Searching for the first semi-presidential country – Chile

While researching constitutions, I came across mention of Chile’s ‘parliamentary republic’. This term is commonly used to refer to the period 1891-1925. Assuming Chile had a directly elected president during this time and assuming that there was also a true parliamentary system with a prime minister responsible to the legislature, then this made Chile a candidate for the first country with a semi-presidential constitution.

There are no doubt people who know much more about Chile than me, but this is what I think was the situation during the period 1891-1925.

In 1891 Chile was still governed by the constitution of 1833. Article 63 of that constitution established a US-style electoral college for the election of the president. The suffrage was restricted, but, as far as I can tell, we can consider the president to be popularly elected.

In 1896 José Manuel Balmaceda was elected president. By 1889 a major rift developed between the president and Congress. In October 1890 President Balmaceda dismissed the cabinet, which included a number of ministers appointed, in effect, by Congress, and replaced it with a cabinet comprising his own supporters. Congress replied by refusing to vote the budget. On 1 January 1891 the president tried to pass the budget by decree and Congress voted to depose the president. A short civil war ensued which the congressional forces won. President Balmaceda committed suicide on 18 September 1891.

When the political system reconvened, Congress, unsurprisingly, emerged as the main actor. Specifically, the president’s cabinet was obliged to be representative of Congress and the president had to govern with the consent of Congress. In this context, there was considerable cabinet instability. This situation lasted until the passage of the new constitution in 1925.

Unfortunately (from a semi-presidential perspective in any case), the presidential constitution was not amended following the 1891 crisis. Moreover, there was no position of prime minister during this period. In fact, Chile never seems to have had a prime minister. So, even though the cabinet was, in certain respects, responsible to the Congress during its ‘parliamentary republic’, Chile cannot be classed as semi-presidential, as defined in this blog.

There is a nice article called ‘Parliamentary government in Chile’ by Paul S. Reinsch published in American Political Science Review, vol. 3, no. 4, 1909!

Other posts in this series:

France 1848

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