by Rod Hague and Martin Harrop

Chapter Sixteen: The Political Executive

Chapter Notes

  • The political executive as the top tier of government, providing direction, supervision, crisis leadership and also mobilizing popular support.
  • Presidential government. Direct election; fixed term; term limits; separation from legislature; president also head of state. Many presidents but few presidential systems. Mainly an American (N. and S). phenomenon. The institutional difficulties presidents face in achieving their goals. Are presidential systems stable outside the USA?
  • The American presidency: high expectations but severe constraints. Going Washington and going public. The advisory system and its weaknesses. The Brazilian presidency: more formal powers but also greater limits, including the weak control of Congress resulting from PR and a multi-party system. Unlike the USA, the Brazilian executive contains appointments from several parties, providing coalition government in a presidential setting.
  • Parliamentary government. Collegial executive emerging from, and depending on, the legislature. Separation of head of government and head of state. Two forms: majority governments (Britain, at least until 2010) and coalitions or minority government (continental Europe, reflecting PR). Parliamentary coalitions may occur without governing coalitions. Rules for installing governments: investiture votes. Coalitions: minimum winning, oversized, grand and connected. The stability of coalitions, in West if not East Europe. The constructive vote of no confidence as an aid to stability.
  • Who governs in parliamentary systems? Cabinet, prime ministerial and ministerial government. The expansion of the prime minister’s influence. The emergence of cabinet committees, and the discussions surrounding them, as the effective decision site.
  • Heads of state in parliamentary government. Efficient and dignified roles. Survival of monarchs and their occasional influence in some countries. How selected: most often elected, whether by popular vote, parliament or an electoral college.
  • The semi-presidential dual executive: the president and the prime minister both play political roles. The division of responsibilities, with foreign affairs a focus of the president. The example of the Fifth French Republic. The president as a national figure, the assembly as a collection of sectional interests. Danger of conflict between president and prime minister. Cohabitation.
  • The European Union executive: the European Commission as a European executive/bureaucracy. The historic motor of integration, especially for the single market, but as this dynamic has weakened, so the Commission must now be must be assessed alongside the Council of the European Union, a law-making intergovernmental body.
  • The authoritarian executive. Weak institutionalization, leading to succession struggles and the pre-eminence of politics over policy. A game of high stakes. Personal and often patriarchal rule. Constraints on authoritarian rulers. The totalitarian executive: more regularized in communist than in the leader-centred fascist states. But fluid, personal factions structure party politics in China.
  • The executive in competitive authoritarian regimes. Bias to the presidential form, with an emphasis on personal rule and the responsibilities entrusted in the national leader. The tradition of autonomous state power in Russia and the resources it provides for an effective president in what is formally a semi-presidential system.

Figures and tables


Multiple choice questions


Essays and term papers

a. If you had to recommend either a presidential or a parliamentary executive for a new democracy, which would you choose and why?

b. Is the semi-presidential executive a creative synthesis or a messy compromise?

Hague & Harrop, 2013 edn, ch. 16.

R. Elgie, Semi-Presidentialism in Europe
L. Han, ed., New Directions in the American Presidency
L. Helms, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chancellors: Executive Leadership in Western Democracies
A. Lijphart, Parliamentary versus Presidential Government
J. Linz and A. Valenzuela, The Failure of Presidential Democracy
W. Müller and K. Strøm, Coalition Governments in Western Europe
T. Poguntke and P. Webb, The Presidentialization of Politics: A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies
K. Strøm, W. Müller and T. Bergman, Cabinets and Coalition Bargaining: The Democratic Life Cycle in Western Europe



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