Category Archives: Difficult cases of semi-presidentialism

Difficult cases of semi-presidentialism

Was Brazil ever semi-presidential?

There are various strategies for identifying long-gone semi-presidential countries. There is an Italian website that posts a lot of very old constitutions, none of which have yet turned out to be semi-presidential. The main source, though, is references in secondary literature that can be followed up. One example is Jose Cheibub’s classification of countries as ‘mixed’. This classification is not exactly the same as semi-presidentialism as it is understood here, but often there is overlap.

One of the countries he classifies as ‘mixed’ is Brazil from 1961-63. This led me to explore this case and I would like to thank Jose for sending me the text of the constitutional amendments. (I take sole responsibility for the chronology that follows!)

In 1961 Brazil was governed by the 1946 constitution (in Portuguese here). In 1960 Jânio Quadros was elected president, but in August 1961 he resigned. The Vice-President, João Goulart, was the next in line. Goulart was a member of the Labour Party (Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro, PTB) and he was considered to be too left-wing by the military and by much of Congress.

The ratification of Goulart as president was agreed only on the basis that there would be a constitutional amendment creating a parliamentary regime. Accordingly, the constitution was amended to create a president who would be elected by parliament (Art 2 of the amendment bill). The Council of Ministers was made collectively responsible to the legislature (Art 6) and subject to confidence motions (Art 10) etc.

Goulart was never elected by the Congress, but a prime minister (or president of the council of ministers) was appointed, consistent with the new constitution. However, there was considerable governmental instability and a plebiscite to approve or reject parliamentarism was held in January 1963. It was rejected and in same month a constitutional amendment restored the presidential system. In 1964 Goulart was overthrown by a coup.

So, from August 1961 to January 1963 Brazil had a prime minister who was responsible to the legislature and a president who had come to power by way of a direct election – even if he was the vice-presidential candidate at that election. Does this make Brazil semi-presidential during this period.

For me, the answer is ‘no’, because Brazil never had a semi-presidential constitution. It had a presidential constitution that was punctuated by a short period where there was a parliamentary constitution. So, there was never semi-presidentialism.

In a previous post I alluded to the semi-presidential equivalent of this situation. For example, Turkey now has a semi-presidential constitution, but the current president was elected by the legislature – the constitution being amended after his election. I count Turkey as semi-presidential because of its constitutional structure, even though there has yet to be a direct semi-presidential election.

However, the Brazilian example is really interesting. The manoeuverings, the debates, the intrigues are palpable and the constitutional situation, which is quite difficult to piece together on-line and without access to some fairly specific literature, is unusual.

Guinea – 1990 constitution and subsequent amendments

One of the first postings on the blog was plea for more information about Guinea’s constitution. According to, Guinea has had a prime minister since 1996. However, the 1990 constitution made no mention of such a post.

In his blog, Constitution en Afrique, Stéphane Bolle has provided links not only to the 1990 constitution, which is available in other places as well, but also (though in French) to amendments that were passed in 1996 and 2001/2002. These confirm that, even though there is a prime minister in Guinea, this is still not a constitutional post. The 1996 reform related to National Assembly’s sessions. The 2001/2002 reforms ensured there were no presidential term limits. However, no mention was made in either of a prime minister and there was no indication that any such post is responsible to the legislature. So, Guinea remains a presidential system.

For the record, Guinea is currently in the middle of an army mutiny. The previous prime minister was sacked by the president at the end of May and a new prime minister has taken office.

‘Difficult’ cases – Madagascar 1975

This is series of posts that identifies countries that almost comply with the definition of semi-presidentialism that is used in this blog, but which fail to do so on the basis of a certain, sometimes unusual provision, or where the date when semi-presidentialism started can be contested.

In 1992 Madagascar adopted a constitution that was clearly semi-presidential. The president is directly elected. The government is responsible to the National Assembly (Arts. 61-3 and 94). In 1992 Madagascar had a premier-presidential form of semi-presidentialism. However, the constitution was amended in 1998 resulting in a president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism (viz. Art. 53 and the addition of the phrase “… pour toute cause déterminante”).

In 1975 Madagascar adopted a constitution that was on the cusp of semi-presidentialism. The constitution had elements of a party/socialist constitution. So, for example, Art. 46 stated that the executive consisted of the president, government and the Supreme Council of the Revolution. However, in contrast to constitutions in, say, Congo-Kinshasa during this period, the party/socialist element of the constitution was not overwhelming, even if political life was organised on the basis of a one-party regime at the time.

In the 1975 constitution, Art. 47 stated that the president was directly elected. Arts. 60 and 61 made reference to both the government and the prime minister, who was responsible to the president, as head of government.

The reason why Madagascar is on the cusp of semi-presidentialism is because of the provisions for government responsibility to the legislature. Art. 78 stated that if the prime minister wished to make adjustments to his political programme and the National Assembly disagreed with the proposed changes, then the prime minister could call for a vote of confidence. If a two-thirds majority of the total number of National Assembly members voted against the confidence motion, then the government had to resign.

This would seem to suggest that the government is responsible to the legislature. However, there are two complications. Firstly, the two-thirds majority requirement is very high. Secondly, the legislature cannot initiate a motion of no-confidence under these conditions. The decision lies with the prime minister.

There is a further complication too. Art. 80 did allow the legislature to initiate a motion of no-confidence under certain other conditions, but, if passed, it was up to the president to decide whether or not to dismiss the government.

In the context of this blog, I tend to count Madagascar 1975 as semi-presidential, but only on the basis of Art. 78. For me, if the president still has the power to accept or reject a no-confidence motion, then the government is not fully responsible to the legislature. However, Art. 78 does provide a mechanism for making the government responsible.

I think the issue of whether or not the two-thirds majority is too high a barrier is irrelevant to the classification of countries as semi-presidential or otherwise. It is not part of the definition as adopted in this blog. More than that, whether or not a two-thirds majority is likely to be mustered is a function of contingent political circumstances rather than constitutional law. Obviously, in one-party mid-1970s Madagascar, then the likelihood of two-thirds of the National Assembly voting down the government was more than unlikely. However, in other countries under different conditions, then it is certainly feasible that a two-thirds anti-government majority might emerge. Therefore, there is no theoretical reason for stipulating some majority threshold above which a government becomes ‘not really’ accountable whatever the constitution says. As long as there is a provision for government accountability in the constitution, then, for me, a necessary condition for semi-presidentialism is met whatever the threshold stipulated.

To my mind, the reason why Madagascar 1975 is on the cusp of semi-presidentialism is because of the absence of any parliamentary initiative for a no-confidence motion that, if passed, requires the government to resign. If the only form of responsibility is a government confidence motion, rather than a legislative no-confidence motion, then even the most unpopular government could remain in power simply by not making any issue a matter of confidence and, therefore, not giving the opposition the opportunity to vote it out of office.

That said, I do tend to classify Madagascar 1975 as semi-presidential because, in one sense, the government is responsible to the legislature and, therefore, this necessary condition for semi-presidentialism is met.

‘Difficult’ cases – Argentina

This is series of posts that identifies countries that almost comply with the definition of semi-presidentialism that is used in this blog, but which fail to do so on the basis of a certain, sometimes unusual provision, or where the date when semi-presidentialism started can be contested.

I have never seen Argentina included in a list of countries with semi-presidential constitutions. However, since the 1994 revision to the constitution and since the first appointment to the office in June 1995 Argentina has had a position of ‘Chief of the Ministerial Cabinet’ or ‘Jefe de gabinete de ministros’. The constitution is available in English here and Spanish here.

Article 101 of the 1994 constitution states that the Chief of the Ministerial Cabinet may be interpellated by Congress for the purpose of considering a vote of censure and that he may be removed by an absolute majority vote of both Houses of Congress.

So, Argentina has a directly elected president, and a prime minister who is responsible to the legislature. Therefore, why is Argentina not classed as semi-presidential?

There are various answers to the question. The first is that everyone in the academy just naturally assumes Argentina is presidential. So, to include it in a list of semi-presidential countries is to risk a certain amount of professional ridicule. The second reason is that most people think that semi-presidentialism involves the situation where the president and prime minister share powers. This is clearly not the case in Argentina. So, Argentina cannot be semi-presidential. However, this is not the definition of semi-presidentialism used in this blog (and seemingly by quite a few other people in the profession now as well). The definition here does not make reference to the powers of the president or prime minister, constitutional or otherwise. In that case, why do people who share this definition of semi-presidentialism not include Argentina in the list of semi-presidential countries?

The answer to that more knotty question, I think, is that there is clearly only individual prime ministerial responsibility in the Argentinian case. There are plenty of Latin American constitutions where individual ministers can be censured by Congress. The situation is Argentina is similar in that there is individual responsibility. Here, though, the person responsible is the prime minister. There is no collective responsibility in Argentina and, for the purposes of this blog, this is a necessary condition of semi-presidentialism.

As an auto-critique, however, in my list of semi-presidential countries I have long included some countries whose constitutions also only have individual prime ministerial responsibility e.g. Namibia, Philippines (1981-86), Tajikistan. Moreover, in the case of Uganda and South Korea the appointment of the prime minister is subject to the consent of parliament. There is no mention of the appointment of the cabinet being collectively subject to parliamentary consent.

Any definition of semi-presidentialism must be reliable. This is why the definitions that make reference to the power of political actors are so inadequate. Hopefully, the advantage of the definition of semi-presidentialism used in this blog is that the classification rules are reliable. If so, then presumably either Argentina must be included in the list, or countries such as Namibia, Philippines (1981-86) and Tajikistan should be excluded.

I think it is right to exclude Argentina from the list of semi-presidential countries. However, in subsequent lists of semi-presidential countries, I think it will also be my inclination to exclude Namibia, Philippines (1981-86) and Tajikistan so as to ensure the consistent classification of countries.

Comments welcome.

‘Difficult’ cases – Equatorial Guinea

This is series of posts that identifies countries that almost comply with the definition of semi-presidentialism that is used in this blog, but which fail to do so on the basis of a certain, sometimes unusual provision, or where the date when semi-presidentialism started can be contested.

Equatorial Guinea won independence from Spain in 1968. There were constitutions in 1968, 1973 and 1982. The current constitution dates back to 1991. The 1968 and 1973 constitutions were presidential. However, the post of prime minister was introduced in 1982 and has been present ever since. Usually, the introduction of a prime minister into a system with a directly elected president is a sure sign of semi-presidentialism, but not so in the case of Equatorial Guinea, though only just.

The 1982 constitution provided a raft of powers to the directly elected president, who was designated as both the head of state and head of government (Art. 88). The president was “assisted” (Art. 109) by a prime minister, who was responsible to the president (Arts. 108 and 112). Ministers were subject to interpellation by the Chamber of People’s Representatives, but there was no collective responsibility. So, despite there being a prime minister, the 1982 constitution was not semi-presidential.

In 1991 there were hopes of democratisation and a new constitution was passed. In 1995 there were constitutional amendments that did affect the president’s powers, but there were no real changes in relation to the semi-presidential nature of the document. The current constitution is available online.

The president continues to enjoy quite considerable powers (to coin a phrase), but since 1991 the prime minister has been officially designated as the head of government (Art. 53). However, the Council of Ministers is required to carry out the general policy of the Nation, as “determined by the president” (Art. 45) and to “assist” the president on political and administrative matters. All members of the government are personally responsible to the president (Art. 38), but there is no mention of responsibility to the Chamber of People’s Representatives.

The absence of any governmental responsibility to the legislature means that one of the conditions for semi-presidentialism is not met. However, there is a clause that places Equatorial Guinea on the cusp of semi-presidentialism. Article 52 states that the prime minister “shall be chosen from within the political party that has obtained a majority of seats in the Chamber of People’s Representatives.” In theory, this means that cohabitation is constitutionally possible – though currently there is, to all intents and purposes, a one-party system and no effective opposition. Given my definition of semi-presidentialism stresses responsibility to the legislature rather than the possibility of cohabitation as a defining criterion, then I do not class Equatorial Guinea as semi-presidential. But, thanks to the wonders of constitutionalism and its almost infinite variety, the 1991 constitution of Equatorial Guinea places the country on the cusp of semi-presidentialism.

‘Difficult’ cases – Guyana

This is series of posts that identifies countries that almost comply with the definition of semi-presidentialism that is used in this blog, but which fail to do so on the basis of a certain, sometimes unusual provision, or where the date when semi-presidentialism started can be contested.

In some of my earlier work, I originally classed Guyana as semi-presidential. However, after discussions with colleagues, I no longer count Guyana as semi-presidential. However, it is on the cusp of semi-presidentialism and part of me is still tempted to include it in the list.

Guyana achieved independence in 1970. The first constitution dates from this time. A second constitution was adopted in 1980 and there were major amendments in 1996. Freedom House rated Guyana as Free in 1972 (the first year of their series), Partly Free in 1973 and then Not Free in 1974. It was then rated Partly Free from 1975-1992 and Free thereafter, apart from 2005 when it was rated Partly Free. For Polity, if we assume that a democracy is a country that scores +1 or more, then Guyana was a democracy (just) from 1970-1977. It then lost this status from 1978-1991 inclusive. It has been a democracy since with a score of +6, which is slightly lower than the lowest Polity score for a consolidated democracy.

Even though there have been two constitutions since 1970, the key elements relating to semi-presidentialism have remained basically the same. I am going to look at the most recent version of the constitution and identify the salient features.

At least one of the reasons why I have found Guyana difficult to classify at times is because of the sheer length of the constitution – in my 12-point font Word document, it comes to no fewer than 95 pages! Also, some of the Articles are less than clear (to an outsider at least). Here are the key articles for the purposes of semi-presidentialism (or otherwise):

Article 91: “The President shall be elected by the people in the manner prescribed in Article 177”.
Article 177 (2): “A Presidential candidate shall be deemed to have been elected as President and shall be so declared by the Chairman of the Elections Commission ––
(a) if he is the only Presidential candidate at the election; or
(b) where there are two or more Presidential candidates, if more votes are cast in favour of the list in which he is designated as Presidential candidate than in favour of any other list.”

There are also clauses that make it clear that the president serves for a fixed term, all else equal.

Article 101: “(1) The President shall appoint an elected member of the National Assembly to be Prime Minister of Guyana.
(1) The Prime Minister shall be the principal assistant of the President in the discharge of his executive functions and leader of Government business in the National Assembly.”

Article 106 : “(1) There shall be a Cabinet for Guyana, which shall consist of the President, the Prime Minister, the Vice Presidents, and such other Ministers as may be appointed to it by the President.
(2) The Cabinet shall aid and advise the President in the general direction and control of the Government of Guyana and shall be collectively responsible therefor to Parliament.”

In most circumstances, these provisions would clearly indicate a semi-presidential constitution, albeit one in which the president is the dominant figure. However, the manner in which the president is elected is the complicating factor in Guyana.

There is no separate presidential election in Guyana. There is one election for both the president and the National Assembly. The electoral system for National Assembly elections is a list system. The nominated presidential candidate (i.e. the number 1 on the list) of the party that wins a plurality of votes in the legislative election is elected as president.

In their article Blais et al (Electoral Studies, 16:4, 441-455, 1997) classify Guyana as a case of direct presidential election. However, the Political Database of the Americas only provides results for parliamentary elections because there is no separate presidential election.

The Guyanese system could result in cohabitation. For example, if the president were elected with only a plurality of votes, then it is possible that opposition parties may still enjoy a majority in the legislature. This would mean a period of cohabitation for the duration of the legislature.

In practice, this scenario has never occurred because there have tended to be two main parties in the Guyanese party system, which is divided along ethnic lines.

In short, I no longer classify Guyana as semi-presidential because there is no separate election for the president. In his article, Siaroff (European Journal of Political Research, vol. 42, 287-312, 2003) places Guyana in a category with South Korea and Sri Lanka, but notes the lack of a separately elected president.

On a final note, despite running for 95 pages, there is no detail in the constitution about how parliament can hold the cabinet accountable. In fact, one reading of Article 183 would indicate that ministers could not be dismissed by parliament. However, in correspondence with a Guyanese expert that was passed on to me, it seems as if parliament can dismiss the cabinet by a vote of no-confidence relating to the budget. I am assuming that the standing orders of parliament include this provision because I cannot find it in the constitution itself.

Semi-presidentialism in Uganda

A recent comment about Uganda encouraged me to include a separate entry rather than just a reply.

According to my information, Uganda became semi-presidential in 2005 following a constitutional amendment. However, it is clearly one of those cases that is at the cusp of the definition. Please correct me if I have interpreted the constitutional situation in Uganda inaccurately.

The current constitution of Uganda dates back to 1995. There is provision for the direct election of the president (Art. 103) for a fixed term (Arts. 105 and 107). In the 1995 version, there was mention of individual ministerial responsibility to parliament, but not collective cabinet responsibility (Art. 118). Also, there was no mention of a prime minister. Instead, there was mention of a vice-president (Art. 108). So, in 1995 the Ugandan constitution was clearly presidential.

In 2005 The Constitution (Amendment) Act was passed. It changed many articles of the constitution.

Article 108A (1) now reads: “(1) There shall be a Prime Minister who shall be appointed by the President with the approval of Parliament by simple majority from among members of Parliament or persons qualified to be elected members of Parliament.

Thus, in theory at least, parliament could withhold its support of the president’s choice of prime minister.

Article 108A (3) reads: “(3) The Prime Minister shall, in the performance of his or her functions, be individually accountable to the President and collectively responsible for any decision made by the Cabinet.”

This clause seems to add just about enough collective responsibility to allow Uganda to be classed as semi-presidential. For example, it introduces a greater degree of collective responsibility than can be found in the Argentine Constitution, where there is the individual responsibility of the head of government to Congress, but no mention of any collective responsibility. However, even with this clause, Uganda is on the cusp of semi-presidentialism and many people would no doubt class the Constitution as presidential still. I am still wavering, though I tend to include Uganda in my list of countries with semi-presidential constitutions.

To my knowledge, the changes were made as part of a political deal that was designed, in effect, to reduce the powers of the president. On the basis of the Constitution, Uganda is an example of president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism. In practice, the president is the main political actor within the executive.

In this instance, is less informative than usual. There is no list of Vice-Presidents, though President Museveni’s website clearly identifies the current Vice-President, Gilbert Balibaseka Bukenya. It also identifies a prime minister since 1980, though I could not find any link to the current incumbent, Apollo Nsibambi, from either the president’s website or the parliament’s site and the link seems to be inactive.

This posting was motivated by a comment on a previous entry. In answer to one question that was raised in the comment, to me it does not seem important from the perspective of a definition of semi-presidentialism that the prime minister does not have to be a member of parliament. In many countries, deputies have to resign their seat in parliament once appointed to government. Also, in France, for example, there is no requirement that the prime minister be a member of parliament. I am confident that there is no such requirement in many other constitutions too, even if prime ministers are usually appointed from parliament.

There is a good page with details of the 1995 Constitution and the subsequent amendments, including the 2005 changes.