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Semi-Presidentialism and nascent democracies

By Paul T. Shipale
Now that the proposals on constitutional amendments were tabled in Parliament, as a student of constitutional law, I would like to look at the pros and cons, but mostly the latter, of the semi-presidential system in a nascent democracy such as ours.

In a research paper, Yu-Shan Wu from the institute of political science Academia Sinica, starting with Duverger's tripartite definition, argues that there is an institutional core of semi-presidentialism that is inherent in the definition but has been generally overlooked.

That institutional core of the semi-presidential regime is the dual chains of legitimacy, command, and responsibility (CLCR hereafter) that flow from both the parliament and the president to the government. This fact is established through the three conditions that Duverger set to define the system. With government responsible to the parliament (Duvergerian condition three), there exists a parliamentary chain of command and responsibility like in a parliamentary system. However, the fact that the president is elected popularly (Duvergerian condition one), i.e. not elected by the parliament, establishes presidency as an independent institution on a par with the parliament.

The empowerment of the president on a significant scale (Duvergerian condition two) makes him capable of exercising real influence over the premier and the cabinet, hence the second, or the presidential chain of command and responsibility. Both the parliament and the president can thus make a claim to the government, and to state power. This sets the stage for potential conflict between the president and the parliament over control of government, as the two CLCRs may collide. The origins of semipresidentialism is thus to be found in the cause of this simultaneous insistence.

This is the upstream study of the institution. In the midstream study of the operation of the system, the most pressing issue is how to handle two conflicting CLCRs when the president and the parliamentary majority are not from the same political party. Here we see the Achilles heel of the semi-presidential regimes. Stagnation, confusion, recrimination, and frustration may result. This is the downstream study of the political institution.

The inherent operational difficulty in semi-presidentialism gives rise to all kinds of dissatisfaction with the system, and prompts political elite to think of changing the constitutional framework in order to avoid the contradictions inherent in the conflicting CLCRs, as it is happening now in Namibia. This is the evolution study of political institution.

Different combinations of presidential decision and parliamentary response constitute different interaction modes. The most intriguing question then boils down to under what conditions would a semi-presidential regime take a particular interaction mode. There are four president-parliamentary modes of interaction under incongruence, centered on the issue of premier appointment and cabinet formation.

Semi-presidential regimes can in this way be classified into four subtypes (Wu 2000). When the president yields to the parliament, one finds "cohabitation" wherein the majority party in the parliament organizes the government and wields the ultimate ruling power in the country. This is the mode of the French Fifth Republic. The president may also strike a division of labor with the prime minister who is still from the majority party (or the ruling coalition) of the parliament. In this way, the president and the premier divide the administration and the two are responsible for different state functions (the "compromise" mode). This is the mode of the semi-presidential system in Finland and Poland.

Yet another response is for the president to insist on appointing his own favorite as prime minister against the will of the majority in the parliament, and support the new government with presidential powers. Usually this would result in strong reaction from the parliament, and the president and the parliament would be at war with each other. The parliament may react to the president's presumptuous actions by casting a vote of no-confidence on the government, and then the president may retaliate by dissolving the parliament.

Extra-constitutional powers of the president may be invoked to overcome the parliament's resistance, and the whole democratic institution may be at the risk of collapsing (the "collision" mode). This is the mode of Weimar Germany. It is also possible that the parliament may opt to back up at any point during this escalating process, and temporarily defuse the crisis. In this way, the president persists, and the parliament yields (the "presidential supremacy" mode). This is the situation in the Russian Federation. Thus, the president-parliament balance of power is the "axial variable" in determining the functioning and performance of the system. This leads us to the factors determining the relative powers of the president and the parliament.

Does the president have the power to unilaterally appoint and/or dismiss the premier (i.e. without the parliament's consent), can the president dissolve the parliament and under what conditions, can the parliament appoint the premier and/or the cabinet, does the parliament have the power to impeach the president or replace the premier (Fish 2003), what is the party system and its impact on the legislature's ability to resist the authority of the president (Wang 2003), what is the electoral regime and how does it affect the party system in the context of semipresidentialism (Cabestan 2003), how possible can the parliament come up with a successful vote of no confidence?

(Wu 2005, Lin 2006) These are among the most important questions that one would ask when it comes to the balance of power between the president and the parliament. In a nascent democracy such as ours, usually the president would assert his own power and depending on whether the parliament opts to oppose him, one would find the country moving into either the "collision" mode, or the "presidential supremacy" mode. On the other hand, in an established democracy, or one in which parliamentary politics has a long history, then the usual solution is the "cohabitation" or the "compromise" mode.

The major difference between the "compromise" and "cohabitation" modes on the one hand, and the "collision" and "presidential supremacy" modes on the other hand, is the president yields in the former, but refuses to do so in the latter. It boils down to the presidential decision at the crucial moment.

Thus, one can find altogether five interaction modes between president and parliament in a semi-presidential system. The first mode is quasiparliamentarism, with the directly- elected president performing a basically ceremonial role, just like his counterpart in a purely parliamentary system.

This mode is also designated as "broadly defined semipresidentialism". It can be identified by locating the real power of governance in the hands of the prime minister under congruence. Amongst the 33 Semi-Presidential regimes, we find eight quasiparliamentary. They are Austria, Bulgaria, Iceland, Ireland, Lithuania, Portugal, Singapore, and Slovenia.

The other four modes of interaction, however, cannot be discerned without the country moving into incongruence, i.e. when the presidential party and the majority party in the parliament oppose each other. The presidential and the parliamentary CLCRs are then brought into direct conflict. Under those circumstances, the critical question is: how should the prime minister be appointed, and government formed? Should the will of the president be respected, despite the balance of power in the parliament; or should the leader of the majority party in the parliament be appointed prime minister?

Would there be a compromise between the two, or a collision? No semi-presidential regime can evade this difficult situation, unless of course incongruence never arises, which suggests the presidential party always wins parliamentary elections.

Barring this unlikely possibility, a Semi-Presidential regime would have to resort to one of the four modes under incongruence: cohabitation, compromise, collision, and presidential supremacy. Both quasi-parliamentarism and cohabitation presume parliamentary supremacy, but differ in the role of the president in his own party. In a quasi-parliamentary system, because the president is merely a titular head of state, the leader of the presidential party would not want to take that position, but would assume premiership instead.

In the cohabitation mode, when there is congruence the president is the head of state by constitution, and head of government by his role as leader of the majority party in the parliament. The prime minister is for all practical purposes the president's chief lieutenant. Under incongruence, however, the president is "titularized" and sees his power migrate to the opposition leader cum prime minister, hence the ostensible alternation between presidentialism and parliamentarism.

Countries taking this mode of interaction include Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia, France, Macedonia, Mongolia, and Slovakia.

All the interaction modes except quasi-parliamentarism and cohabitation witness powerful president under incongruence. Among them, compromise is the most stable one, when compromise is reached between the president and the parliament in various ways.

The president may be given constitutional powers in specific areas, most typically in foreign affairs, and is actually the head of government in those areas, while the prime minister is in charge of the remaining fields of national affairs. A typical example is the Finnish president (Arter 1999, 53). Another way for the president to exercise power in the compromise mode is to have direct control over specific cabinet members, insuring his dominance in those areas of national affairs. A pertinent case is Poland under the Little Constitution of 1992. However, if the presidential party is not in a majority position in the parliament, or in a majority coalition, then the president would appoint the leader of the opposition prime minister, but still retain the powers that the constitution puts into his hands, either by exercising them through agencies directly under his control, or by commanding the cabinet ministers whose appointment and/or dismissal falls into his hands. This way, compromise is cohabitation plus presidential domains. Here we can again bring up the Polish case as a typical example. Those who fall into the presidential supremacy mode have more deeply rooted strongman tradition and comparatively much weaker parliamentary institution, while in collision the parliament would mount fierce resistance to the president's will to dominate. Russia is a typical case of presidential supremacy.

Another case of presidential supremacy is Romania. Other countries in this category are Armenia, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gabon, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mali, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Ukraine, and Yemen. Collision is the mode when president wants to assert his supremacy, but faces challenges from the parliament. The most famous case of collision is Weimar Germany. In short, semi-presidentialism is an institution easy to adopt, difficult to operate, and risky when it evolves.

Let us therefore do away with it and adopt a pure presidential system, provided the Vice-President will also be elected.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen.


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