The Semi-Presidential Form of Republican Democracy

The third executive type is sometimes called “semi-presidentialism”. Under this model, a parliamentary system and a prime minister with some executive powers is combined with a president, who also has executive powers. The ministry is drawn from and subject to the confidence of the legislature. This is a relatively unusual model – found today in France, Portugal, Finland, Sri Lanka and one or two other countries – but nonetheless is sometimes advocated as a desirable executive formulation for fragile democracies (Mahler, 1995; Lawson, 1992; Healey and Tordoff, 1995; Hyden, 1992).

The primary advantages of this system lie on its appeal and ability to combine the advantages of presidentialism and parliamentarism: the benefits of a directly elected president with a prime minister who must command an absolute majority in the legislature. A move to semi-presidentialism has been recommended as a good “halfway house” for some countries that want to combine the benefits of both presidential and parliamentary systems. The semi-presidential system also satisfies the so-called “mutual consensus requirement”. Proponents of semi-presidentialism focus on the capacity of semi-presidentialism to increase the accountability and “identifiability” of the executive, while also building in a system of mutual checks and balances and the need for consensus between the two executive wings of government. This mutual consensus requirement can be particularly important for divided societies, as it requires a president to come to an agreement with the legislature on important issues, and thus to be a force for the “middle ground” rather than the extremes.

However, neither this form or system of government is perfect.

There is, and there remains, the propensity for a deadlock between and within the executive arms of government. Because a government’s powers are effectively divided between the prime minister and the president – for example, foreign affairs powers being the preserve of the president while the prime minister and the cabinet decide domestic policy – a structural tension exists within the government as a whole. This can lead to deadlock and immobilism, particularly if, as occurs relatively often, the prime minister and the president come from opposing political parties. Closely related to this problem is the observation that the benefits of compromise and moderation can degenerate into a stand-off (Mahler, 1995). This is especially the case when the division of responsibility between the two offices is not always clear (e.g., foreign policy in the French system), and where the timing and sequencing of elections between the houses differ (Ibid.).