Category Archives: Pros and cons

The problems of semi-presidentialism and cohabitation in Africa (updated and corrected)

Yesterday, Octavio Amorim Neto kindly drew my attention to an article in the Jornal de Angola. I posted a link to it on the Facebook site. It is an opinion piece about semi-presidentialism in Africa. It argues that semi-presidentialism is problematic, particularly because of the prevalence of cohabitation. The author, Faustino Henrique, argues in favour of a presidential system and also appears to prefer parliamentarism to semi-presidentialism. If you don’t have Portuguese, then Google Translate does a pretty good job of conveying the argument.

I am responding to the article not because I think that semi-presidentialism is the best of all systems of government and that it needs to be defended from its critics. Indeed, as regular readers of this blog will know, I like promoting the study of semi-presidentialism, but I have severe reservations about recommending semi-presidentialism as a system of government. Instead, I think I was driven to respond partly because doing so helps to promote the study of semi-presidentialism and partly because I was frustrated by the way in which the author defends the argument.

The author’s basic argument is that semi-presidentialism has been the cause of political crisis in Africa. Particularly, the author argues that cohabitation between the executive and the parliamentary majority is the cause of political problems.

What struck me most about the article was the absence of empirical evidence. There was only one example, the case of São Tomé and Príncipe where a representative of the opposition MLSTP-PSD party is quoted as saying that “the country is heading for political instability”. Apart from that one quote, we are simply told that cohabitation has created “many problems”.

São Tomé e Príncipe is indeed one of the most cohabitation-prone countries in the world. Indeed, the most recent period of cohabitation ended in 2011. However, despite the fact that it has had so many periods of cohabitation, it has remained democratic. What about cohabitation in Africa more generally? Well, it was certainly associated with the collapse of democracy in Niger in 1996. However, the only other African country to have experienced cohabitation is Cape Verde, where it began in September 2011. To the best of my knowledge, cohabitation in Cape Verde has worked without incident since this time. So, while cohabitation in Niger was a very difficult experience and is a sign that cohabitation can definitely cause problems, I am not sure that many countries have faced the problems of cohabitation that the author alludes to in the article.

Interestingly, when pointing to the causes of instability, the author identifies not only periods of cohabitation but also periods where an independent president has been at odds with the government or the parliamentary majority. Here is where São Tomé e Príncipe comes back in. The current president, Manuel Pinto da Costa, ran as an independent in 2011, though he was formerly a member of the MLSTP-PSD. The government is headed by Patrice Trovoada from the ADI. It is a minority government. The MLSTP-PSD is the main opposition party in parliament. Currently, the government is having problems passing legislation in parliament. It is also possible that the president is making the government’s life more difficult, even if he is no longer formally a member of the MLSTP-PSD. So, the presence of an independent president may be problematic.

However, the impact of ‘independent’ president is one that needs more research. The term ‘independent’ can cover a lot of situations. It can refer to people who claim to be independent but are really supported by a party/group or block of parties/groups. It can also refer to people who are populist and who do not have a party backing but do have a strong social base. It can refer to people such as technocrats. I don’t know of any studies that have tried to systematically assess the impact, positive or negative, of independent presidents on democracy in Africa. I can certainly think of the problematic situation in Guinea-Bissau following the election of the late João Bernardo Vieira. He had been a member of the PAIGC, but had left the party at the time of his re-election in 2005. Generally, though, I don’t think we know enough about independent presidents to draw any systematic conclusions.

So, this is what I think. Cohabitation is unique to semi-presidentialism. There is evidence that it can be problematic. However, in Africa it has not occurred very often and it has only been associated with the collapse of democracy in one case. Independent presidents are not unique to semi-presidentialism. They can occur under presidentialism too. So, if independent presidents are problematic, and they may be, then presidentialism is not necessarily a solution. Finally, minority governments are not unique to semi-presidentialism. They can occur under presidentialism and parliamentarism. If they are problematic, and as before they may be, then again presidentialism is not necessarily a solution and neither is parliamentarism in that regard.

Overall, I have no particular desire to promote semi-presidentialism as a form of government. I think there are arguments in favour of and against parliamentarism, presidentialism, and semi-presidentialism. However, if we are arguing the merits and demerits of specific regimes, then I think we need to think carefully about how the argument is made. What is the empirical evidence? (And I haven’t even mentioned the need to include all sorts of control variables in order to determine the independent impact of semi-presidentialism and its various forms). What is the alternative? Are the problems of semi-presidentialism likely to occur under other forms of government too?

(This post replaces an earlier version. Thanks to Gerhard Siebert for corrections. Obviously, this post represents only my own opinion).