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The Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies:

A Contradiction in Terms?1

Thomas Poguntke
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research and University of Bielefeld

Paper prepared for presentation at the ECPR Workshop 'The Presidentialization of

Parliamentary Democracies?’, Copenhagen, April 2000

First Draft

It has been said about Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Helmut Kohl in his latter years of
reign. Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi are obvious cases in point. Even Gerhard Schröder
has been regarded as an example of a growing number of prime ministers in parliamentary
democracies with an increasingly ‘presidential’ style of government. Focus on the personal
style of government is, however, a poor approach to the comparative analysis of
democratic systems. After all, it may be gone with the next change of government. Still,
the fact that alleged presidential tendencies figure increasingly in journalistic reflections
and academic analyses may indicate silent structural change of parliamentary democracies.
This question is mainly discussed in the English speaking world, where is has been
subject of considerable debate whether or not the British system of government has shown
increasing tendencies towards a presidential logic over the past one or two decades (Foley,
1993; Döring, 1991; Jones, 1991; Fröhlich, 1997a; Fröhlich, 1997b). On the other hand,
first warnings against the presidentialization of the Westminster model date back to the
1960s (Crossman, 1963), which would seem to indicate that this is really nothing
particularly new.
In any case, tendencies towards a presidential style of government could indicate that
the logic of action of government and parliament is beginning to change. If there is more to
the debate than the intermittent emergence of political leaders which appear to be more
presidential in style than others, we should be able to identify theoretical reasons and
empirical evidence for a lasting and substantial change of the political process of
parliamentary democracies. And this change should lead to a political process which is
increasingly characterized by a logic of interaction between parliament and government
that is typical of presidential systems.
This restricts the range of countries where we can logically expect such a process to be
happening: Only established democracies that have unambiguously belonged to the realm

The author is indebted to Christine Pütz and Volkhart Heinrich for stimulating discussions on this topic.
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 2

of parliamentary government can be expected to experience a silent shift a more

presidential logic of government. This excludes all newly established democracies, be it in
Central and Eastern Europe, the Third World or so-called emergent nations. They may go
through similar processes in that not yet fully consolidated parliamentary regimes begin to
shift towards more presidential features. But since their starting point is a different one,
they may better be treated as a separate category. This is why this paper limits its focus on
established parliamentary democracies.

Parliamentarism and Presidentialism

A precise definition of the actual meaning of ‘presidentialization’ is indispensable before

we can turn to discussing potential causes and suitable empirical indicators for this process.
For this purpose, we will proceed in two steps: First, the characteristics of parliamentary
and presidential government will be discussed. Second, we will address the theoretical
status of intermediate types, that is, variants of semi-presidentialism in relation to the two
basic types of democratic regimes2.
There is disagreement in the literature about how the basic forms of democratic
government should be adequately defined. With a view to the classic examples of the
United States and the United Kingdom, Douglas V. Verney, for example, lists 11 criteria,
which are typical of parliamentary systems:
– fusion of executive and legislative function
– split executive
– head of government is appointed by the head of state
– selection of ministers by the prime minister
– government is a collective body
– ministers are usually members of parliament
– the government is politically responsible to parliament
– the prime minister has the right to propose the dissolution of parliament to the head of
– neither parliament nor government have supreme power
– government as a whole is only indirectly responsible to the electorate
– parliament is the focus of power (in Verney's terminology, this includes the
government) (Verney, 1992: 32ff.).
The characteristics of presidential systems are their respective mirror images. Lijphart
has pointed out that this list is partially redundant in that not all of these items represent
necessary conditions and some follow logically from others. This leads him to three
essential characteristics of parliamentary government, that is, the parliamentary
responsibility of the head of government, the selection of the executive through parliament,
and the collective nature of the executive. The latter condition refers to the fact that

This does not imply, of course, that democratic systems can be fully understood and analyzed with the
tools and terminology of traditional institutionalism. Primarily, this discussion serves terminological
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 3

governments in parliamentary systems combine hierarchy with collective decision-making:

There is a head of government with some prerogatives, but there is also the collective
political responsibility of the government as a whole (Lijphart, 1992: 2f.).
Even Lijphart's succinct typology can be trimmed further if one concentrates on the
essential logic of both types of government. Basically, this logic is determined by the
question of parliamentary responsibility of government (Steffani, 1979: 45; Steffani, 1983:
399; Steffani, 1995: 631ff., Kaltefleiter, 1970). In a nutshell, this means that parliament
can force the resignation of the prime minister (and hence his cabinet) in a parliamentary
system, whereas the survival of government in presidential systems is entirely independent
of parliamentary majorities; the president, who is the executive, because his ministers are
clearly subordinate, is elected for a fixed term. How exactly the executive assumes office
in parliamentary systems is irrelevant from this perspective. Although the election of the
prime minister or a vote of confidence are common practice in parliamentary systems, not
all constitutions give an active role to parliament in the process which brings a government
into office. In same cases, tacit acceptance is sufficient. In other words, the government
remains in office after the appointment by the head of state until parliament forces its
resignation (Strom, 1990). Consequently, Lijphart uses the term 'select' (instead of elect)
when he refers to the fact that it is parliament that ultimately decides in parliamentary
systems who is to govern whereas this power resides directly with the electorate in
presidential systems. However, he overlooks that this means essentially the same as his
first criterion, that is, that governments are dependent on the confidence of the legislature
in parliamentary systems whereas the executive in presidential systems can survive without
a majority in parliament.
Whether the executive need always be collegial in parliamentary systems and always
be a one-person executive in presidential systems is only relevant for few exceptions
(Switzerland, Uruguay 1952-67, Cyprus 1960-63). Furthermore, it does not affect their
essential functional logic and should therefore be regarded as a secondary criterion
(Lijphart, 1992: 6). As mentioned already, this logic depends ultimately on the question of
parliamentary responsibility, and this becomes clearer if we recapitulate briefly the
inherent mechanics of the interaction between government and parliament as it is
determined through this rule.
As a minimum, governments in parliamentary systems need the tacit acceptance of the
majority of parliament in order to remain in office. In other words: The stability of the
government depends on the parliamentary majority. This inherent logic represents a strong
incentive for parliamentary parties to maintain discipline and internal coherence. Since the
survival of the government is at stake in every single important parliamentary vote, the
parliamentary parties of the governmental majority are forced to maintain unity. This
incentive is amplified by the prerogative of the government to initiate the dissolution of
parliament. Hence, dissenting votes threaten the survival of government and its supporting
parliamentary parties. The opposition, on the other hand, is equally compelled to ensure
voting discipline, because this is its principal lever to create difficulties for the government
and, eventually, even remove it from power.
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 4

As a consequence, parliamentary parties tend to maintain high voting discipline in

parliamentary systems. Those who belong to the governmental camp support, as a rule,
initiatives and motions of the government; dissenting votes are rare exceptions.
Government and governmental parties in parliament form an integrated whole. Contrary to
immutable popular perception, parliament does not control the government. Rather, this
task is mainly confined to the parliamentary opposition, whereas the governmental camp
will normally do everything to support and defend the government.
In presidential systems, on the other hand, the executive is elected for a fixed term.
This has frequently led to an idealized perception of the actual power of the president3.
However, since the survival of the executive is independent of its capability to muster
parliamentary support, the principal incentive for parliamentary parties to maintain voting
discipline is absent. The parties of government have no need to support their own
executive in all cases, because dissent does not threaten its survival. The opposition, on the
other hand, has little to gain from maintaining parliamentary discipline for exactly the
same reason. At the same time, and contrary to parliamentary systems, the government
cannot threaten to dissolve parliament: Dissent by the governmental camp does not put the
survival of parliament at risk. As a result, even a president with a strong parliamentary
majority cannot rely on the support of 'his' majority for his policy initiatives.
To overstate this point somewhat, it could be argued that 'divided government' is the
rule in presidential systems. Since party discipline tends to be low, parliament is quite
powerful in any case – whether or not president and parliamentary majority belong to the
same political camp (Steffani, 1983: 401; Katz, 1986: 55). Exekutive and legislature are
always independent of each other. Rarely do they represent a unitary actor. In some
emergent nations, however, the effects of this underlying incentive structure, as it has been
outlined above, is counterbalanced by strong social conflicts. As a result, comparatively
high party discipline combines with presidential systems in such countries (Linz, 1990).
Unlike in the United States, for example, such countries face a comparatively high risk of
lasting executive-legislative deadlock. Conversely, the president's capacity for action is
particularly high in such countries if the president's party has a majority in the legislature.
Since this paper is concerned with possible presidential tendencies in western democracies,
this aspect need not concern us further in this context.


In the wake of democratization in central and eastern Europe, the debate about the
adequate categorization of so-called semi-presidential systems has gained momentum.
However, the notion of semi-presidentialism has already been introduced by Maurice
Duverger in the 1970s. With a view to the constitutional order of the French Fifth
Republic, Duverger argued that semi-presidentialism represents a regime type in its own

This applies also the above-mentioned exception of Switzerland, Cyprus and Uruguay, who may be also
be categorized as 'presidential' despite having a collective executive.
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 5

right (Duverger, 1980; Bahro & Veser, 1995: 471). He identifies three criteria which are
typical of semi-presidential systems:
– the president has “quite considerable powers”;
– the president is elected through “universal suffrage”;
– the prime minister is politically responsible to parliament (Duverger, 1980: 166).
It is evident that this definition suffers from the vagueness of the requirement that the
president should have ‘considerable powers’, or that, as has been suggested by Sartori, he
should share power with the prime minister (Sartori, 1997: 130f.). Hence, others have
suggested to drop this stipulation altogether and concentrate instead on a more precise
specification of the second characteristic of the president, that is, the method of his
election. Whereas Duverger has remained rather vague by requesting that the president
should be elected through “universal suffrage”, Linz, Sartori and Elgie use more precise
terminology and speak of “popularly elected” or explicitly of “direct or indirect” popular
election. Although this goes actually without saying, Elgie adds that this election should be
for a fixed term (Linz, 1994: 48; Sartori, 1997: 130-31; Elgie, 1999: 13). The third
criterion is uncontroversial: All authors agree that it is a feature of semi-presidential
systems that there should be a prime minister who is responsible to parliament.
Obviously, the decision to limit the definition of semi-presidentialism to the latter two
criteria, that is, the popular election of the president and the existence of a prime minister
responsible to parliament, appears to be convincing at first sight. After all, it eliminates all
ambiguities from Duverger's original concept. At the same time, however, it stretches it to
a point where its analytical value is in danger (Sartori, 1970: 1034-36). After all, the
popular election of the president does not necessarily mean that he will have a position in
the constitutional order that clearly exceeds the classic representative functions and reserve
powers of a ceremonial head of state as they are, for example, characteristic of the German
political system. No doubt, a popular election endows the president with a legitimation
independent of political parties and parliament. This may give him the opportunity to
interpret his constitutional powers more extensively than he might otherwise be able to do.
Nevertheless, it would still be crucial to what extent exclusive formalized powers existed at
all. A simple thought experiment may corroborate this point: Imagine popular election of
the German president were introduced without any further constitutional reform.
Obviously, this would not lead to a different type of political regime in Germany. A
popularly elected president might be tempted to assume a more ‘political’ role in the
political process of the Federal Republic, because he could refer to his direct legitimation
by the people. At the end of the day, however, a more ambitious interpretation of the
presidential office would find its clear limits in the constitutionally prescribed boundaries
of presidential power.
Conversely, it is conceivable that a formally quite powerful president is not elected by
the people, but through a special assembly which is composed, as in the Italian case, of
representatives of different elected bodies and forms exclusively for this purpose.
Ultimately, it depends on the political tradition and the political culture of a given polity
whether or not such a president will have the legitimacy necessary to make full use of his
constitutional rights, that is, be a governing president despite his lack of direct popular
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 6

legitimation. In a nutshell, the discussion has shown that the definitional problems cannot
be solved be recourse to a minimalist solution. The crucial characteristic of semi-
presidential systems is that the president governs – or shares government, depending on
parliamentary majorities. The power of the executive is split in semi-presidential systems.
Shugart and Carey have pleaded for a more differentiated typology which distinguishes
between ‘premier-presidentialism’ and ‘president-parliamentarism'’. This draws attention
to different variants of semi-presidentialism. In all cases, however, a president with
considerable executive powers coexists with a government responsible to parliament. The
two versions of semi-presidentialism differ primarily in one aspect: The president cannot
dismiss the prime minister in premier-presidential systems. In this case, the prime minister
has a stronger position as in president-parliamentary systems, where prime minister and
cabinet have a dual responsibility in that they can be dismissed by the president and
censured by parliament (Shugart & Carey, 1992: 23f.).
In all cases there is a constitutionally envisaged division of executive power between
the president and a government responsible to parliament. In the end, the actual
distribution of power between both actors depends primarily on the majority in parliament.
Whether or not the president can rely on a parliamentary majority ultimately decides on the
mode of action of such political systems. Since the executive power is split, it is only
partially responsible to parliament. Hence, contrary to Steffani' s argument, semi-
presidential systems are not just a variant of parliamentarism, or, as he put it, a 'president-
dominated parliamentarism' (Steffani, 1995: 630). Also, semi-presidential systems do not
alternate, as has been suggested by Lijphart, between parliamentary and presidential phases
(Lijphart, 1992: 8; Lijphart, 1997: 127). Rather, they uniquely combine the specific
functional logic of both systems:
First, the logic of parliamentarism, which means that disciplined parliamentary parties
support a government responsible to parliament. In cases of congruent majorities, this leads
to a balance of power in semi-presidential systems which could adequately be regarded as
an extreme form of parliamentarism. The president is more powerful than a prime minister
in a parliamentary system, because he controls the legislative process through his
parliamentary majority (Merkel, Sandschneider, & Segert, 1996: 29). At the same time, he
has all those executive powers at his disposal which derive from his presidential office and
which are, according to the logic of presidentialism, immune to hostile parliamentary
Second, the logic of presidentialism, which means that the executive remains in office
and capable of action when there is a hostile majority in parliament. This leads to a 'partial
presidentialism', that is, executive power is not only de jure but also de facto split between
president and prime minister. The president loses political control over the portion of the
executive which is accountable to parliament. His genuine presidential powers, however,
cannot be touched.
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 7

The Concept of Presidentialization

The preceding discussion has shown that semi-presidentialism does not represent an
intermediate position between parliamentary and presidential forms of government. On the
contrary, it is a regime type in its own right which is characterized by a specific inherent
logic (Pasquino, 1997: 129). To speak of the presidentialization of parliamentary systems
does therefore not imply that parliamentary systems are on the move on a continuum which
would first lead them to become semi-presidential and then, eventually, turn into a
presidential regime. These three regime types are discrete phenomena. To an extent, their
actual mode of operation can become more similar in some cases, but a gradual transition
from one regime type to another is precluded by their specific functional logics, which are,
in essence, mutually exclusive. Either, the executive is responsible to parliament or it is
not. And the combination of both principles in semi-presidential systems leads to a third
specific functional logic.
Hence, the concept of presidentialization can only mean that, first, parliamentary
systems move directly towards the functional logic of presidential systems. And, second,
we are investigating processes that remain below the threshold of a regime change, which
would transform a parliamentary into a presidential system (Merkel, 1999: 74f.). Since
formal, constitutional changes are rare exceptions, this concept addresses primarily shifts
in the constitutional practice of parliamentary regimes. It should be emphasized that the
concept of presidentialization is based on the incentive structures that emanate from the
configuration of the key institutions in presidential and parliamentary systems. Obviously,
specific national circumstances will frequently distort their effects in the real world of
Contrary to this conceptualization, the term presidentialization is frequently used to
designate a process of growing concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister.
This tends to originate from an restricted understanding of the inherent loci of presidential
systems, which leads to an exaggerated perception of presidential power and his capacity
for action. A frequently used indicator in this context is the so-called presidentialization of
election campaigns in parliamentary democracies (see, for example, LeDuc, Niemi, &
Norris, 1996: 45-48; Semetko, 1996; Farrell, 1996) or the discussion about the growing
influence of candidate effects on voting choice (see, for example, Bean & Mughan, 1989;
Crewe & King, 1994; Graetz & McAllister, 1987; Mughan, 1993; Stewart & Clarke,
1992). However, this phenomenon as such should better be discussed under the heading of
personalization (Kaase, 1994). Yet, the preceding discussion has demonstrated that the
position of the head of government within the executive represents an insufficient
characterization of a political system. Equally relevant is the mode of interaction between
executive and legislature in general and the relationship between government and
governmental majority (or the supporting minority) in particular.
It follows from this that the concept of presidentialization should be used to designate a
process of
1. a growing concentration of executive power in the hands of the head of
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 8

2. an erosion of the unity of action of government and supporting parliamentary

parties; parliament as a whole gains independence vis-à-vis the government (and
vice versa).

What are the actual changes in political practice which would justify such a judgement? In
other words, what are the empirical indicators we should be able to find if a political
systems is showing tendencies towards a more presidential mode of functioning. These are
the questions which will be addressed in the following sections.

The Position of the Head of Government in the Political Process

Government and Legislation

There are two central aspects concerning the position of the head of government in the
political process, that is, his role in competitive elections and his function in the process of
government and legislation. It is the latter that we shall consider first.
“Presidential government tends to be individual” (Verney, 1992: 42-43). More
precisely, it is concentrated in the hands of the president, who is, on the whole,
unconstrained to appoint and dismiss his cabinet members; they are his subordinates, he
determines the guidelines of politics. Prime ministers also have a superior position within
their government. Their power to determine the guidelines of politics is even
constitutionally stipulated in some countries. At the same time, however, the executive in
parliamentary regimes is always also a collective body (Lijphart, 1992: 3). It follows from
this that presidentialization means in this context a decline of the collective character of
government and a concomitant gain of the individual element, that is, a growing
supremacy of the prime minister.
In political practice, this should lead to a situation where cabinet is increasingly less the
location of political initiative and decision. In concrete terms, this should be reflected in
the following phenomena :
– Increasingly, the prime minister seeks external advice (through think tanks, for
example). At the same time, the role of cabinet members and their bureaucracies in
role of policy formulation declines.
– A second indicator of the tendency of the head of government to assume a more
independent role vis-à-vis his cabinet is the expansion of his own apparatus.
Manpower and financial resources of the prime minister's office grow considerably
(Foley, 1993).
– As a results, policy initiatives may “originate more often primarily from the office
of the head of government (or from closely connected advisors or think tanks) and
not from individual ministries” (Poguntke & Webb, 1998).
– The weakened position of individual ministers may also lead to more frequent
changes of cabinet members (Poguntke & Webb, 1998).
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 9


Presidential elections are highly personalized. Hence, presidentialization of the electoral

process of parliamentary systems means that the role of the party leader gains increasing
importance in election campaigns. This applies to both, the campaign strategies of political
parties and the campaign coverage of the mass media. The most important indicators for
such changes are as follows:
– The campaign strategy of political parties focuses primarily on the personality of
the party leader (or, respectively, the prime ministerial candidate), whereas party
programmes are relegated to a secondary role (Farrell & Bowler, 1992; Farrell &
Webb, 1998).
– Correspondingly, campaign coverage concentrates on personality and capability of
the leading candidate. Insofar as policy positions do play a role, the media will talk
about those of the candidate, not about the programmatic positions of his party
(Poguntke & Webb, 1998).
– In addition, the media tend to frame the election campaign in the terminology of a
‘horse race’. The question who has gained through a specific move and who his
leading right now assumes paramount attention in the media coverage, whereas
substantive issues tend to be neglected.
– The impact of the leading candidates on the election result increases – at least, this
is the conviction of all relevant actors.

Moving Apart: Government and Supporting Parliamentary Parties

It has been shown above that even under conditions of ‘unified government’, president and
parliamentary majority are normally not unitary actors in presidential systems. Such unity
of government and supporting parliamentary party (or parties), however, represents the
essential logic of parliamentary systems. In everyday politics of parliamentary systems,
presidentialization means that the unity of action between government and supporting
parliamentary parties is becoming weaker. To be clear, the supporting parliamentary
parties need not always command a majority in parliament. The stability of minority
governments, which are quite frequent in Scandinavia, tends to be equally dependent on
this unified action of government and supportive parliamentary parties.
Over time, political parties and hence their parliamentary parties have become more
heterogeneous and less disciplined. This provides the prime minister with more freedom of
action. The same applies to the senior ministers of coalition governments vis-à-vis their
respective parties. At the same time, these leading politicians are exposed to greater
pressures for action, because they need, according to the logic of the parliamentary system,
to engineer unity and discipline in a situation that is structurally prone to disunity and
disorder. Since the parliamentary system requires unity on the floor, we need to search for
suitable indicators which reflect the difficulty of reaching that unity before the actual
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 10

parliamentary vote is taken. This difficulty may be reflected in the following

- Policy decisions are shifted to formal or informal bodies which have been designed
to co-ordinate governmental policies with the respective parliamentary party (or
parties). Increasingly, the parties of government behave like an independent actor
vis-à-vis their own government. Hence the need for special arbitration bodies.
- In order to reduce the cost of producing unity, prime ministers (or party leaders)
tend to resort to plebiscitarian leadership techniques. This may manifest itself in
recourse to the hypothetical will of the electorate (as opposed to that of the own
party) or in the in a growing frequency of membership ballots on specific policy
issues (Poguntke & Webb, 1998).


Presidentialization means, as we have seen, a gradual shift of the working mode of

parliamentary systems towards more personalized government and a parallel attenuation of
the formerly tight unity of government and government parties. It is likely to be reflected
in some or all of the empirical indicators that have been sketched out above. Little has been
said thus far about potential causes of such changes and, equally important, relevant
constraints, which may slow down or even entirely prevent such developments in some
nations. Let us first turn to the most important theoretical reasons which suggest that the
political process of parliamentary democracies is indeed moving towards a more
presidential working mode.

Changes in Political Parties

Western societies have become increasingly heterogeneous (Streeck, 1987; Weßels, 1991).
Formerly large and uniform social interest have dissolved into smaller, more contradictory
and frequently diffuse social categories. Correspondingly, interest representation through
political parties has become more pluralistic. At the same time, political participation has
increasingly turned into an occupational career (von Beyme, 1997; von Beyme, 1993).
Hence, ideology as an integrating force in party politics has been weakened considerably.
As a result, political parties have become socially more pluralistic and ideologically
diffuse. This, in turn, tends to undermine the unity between government and government
parties and offers opportunities for plebiscitarian leadership strategies (Poguntke & Webb,
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 11

Changes in Political Communication

The overwhelming success of television over the past decades has fundamentally
transformed the logic of political communication. Visual presentation has become
paramount, whereas political debate, that is, the exchange of arguments and the
competition of political ideas have declined (Farrell & Bowler, 1992; Farrell & Webb,
1998). Personalization of election campaigns has been a direct, and unavoidable,
consequence. Prime ministers and party leaders have come to occupy the centre of the
electoral stage, which has strengthened their political weight within their own political
camp (Poguntke & Webb, 1998). As long as they are regarded as ‘good performers’ on the
electronic stage, they have considerable power to lead their party politically. At the same
time, however, such ‘virtual leadership’ is precarious, because it is primarily based on
performance in the media and in the polls. Obviously, these are much less stable power
bases compared to the traditional leadership resources of ideological and programmatic
leadership and control over the party organization, which have become less important.
These repercussions on the position on prime ministers and party leaders are largely
independent of the actual electoral effect of the mediatization of election campaigns. In
other words, whether or not voters are influenced by leadership factors is not important –
as long as the majority of relevant actors believe that these factors make a difference.
Simultaneously, however, the enormous extension of media coverage has amplified the
heterogeneity of parties and parliamentary parties, because the electronic media provides
an easily accessible forum for dissenting opinions. In a nutshell, the changes in political
communication have contradictory effects: At the same time, they strengthen the role of
the party leadership and they undermine the unity of government and government parties.

The Internationalization of Politics

Politics is becoming ever more international. An increasing proportion of political

problems are at least partially regulated through inter-governmental agreements or through
supra-national regimes. The majority of such agreements require ratification by national
parliaments. As a rule, however, there is little to no scope for parliaments to change these
agreements at this stage ({Poguntke & Webb 1998 #5305}). In parliamentary systems, a
rejection of such agreements by the governmental parties would normally endanger the
stability of the government. As a consequence, the internationalization of politics tends to
undermine the unity of action between government and governmental parties. A growing
number of political outcomes are no longer the result of joint action of government and
governmental parties. Instead, governments confront their supporting parties ex post with
political results (Zürn, 1996: 34f.). With a view to possible presidential tendencies of
parliamentary regimes, this has ambivalent effects: On the one hand, governments become
more independent vis-à-vis their parliamentary parties (Hix & Lord, 1997: 75), which
would indicate a trend towards a more presidential working mode. On the other hand, the
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 12

essential logic of parliamentarianism is still in place, which means that governments are in
danger if they cannot rely on parliamentary support in important political issues (as issues
of international relations almost regularly are). This provides governments with an
important lever to enforce consent. Hence, the internationalization of politics does not
automatically make parliaments more independent vis-à-vis the government. Unlike in
presidential systems, where parliaments feel free to bloc international agreements,
parliamentary systems with presidential tendencies are characterized by a growing
governmental freedom of action in the international sphere.
This decline of national politics is particularly visible in the EU, where a considerable
proportion of nationally binding decisions are already taken on the European level. Whilst
national governments participate in these decisions, national parliaments are relegated to a
position where they are either expected to ratify inter-governmental agreements or to
convert EU-guidelines into national legislation.


The changes that have been discussed in the sections above strengthen the position of
political leaders, particularly those within government, and undermine the cohesion of
political parties and their parliamentary groups. Hence, they favour presidential tendencies
in the political process of parliamentary democracies without fundamentally transforming
their inherent logic. It cannot be assumed, however, that these factors have equal effects in
all parliamentary democracies. Actual developments in individual countries are the result
of the interaction of such general trends with the specific political conditions of a given
country. The most important of these conditions, which vary across nations, will be
addressed subsequently.

Party System Format

Party systems which either lead to the formation of one-party governments or to coalition
governments with a dominant coalition partner favour presidential tendencies for at least
two reasons. First, election campaigns tend to turn into a confrontation between two prime
ministerial candidates. Second, regardless of specific constitutional rules or political
traditions, the prime minister of a one-party government will normally have a strong
position within his government, because there is no power sharing with the leader of a
coalition party. A similar logic applies to asymmetrical coalitions, where the prime
minister will normally assume a fairly dominant role vis-à-vis a coalition partner that is far
Party systems which make for multi-party governments with coalition partners of
approximately equal strength dampen presidential tendencies, because election campaigns
are rarely fought as confrontations between potential prime ministers. Instead, the
competing parties will gain comparatively high attention. Inside cabinet, it will be difficult
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 13

for the prime minister to dominate, because cabinet members from other parties have a
comparable parliamentary base (and frequently coalition alternatives).
Highly fragmented party systems are likely to promote presidential tendencies, because
political parties may be too weak to contain political leaders who may attempt to bypass
them and resort to populist leadership techniques (Poguntke & Webb, 1998).

Majoritarian Democracies

The second relevant factor relates to Lijphart's regime types, that is, whether the dominant
mode of decision-making is majoritarian or consensual (Lijphart, 1984; Lijphart, 1999).
Majoritarian democracies have a higher potential for presidential tendencies, because they
tend to assign a comparatively strong role of the head of government.


The extent of political patronage has also an impact on the strength of presidential
tendencies. A wide range of opportunities for political patronage strengthens the
bargaining power of the head of government versus parliament as well as his direct
executive power, because he can exert considerable control over the bureaucracy through
appointing loyal supporters to key positions. At the same time, patronage tends to
undermine cohesion and discipline of political parties. Patronage provides the executive
with the opportunity to 'buy' consent of the opposition. Consequently, the unambiguous
separation of government camp and opposition, which is typical of the parliamentary logic,
becomes blurred.


Systematic empirical investigation of the questions raised above still needs to be done.
Nevertheless, some empirical corroboration of the theoretical discussion will be presented
now. Although the examples of the United Kingdom and Israel can only be treated rather
casually in this context, evidence suggest that theme of presidentialization deserves
systematic empirical investigation.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has elicited most speculation about a silent presidentialization of its
political process. Primarily, the debate has focused on the allegedly growing prime
ministerial dominance and a concomitant decline of collective cabinet government (Foley,
1993; Döring, 1991; Jones, 1991; Hennessy, 1998). Contrary to what one may expect, it
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 14

has not been sparked off by Margret Thatcher's reign but dates back to a relevant argument
advanced by Crossman in the early 1960s (Crossman, 1963). It is beyond doubt that
Margret Thatcher had quite pronounced presidential inclinations (Jones, 1991: 117).
However, there is empirical evidence for a gradual strengthening of the position of the
British prime minister, which is independent of personal leadership styles. The number of
personal staff of the prime minister grew and external policy advice was increasingly
sought (Jones, 1991: 131-32). In comparative terms, however, this remained on a rather
modest level (Döring, 1991: 7). Furthermore, since the premiership of Edward Heath, that
is, since the early 1970s, foreign policy issues have taken up a steadily growing proportion
of prime ministerial statements to the House of Commons (Jones, 1991: 115). Clearly, this
is another indication of presidential tendencies gradually changing the role of the British
prime minister.
Changes that relate directly to the mode of interaction between government and
parliament (that is, the second dimension of presidentialization) are even more significant.
Contrary to the myth of the ‘elected dictator’, the cohesion of parliamentary parties has
declined considerably since the early 1970s; the Thatcher years have been no exception
(Döring, 1991: 10; Jones, 1991: 125; Webb, 2000). Furthermore, the position of parliament
has been strengthened through a reform of the committee system, which has introduced
parliamentary committees matching all important ministries for the first time in British
constitutional history (Döring, 1991:11). Obviously, this represents a development which
has weakened the formerly tight unity of action between government and parliamentary
majority. Instead, the mode of interaction between government and parliament has move
towards the pattern which is typical of presidential systems: The head of government
occupies a very prominent position, but he cannot rely upon stable support by his
parliamentary majority.


Israel is a special case, because it has formally changed the constitutional order. This has
partially altered the formerly unambiguously parliamentary character of its political
system. One important reason for this constitutional reform – and this corresponds to our
theoretical argument – has been the extreme fragmentation of the Israeli party system. As
an antidote, direct election of the prime minister was introduced. The expectation was that
this would strengthen his position vis-à-vis the political parties. Contrary to some
interpretations, however, the essential logic of parliamentary government was maintained.
Although the prime minister assumes office through a direct election, his cabinet needs
parliamentary approval. If the cabinet fails to win a vote of confidence, or if parliament
carries a vote of no confidence once the government has taken office, this leads to the
dissolution of the Knesset and a new prime ministerial election. Automatic dissolution of
parliament can only be avoided if a two-thirds majority censures the prime minister
(Brichta, 1998: 187; Gundermann, 1998: 1405-06). Hence, the basic principle of
parliamentary government, which is the parliamentary responsibility of the chief executive,
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 15

has been preserved. Basically, the threshold for a vote of no confidence has been raised
from the conventional 50 per cent mark to a two-thirds requirement. At the same time, the
new constitutional order has presidential elements, because the prime minister is elected
directly and assumes office somewhat detached from direct party political influence. In
addition, he can refer to his direct legitimation through the people. Nevertheless, in order
to govern he needs, as is the rule in parliamentary systems, a majority in parliament
(Hazan, 1996). This distinguishes the Israeli system from semi-presidential systems where
the executive power is divided between a prime minister responsible to parliament and a
president who is not. And it makes it different from presidential system where the chief
executive cannot be removed from office by a hostile parliament.


The example of Israel confirms our argument that parliamentary, presidential and semi-
presidential systems represent discrete regime types that cannot gradually transform into
another type. Each type is characterized by a specific functional logic. A given regime type
may move somewhat towards another type; either through gradual changes of its actual
working mode or through formal reforms, as in the Israeli example. However, only a
fundamental constitutional reconstruction which results in another dominant functional
logic can lead to an actual regime change. Such regime changes cannot fully be explained
with the cross-nationally valid causes as they have been presented above. An adequate
explanation also needs to consider specific historical experiences of a given nation or a
possible fundamental transformation of the balance of power in domestic politics.
The empirical questions raised by the concept of presidentialization cannot be answered
without a broadly comparative study. It is obvious, however, that there is no uniform trend.
After all, the country-specific patterns of causes and constraints are far too diverse to make
such an expectation a realistic one.
One important conclusion can be drawn already at this stage: Contrary to popular
perception, presidentialization does not necessarily lead to more powerful prime ministers
in parliamentary democracies. The example of the United States illustrates this: Depending
on political seasons (and majorities), the president may be the world's most powerful chief
executive – or he may be forced to temporarily lay off many staff of his central
bureaucracy because Congress has blocked the cash flow. Similarly, the head of
government in parliamentary systems which have moved towards a more presidential
working mode will not always benefit from this development. Less cohesive and
disciplined parties may be less capable of constraining and controlling their elites than in
the past. But strong political leadership depends increasingly on the authority of leaders,
which, in turn, tends to rest ever more on the unreliable fortunes of their electoral appeal.
Thomas Poguntke: Presidentialization of Parliamentary Democracies 16


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