Debating Institutional Reform
There are three main government systems – presidential, semi-presidential, and parliamentary. Over the years, many countries have debated switching from one system to another and some have actually decided to make the change. The move from a parliamentary to a semi-presidential system under President Charles de Gaulle in France is well known. Turkey’s more recent shift from a parliamentary system to the direct election of the president and a semi-presidential system is also very familiar. Most recently, in December 2015, Armenia voted to change from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary system after the next electoral cycle in 2017-2018. There are well-known arguments both for and against each of the three main government systems. This article places these arguments in context. It begins by defining the three systems in a way that allows them to be identified unambiguously. It then suggests that it is necessary to go beyond simple and well-worn arguments about the pros and cons of individual systems. Instead, it makes the point that the effects of such systems are conditioned by the interaction of party politics and specific institutional rules. This means that decision makers should focus less on the headline debate about the shift from one government system to another and think more about both the party political context in which such a change would be introduced, and the effects of the more detailed institutional reforms that usually accompany the system-level switch.