Category Archives: Countries that have debated introducing SP

Countries that have debated introducing semi-presidentialism – Hungary

This is another in a series of occasional posts on countries that have actively debated introducing a semi-presidential constitution, but that eventually decided not to do so.

In the rush to democratisation in Central and Easter Europe in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Hungary very nearly adopted semi-presidentialism. I am no expert on Hungary (so comments are welcome), but there seems to have been a two-stage process.

Hungary was one of the early democratisers in 1989. As I understand it, one of the reforms introduced by the old regime was the direct election of the president. This election was scheduled to take place on 3 December 1989. However, the democratic opposition to the regime was concerned that it would not be able to compete effectively and that Imre Pozsgay would be elected. Pozsgay had played a major role in reforming the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, but the opposition considered that his victory would have legitimised the old regime in its new form. In November 1989 the opposition was able to force a referendum at which voters were asked to decide whether the presidential election should take place in December or be delayed until after parliamentary elections scheduled for 1990. The vote was very close and the delay was approved by 2,145,023 votes to 2,138,619.

Parliamentary elections took place March 1990. Unlike most other countries, Hungary did not immediately adopt a new constitution. Instead, the old constitution was reformed. As part of this incremental process another referendum was held on July 1990 about whether or not to introduce the direct election of the president. This would have made Hungary semi-presidential. There was an overwhelming majority for the proposal (85.9%), but turnout was only 14% and so the result was invalid. Therefore, Hungary continued to elect its president indirectly and remained parliamentary.

So, Moldova and Hungary, if memory serves me correctly, are the only two countries to have rejected the direct election of the president in a referendum. On both occasions, this was due to low turnout.

Mauritius – Semi-presidentialism on the agenda?

There are reports from newspapers in Mauritius that the introduction of semi-presidentialism is being discussed. It is a little unclear whether this is something that is genuinely being debated, or whether it is just an opposition agenda item. However, I have found a number of recent articles that discuss the issue.

On 11 October there was an article in L’Express reporting that former PM and now the leader of the opposition, Paul Bérenger, was proposing the introduction of semi-presidentialism as well as certain other reforms. On 15 October there was a long article, also in L’Express, making it clear that the idea of French-style semi-presidentialism had been raised. Also in L’Express on the same day, there was an editorial that was quite critical of semi-presidentialism, suggesting that it did not suit the situation in Mauritius. In addition, there was an article in the Mauritius Times about constitutional reform generally, indicating that constitutional amendments were very difficult to pass. Finally, in an earlier article in L’Express, there is a report that Paul Bérenger had proposed the introduction of semi-presidentialism as far back as the 1980s.

My guess is that the ‘debate’ is more a matter of the leader of the opposition flying a kite, rather than the start of an impending and serious discussion of constitutional reform. All the same, I will keep an eye on events there.

Countries that have actively debated introducing SP (6) – Iran

This is another in a series of occasional posts on countries that have actively debated introducing a semi-presidential constitution, but that eventually decided not to do so.

I have very few details of the Iranian case, but my attention was drawn to it when I came across an article by H. E. Chehabi, ‘Religion and Politics in Iran: How Theocratic is the Islamic Republic?’, in Daedalus, vol. 120, no. 3, 1991, pp. 69-91.

On p. 76 of this article Chehabi describes how, in the immediate overthrow of the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran from exile, a number of French-educated Islamic figures “produced the draft of a semipresidential constitution in June 1979 that borrowed heavily from that of the French Fifth Republic …”. Chehabi states that Khomeini accepted the draft, but that it was opposed by both Islamists and secular figures and that it was soon amended.

I have not been able to obtain a copy of the June 1979 draft. So, I cannot confirm that the draft constitution was semi-presidential as defined by this blog. However, while the December 1979 constitution was clearly theocratic, the semi-presidential origins of the constitution were still clearly visible.

In the 1979 constitution, the president was directly elected (and still is, of course!). Art. (or Principle) 124 stated “The president will nominate a person as prime minister and after obtaining a vote of endorsement from the National Consultative Assembly, he will issue the oath of office to the prime minister.” Art. 135 stated: “The prime minister stays in office as long as he has a vote of confidence from the assembly.” Art. 87 stated: “The Council of Ministers, after its formation and introduction to the assembly, and prior to any move or action, should obtain a vote of confidence from the assembly. Likewise, when it faces difficult and controversial issues during its incumbency it can request the assembly to express its view in the form of a vote of confidence.” Art. 89 stated: “Representatives of the assembly can in cases deemed necessary interpellate the Council of Ministers … If the assembly does not arrive at a vote of confidence, then the Council of Ministers or the minister will be dismissed.”

A translation of the constitution is available in Middle East Journal, vol. 34, no. 2, 1980, pp. 181-204 translated by R. Ramazani.

An article by Said Amir Arjomand, available online here, suggests that some of the typical consequences of French-style semi-presidentialism also manifested themselves. He states: “Tension between the President and the Prime Minister immediately became acute, and has never abated. In fact, it was one of the reasons for the amendment of the Constitution and the abolition of the office of Prime Minister in 1989.”

As the above quote indicates, the 1979 constitution was amended heavily in 1989.

Countries that have actively debated introducing SP (5) – Argentina

Argentina’s constitution was amended in 1994 and the position of prime minister was created. (See a previous post). While, for me, this doesn’t make Argentina semi-presidential, it is clear that the pros and cons of establishing a semi-presidentialism system were actively debated.

The process began with the creation by President Alfonsín of the Consejo para la Consolidacion de la Democracia in 1985. The process was completed with the so-called Pacto de Olivos in December 1993. The recommendations of the Consejo para la Consolidacion de la Democracia, at least as far as they concerned the prime minister, were pretty similar to the ones that were adopted in the end.

An article (in Spanish) by Carlos Nino from 1989 in favour of semi-presidentialism in Argentina is available here.

An article (in English) by Gabriel Negretto that gives information about the debate over presidentialism/semi-presidentialism (p. 14 onwards) can be found here.

In Arend Lijphart’s edited volume Parliamentary vs Presidential Government (OUP, 1992), there is a short extract from the report of the Consejo para la Consolidacion de la Democracia.

There is a nice resume (in Spanish) on the process as a whole by Alejandro M. Garro in the Revista Española de Derecho Constitucional, 1989.

Countries that have actively debated introducing SP (3) – Afghanistan

Following the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the country debated a new constitution. Reports from outside advisers were commissioned. Political talks were held in Germany and, in the end, a new constitution was agreed in early 2004.

The 2004 constitution established a presidential system. However, for quite a while it appeared as if Afghanistan would adopt a semi-presidential system.

The best way to track the constitutional debate is to go to the website of Barnett R. Rubin, who was one of the advisers on the constitution. This website provides copies of the various briefing papers. It is a really nice resource for what governments are told about the pros and cons of different regimes, including semi-presidentialism.

In addition, Dr Rubin has an article on the process in Journal of Democracy, vol. 15, no. 3, July 2004. On pp. 11-12 there is a good resume of the debate. He makes it clear that the political class, or considerable parts of it, were willing to adopt what was, in effect, a semi-presidential system. However, there was opposing advice and, in the end, a different system was adopted.

Countries that have actively debated introducing SP (2) – Mexico

Latin America remains the area where semi-presidentialism has yet to take hold. As per a previous post, Peru has a history of semi-presidentialism, though of a highly presidentialised president-parliamentary form. Also, Argentina has a head of government, but there is no collective cabinet responsibility. Finally, Guyana comes very close to being semi-presidential, though there is no separate direct election of the president.

In Central America, there are no examples of semi-presidentialism. However, in recent years Mexico has been actively debating introducing semi-presidentialism.

Since 2000 and the first genuine alternation in power, there have been calls to reform the country’s presidential system. The contested election result in 2006 also saw a debate about how the system should be reformed.

Some quite high profile political scientists have been asked to comment on the pros and cons of semi-presidentialism. For example, there is an interview with Adam Przeworski in an Mexican newspaper, as well as an article by Alfred Stepan.

Currently, a state committee, the CENCA (Comisión Ejecutiva de Negociación y Construcción de Acuerdos) is considering ways of reforming the Mexican system generally and its working themes includes one on a reform of the system of government. This committee provides information showing that a number of key parties are actively in favour of semi-presidentialism and that others are in favour of institutional reforms that may be compatible with semi-presidentialism.

The association of particular parties with semi-presidentialism may mean that it becomes politically unacceptable. However, it is clear that there is an explicit debate about the introduction of semi-presidentialism in Mexico and that there are attempts to provide information about the pros and cons not only of this system, but also of other systems as well. See, for example, a detailed briefing document on semi-presidentialism produced by a review associated with the Mexican Senate.

Countries that have actively debated introducing SP (1) – Italy

This is the beginning of a short series on countries that have actively debated introducing semi-presidentialism. In these posts I am not trying to provide a full resume of the debate in any given country. I am just aiming to give a sense of whether the introduction of semi-presidentialism was a realistic possibility at some point.

The first country is Italy. Here, I am relying heavily on Mark Donovan’s 2003 PSA paper, Gianfranco Pasquino’s paper in Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 3:1, 1998, and Carlo Fusaro’s article in South European Society and Politics, 3:2, 1998. You can read their papers if you want to know more about the Italian debates about introducing semi-presidentialism. For those who read Italian, the text of reference is S. Ceccanti, O. Massaro and G. Pasquino, Semipresidenzialismo. Analisi delle esperienze europee, Il Mulino, 1996.

One point that comes across clearly from Mark Donovan’s paper is that the idea of introducing semi-presidentialism in Italy goes back quite a long way – to the early 1960s. (This begs the question, of course, as to whether the semi-presidentialism that they were thinking of introducing was consistent with the definition used in this blog). Another point that stands out is the constant party politicisation of the debate. The debate always seems to have been conducted along party political lines rather than along cross-party constitutional lines.

In the 1960s and 1970s those supporting semi-presidentialism seemed to be inspired by the French example. Also, in very general terms, there seems to have been a certain correlation between the moderate left (or some elite elements of it) and support for semi-presidentialism. (When the Northern League began to support the idea this seems to have been deliberately designed to defeat the specific proposal then under consideration).

The main debate about semi-presidentialism seems to have occurred in the 1997-98 period. At this time, there were distinct and competing proposals: French-style semi-presidentialism and Israeli-style direct election of the prime minister. In the end, clearly, neither was adopted. For Donovan, semi-presidentialism was criticised from all sides: for those who wanted a strong executive there was the fear that the president may not be powerful enough; for those who feared a strong executive the president had the potential to be too powerful.

Since this time semi-presidentialism continues to be supported, but it has dropped from the political debate. On the academic side, Gianfranco Pasquino is still an active supporter of semi-presidentialism. Examples of his work can be found in R. Elgie and S. Moestrup eds., Semi-presidentialism Outside Europe, 2007, and in European Journal of Political Research, vol. 31, 1997, pp. 128-137.

In one sense, Italy is perhaps the country where the introduction of semi-presidentialism has been debated keenly for the longest period of time. However, the party politicisation of the debate at every point and the absence of clear party majorities at the time when it was debated probably meant that it was never likely to be chosen. Had the debate been between presidentialism and parliamentarism, then semi-presidentialism might have emerged as a compromise situation. However, given that semi-presidentialism was explicitly proposed by certain party political forces, this meant that its chances of being adopted were probably always fairly slim.