Political Science Semi-Presidential Systems
by
Thomas Sedelius, Jenny Åberg
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0271

Introduction

Semi-presidentialism has become a widespread form of government in recent decades. If we use Robert Elgie’s frequently cited definition, semi-presidentialism is where the constitution includes both a popularly elected president and a prime minister and cabinet accountable to the parliament. With this inclusive definition, there are currently more than fifty countries in the world with a semi-presidential constitution. In eastern Europe and in the former Soviet republics, semi-presidentialism has emerged as the most common regime type with presently some twenty countries having semi-presidential constitutions. Although semi-presidentialism as a term has been around since the 1970s, the debate about its definition and what countries to be classified as semi-presidential is still ongoing. Consequently, lists of semi-presidential countries have varied quite considerably between studies. A core idea of semi-presidentialism is that the respective roles of the dual executive, the president and the prime minister, should be complementary: the president upholds popular legitimacy and represents the continuity of state and nation, while the prime minister exercises policy leadership and takes responsibility for the day-to-day functions of government. Yet, two separately chosen chief executives also implies a risk of conflict over powers and executive control. This risk is aggravated in a transitional context where the distribution of authority is ambiguous and fluid. In many instances, this has paved the way for autocratic tendencies where presidents have overstepped their constitutional boundaries. Hence, comparative research on semi-presidentialism has largely revolved around democratization, presidential powers, and the institutional relations between the president, prime minister, and parliament. This guiding overview presents key literature on these core topics of semi-presidentialism including definitions and classifications, regions and countries, democratization and democratic survival, presidential powers, inter-institutional relations, parties, elections, and presidentialization. Several relevant method and data issues are covered by the studies under each heading.

General Overview

Among the landmark studies in the literature of semi-presidentialism, Elgie 1999, and Shugart and Carey 1992, have had considerable impact—especially on definitions and theoretical framing. Linz 1990 and Linz and Valenzuela 1994 are classical works in the field of regime types and their original claim that presidential systems are perilous to democracy, have played a key role also in shaping semi-presidential research. Elgie 2011 provides an extensive empirical test of two sub-types of semi-presidentialism on political outcomes including democracy. For a more extensive overview of the field, we recommend four separate literature reviews. Åberg and Sedelius 2018; Elgie 2016; Schleiter and Morgan-Jones 2009; and Zaznaev 2014 summarize main trends, directions, and shortcomings of semi-presidential research.

  • Åberg, Jenny, and Thomas Sedelius. “Review Article: A Structured Review of Semi-Presidential Studies: Debates, Results and Missing Pieces.” British Journal of Political Research (2018): 1–20.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007123418000017E-mail Citation »

    A structured and systematic review of 327 studies on semi-presidentialism, including methods, research themes, major trends, and identified gaps for future research.

  • Elgie, Robert, ed. Semi-Presidentialism in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Elgie’s edited volume is a frequently cited work that has inspired much of the post-Duverger research of semi-presidentialism from the early 2000s onward. The study includes Elgie’s widely cited and frequently debated definition stipulating that semi-presidentialism is where there is a popularly elected president alongside a prime minister and cabinet accountable to parliament.

  • Elgie, Robert. Semi-Presidentialism: Sub-Types and Democratic Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    This study is one of the more extensive cross-country examinations of political outcomes in premier-presidential and president-parliamentary regimes. In line with theoretical expectations, Elgie’s findings confirm that president-parliamentary regimes perform worse than premier-presidential regimes on several indicators, including on democracy and democratic survival.

  • Elgie, Robert. “Three Waves of Semi-Presidential Studies.” Democratization 23.1 (2016): 49–70.

    E-mail Citation »

    Elgie provides a systematic review of research on semi-presidentialism identifying three general waves of studies since the early 1990s. It includes a rich source of literature for scholars interested in this field.

  • Linz, Juan J. “The Perils of Presidentialism.” Journal of Democracy 1.1 (1990): 51–69.

    E-mail Citation »

    Linz’s classical argument where he identifies what he believes is a set of perilous institutional features of presidential regimes. The study is indeed one of the most influential ones in the long-standing debate on constitutional choice and political outcomes.

  • Linz, Juan J., and Arturo Valenzuela, eds. The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this edited volume, Linz and Valenzuela go deeper into the parliamentarism versus presidentialism argument where they also explicitly address semi-presidentialism. A landmark study with theoretical and intellectual inspiration for generations of scholars on comparative constitutions.

  • Schleiter, Petra, and Edward Morgan-Jones. “Citizens, Presidents, and Assemblies: The Study of Semi-Presidentialism Beyond Duverger and Linz.” British Journal of Political Science 39.4 (2009): 871–892.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007123409990159E-mail Citation »

    This study is a theoretically driven literature review where the authors employ principal-agent theory to assess fruitful ways of approaching semi-presidentialism.

  • Shugart, Martin S., and John M. Carey. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173988E-mail Citation »

    A seminal and highly cited work that has framed the way that many scholars have understood semi-presidential regimes. Among other important contributions of this study, Shugart and Carey’s sub-types of semi-presidentialism, i.e., premier-presidential and president-parliamentary regimes, have been widely accepted and applied in the literature.

  • Zaznaev, Oleg. “Understanding Semi-Presidentialism in Political Science: A Review of the Latest Debate.” World Applied Sciences Journal 30.2 (2014): 195–198.

    E-mail Citation »

    A brief summary of many of the main issues that have been salient in the literature on semi-presidentialism.

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