A semi-presidential system of government is a combination of both the presidential and parliamentary democracy. Under this system of governance, the president is the head of state who is directly elected by the citizens with some vested powers over the government.The prime minister is the head of the legislature who is nominated by the president but can only be dismissed by the parliament. Ordinarily, there is an agreement on who among the two leaders will play a lead role in policy matters. For instance in France, which has a typical semi-presidential system of government, the president’s responsibility is on foreign policy while the prime minister’s responsibility is on domestic policy.
Origins and Spread of Semi-Presidential Executive Systems
The semi-presidential system had its origins from the German Weimar Republic (1919-1933), but the term “semi-presidential” was not used until 1958. Its usage became popular by late 1970s, through the works of Maurice Duverger, when he used it to illustrate the French Fifth Republic.
There are several countries around the world with the semi-presidential system of government, with some leaning more towards the pure presidential system that has an all-powerful president. Others have an almost ceremonial president where all the powers are with the prime minister. France offers almost a balanced power sharing between the president and the prime minister. Although the responsibilities of both leaders are not explicitly expressed in the constitution, over time it has evolved as a matter of political expediency based on constitutional principles.
The countries that have semi-presidential system have increased in the recent past. The majority of the former communist countries have also adopted the semi-presidential system, with about 30% going for the parliamentary system and about 10% adopting the presidential system. A host of other countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe have a semi-presidential system. In the past, some parliamentary or presidential democracies have adopted a semi-presidential system. Armenia abandoned the presidential system in 1994 for the semi-presidential while Georgia also did the same in 2004.
Advantages of a Semi-Presidential System
- There is a division of labor where the president is the head of state and the premier leading the legislature.
- A prime minister is an additional form of checks and balances in the government.
- The prime minister could be removed and will not lead to a constitutional crisis.
- The powers are distributed among the two leaders and would limit the dictatorial tendencies as seen in some countries with a pure presidential system.
Disadvantages of a Semi-Presidential System
- Sometimes the president’s party is different from the prime minister’s political party, and they will be forced to cohabit together.
- It is possible to result in confusion and inefficiency of the legislative processes if the ideologies of parties are different.
- In a situation of cohabitation and the president’s party is not represented in the executive, then there are likely to be intra-governmental fighting leading to lower levels of democracy, government instability and occasionally may result in failure of democracy.
- If the semi-presidential system fails to check presidential powers, then the instability of the executive is more likely to be felt besides the decrease in democracy. Checking the powers of the president is the key factor that will facilitate consolidation of democracy