Executive type: basic definitions

A great deal of the literature comparing political institutions across countries has been devoted to the study of executive type (or executive format). By executive type I mean the institutional structure of the executive and legislative branches of a country (or other jurisdiction), their constitutionally-defined relationship and relative powers. Most people will be familiar with the fact that some countries (like the US and Mexico) have a ‘president’ while other countries (like the UK or Japan) have a ‘prime minister’ (and perhaps even with the fact that some countries, like France or Poland, have both). These kinds of distinctions are what ‘executive type’ is all about.

Shugart & Carey (1992) classify different executive types in terms of separation of offices between “executive” and “legislative” branches in two dimensions:

  1. executive origin, meaning how the executive office(s) are selected – specifically, whether or not there is a chief executive or head of state elected separately (‘popularly’ or ‘directly’) from the assembly, and
  2. executive survival, meaning whether the executive (or part of it) has a fixed term or may be removed from office early by majority vote of the assembly.

Executive origin
Executive survival
fusedpartly separate & partly fusedseparate

  • Where the head of state is directly elected and appoints his own cabinet which is not dependent on the continual support of the assembly, the system is termed presidential.
  • If there is a head of state who is not popularly elected and the cabinet (prime ministers + other ministers) is formed in, and may be dismissed by, the assembly, the regime is parliamentary.
  • Where there is a directly-elected president, but also a prime minister and cabinet who can be dismissed by the assembly, the system is semi-presidential. (Shugart & Carey, following Duverger (1980), say that the president should have “significant powers” as well, otherwise it is parliamentary. As Elgie (2004) argues, however, this makes the definition unavoidably subjective, and I prefer to follow him in including all systems which follow the categorisation based on the two dimensions explained above)
  • Lastly, if the executive is elected by the assembly, but is not subject to dismissal by the assembly, the system is assembly-independent.

You will notice that I’ve left some cells empty. There are more types out there that belong in those cells, and I may discuss them in future posts. For our discussion thus far, these are the most relevant executive types.

Outlines of the three most common executive types

Other than executives not being popularly elected, what I call ‘parliamentarism’ has no particular requirements regarding the selection of the head of state position. In practice, almost all parliamentary systems adhere to one of two possibilities: hereditary succession (as in the UK or the Netherlands) or indirect election by elected officials (as in India or Germany); countries in the former category are known as ‘monarchies’, the latter as ‘republics’. In parliamentary republics, the head of state (always known as ‘president’, at least in English) is either elected by the national/federal assembly (a general term for parliaments, congresses, and other names given to elected assemblies) or by some kind of ‘electoral college’ made up of the assembly plus elected representatives from local or regional governments. When I use the term ‘indirect election’, this is what I am referring to, not to a system where the ‘electoral college’ is elected by voters with the sole purpose of electing the president.

My terminology here diverges somewhat from Tavits’ (2009) book. She refers to all systems with cabinet responsibility (i.e. types that allow the assembly to dismiss the cabinet; what I call parliamentary and semi-presidential systems) as ‘parliamentary’, regardless of the selection process or formal powers of the head of state.

Works cited

Duverger, Maurice. 1980. “A New Political System Model: Semi-Presidential Government”. European Journal of Political Research 8, 165–87.

Elgie, Robert. 2004. “Semi-Presidentialism: Concepts, Consequences and Contesting Explanations.” Political Studies Review 2(3): 314–30.

Lijphart, Arend. 2012 [1999]. Patterns of Democracy. Second Edition. Cumberland: Yale University Press.

Linz, Juan J. 1990. “The Perils of Presidentialism”. Journal of Democracy 51(1):1, 51-69.Shugart, Matthew S., and John M. Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shugart, Matthew S., and John M. Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tavits, Margit. 2009. Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter? Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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