When is a direct election not a direct election?

The direct election of the president is necessary condition for semi-presidentialism, but what constitutes a direct election?

In my 1999 edited book, I argued that a US-style electoral college was the equivalent of direct election. At that time, I used the term ‘popular election’ to describe this situation. This meant that I included Finland as a an example of semi-presidentialism even before the constitutional amendment that introduced full direct election of the president, the first of which was held in 1994. Please correct me if I am wrong, but the only other example of a semi-presidential country where there was an US-style electoral college rather than direct election per se was under the Cuban constitution of 1940 (Article 140).

The other example of a direct-like election is where the president is selected by a plebiscite. For example, in 1964 Egypt adopted a new constitution. Under the previous constitution the president was elected by the National Assembly. Under the 1964 constitution the National Assembly selected a presidential on the basis of a two-thirds majority and that candidate was then put to a popular referendum (Art. 102). In effect, the people could approve the National Assembly’s choice of candidate for president, or reject it in which case a new candidate had to be chosen and elected according the same procedure.

To me, a presidential plebiscite, i.e., an election where there is only one candidate and people have only a yes or no choice, does not constitute direct election. I’m not sure that I have a strong theoretical basis for this judgment. I classify countries as having semi-presidential constitutions whether or not they are democratic, however that term is defined. So, it cannot be on the basis that a plebiscite is somehow less democratic than a competitive election that I make the judgment call. I suppose intrinsically there just seems to be a difference between the situation where there is a plebiscite and where there is a competitive election.

For the record, the Egyptian constitution was amended in 2005 to make provision for a competitive election. Therefore, Egypt joined my list of semi-presidential countries at that time.

Of course, the other ambiguous example in this regard is Ireland. I classify Ireland as semi-presidential, though there are plenty of my colleagues on the island who think I am wrong to do so. However, in Ireland, the president is often elected without an election! If only one candidate is proposed, then no election takes place and the president is duly returned. This has happened in six of the twelve presidential elections since 1937. For me, this situation does not exclude Ireland from the list of semi-presidential countries. After all, an election could have taken place, but only one candidate happened to be nominated. So, it is the potential for a competitive presidential election that matters.

Hopefully, I’m not too far from the mainstream with these three decisions about what counts as direct election!

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