (Lithuania) in the ex-USSR; 2 in Asia; 1 in the Americas; and 4 in Africa.

The conclusion about regimes that from a formal constitutional perspective and definition can be classified as semipresidential is that the material constitution (the actual working over time) varies enormously. In some, the president, although popularly elected and with considerable legal powers, acts more like a president in parliamentary regimes. One difficulty is that a large number of countries that have adopted semipresidential institutions are new democracies, and are politically unsettled (and doubtful democracies), and it is premature to characterize those polities. Moreover, much depends on the personality and political goals of the founding presidents and their successors.

Though all conceptual classification of forms of government cover a wide range of variations, this is even truer about semipresidential given the ambiguities in the constitutions about the powers of presidents and prime ministers, the role of leadership and personality, and the fact that the extended list of such regimes includes many countries dubiously democratic.

On the basis of the long-time actual working of formally semipresidential regimes, Linz (1994) has excluded Austria, Ireland, and Iceland from the list and he and Sartori (1997 ) would also exclude Portugal after 1982.

The dual legitimacy resulting from the separate direct election of president and parliament persists in semipresidential regimes, but the principle that a prime minister requires the confidence of a majority in the parliament reduces—perhaps even eliminates—the conflicts derived from ‘divided government.’ The French constitutional practice in the situations of ‘cohabitation’ supports that interpretation, though one might still ask to what extent it reflects a long tradition of parliamentarism (in addition to other favorable conditions).

We might add to the complexity (and perhaps confusion) a distinction between formally semipresidential regimes in which the president exercises significant powers (and is expected to do so) and those where he has not done so (and is not expected to do so). We obviate the argument that the formal institutional structure is not irrelevant, and that in fact it might at some point become politically relevant. The formally but not materially semipresidential regimes on that account are not parliamentary though they may work as parliamentary. More complicated is the issue—not considered in the earlier studies of this regime type—of the president enjoying such formal and actual powers that the prime minister and his cabinet are fully dependent on the president and the parliament, though formally empowered to question that dominance, is unable to do so. Should such regimes be considered presidential rather than semipresidential? The question can be raised about Russia and Sri Lanka. Again, the complex constitutional rules cannot be ignored but so can the actual working of the system under Yeltsin not be fitted into a ‘semipresidential mode.’ With such a narrowing down we still would have a number of working stable pure semipresidential regimes.

Presidents generally are identified with a political party, a leader of a party, or after winning the nomination of a party become its leader (yet when defeated lose that position). However, in Russia, Yeltsin, though elected with the support of the parties, opted for not identifying with a party and the constitution formally forbids the president from being a party member. The same is true for other postcommunist presidential or semipresidential constitutions.

The idea of president above party, not identified with a party and not campaigning for a party, is likely to make it more difficult for a president to have party support, and does not contribute to the building of strong parties.

Semipresidentialism can work well when the presidential majority and the majority in parliament are of the same party or coalition and when, without being the same, there is a majority in the chamber, supporting a prime minister of a different party (the French ‘cohabitation’). The system becomes more problematic as Kalteefleiter (1970) has analyzed in detail when the parliament is unwilling or unable to provide support to the choice of prime minister or of the president but is also unable to support someone of its own choice. This can be the case of a highly fractioned parliament or of a polarized pluralism in which the extremes make it impossible for the center to govern. Parties might be ready to tolerate weak presidential cabinets (abdicating their responsibility) and the president governing by decree. The president, on the other hand, having the power of dissolution, may be tempted to call for elections to solve the impasse and construct a majority. Repeated elections in a climate of crisis might deepen the crisis and contribute to strengthen the antisystem disloyal or semiloyal oppositions. These patterns developed in Germany under the presidency of Hindenburg and his presidential cabinets, contributed to the breakdown of the Weimar Republic.


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