A constitution is a set of basic rules for making collective decisions. Rules producing enforceable decisions can solve coordination and cooperation dilemmas, which may induce individuals to prefer constraining rules to settings in which every human interaction should be adjusted independently. However, different rules may favor different decisions with differently distributed benefits among individuals and groups.
Two Categories of Constitutional Rules
Two categories of constitutional rules can be distinguished: (1) those to regulate the division of powers among the various branches of government, and (2) those to define the relationships between these branches and the public, which in democracy are based on elections. Regarding the first category, virtually all the political regimes in world history have been based on a one-person office combined with multiple-person offices. The rationale for this is that, while a one-person institution may be highly effective at decision making, a few person council may be more capable of collecting information and deliberating, and a large assembly can be representative of different interests and values in the society and able to organize consent and facilitate the enforcement of decisions.
In classical political theory (as elaborated most prominently by Aristotle), the distinction between the rule of one, the few, or the many was sufficient to define basic types of political regime, such as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. In modern times, an analogous distinction can be made between dictatorship, semi democratic regimes (typically holding multiple-candidate elections with restrictions on suffrage or on the offices submitted to electoral results), and democracy. Within democracy, the rules of one, the few, and the many–would correspond to the institutions of one-person prime minister or president, the few–member cabinet, and the many–member assembly. The relationships between these institutions define different types of democratic regime, as discussed in the following paragraphs.
The second category of constitutional rules mentioned above regulates the relationships between public officers and citizens by means of elections, which makes the classification of democratic regimes more complex. In particular, we can distinguish electoral systems based on simple plurality or absolute majority rule, which produce a single absolute winner and favor the concentration of power, and those using proportional representation rules, which are associated to multiparty systems and coalition governments.
Types of Constitutional Regime
Parliamentary Constitutional Regimes
The parliamentary regime resulted historically from the process of enhancing the role of the elected assembly and limiting the monarch’s powers. According to the English or Westminster model, parliament became the sovereign institution, also assuming the power of appointing and dismissing ministers, while the monarch remained a ceremonial although nonaccountable figure. The Third French Republic established in the late nineteenth century was the first democratic republic with a parliamentary regime. This type of regime produces political congruence between the legislative and the executive and some “fusion” of institutional powers.
Specifically, in parliamentary regimes with majoritarian electoral rules, a single party, even with a minority electoral support, usually can find sufficient institutional levers to win an assembly majority, appoint the prime minister, and form a government. In these situations, power tends to concentrate in the hands of the prime minister, which led to an interpretation of the development of political parties as a force eroding the central role of the parliament. In constitutional studies in the early twentieth century, the British model was provocatively labeled a “cabinet” of a “prime minister” regime, rather than “parliamentary.” However, it has more recently been remarked that the growth of party was instrumental to reduce the influence of the monarch but not necessarily that of parliament. With the reduction of the monarch to a figurehead, the prime minister has indeed become the new one-person relevant figure, while the position of the cabinet has weakened. Still, the role of parliament has survived, and even, in a modest way, thrived.
The central role of parliament is more prominent in parliamentary regimes with proportional representation electoral rules, in which typically multiparty coalition governments are formed. The diffusion of power is wider in these than in regimes based on plurality or majority electoral rules. In contrast to electorally minority single-party governments, multiparty cabinets typically rely upon broad majority support both among parliamentarians and in the electorate. A multiparty coalition based on a majority of seats and popular votes is the typical government formula in most countries of continental Europe, including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Minority cabinets with additional parliamentary support are also formed in a few cases, as in Denmark and Spain.
Presidential Constitutional Regimes
The second basic type of political regime resulted from the replacement of the executive monarch with an elected president, which should exert power in parallel to a representative congress. This model thus implies separate elections and divided powers between the chief executive and the legislative branch. It is usually called, in a rather confusing term, a presidential regime. In the original U.S. version, it implies a complex system of checks and balances, or mutual controls among separately elected or appointed institutions (presidency, the House, Senate, the Supreme Court). Interinstitutional relations are subjected to rules including term limits for the president, limited presidential veto of congressional legislation, Senate rules permitting a qualified minority to block decisions, senatorial ratification of presidential appointments, congressional appointment of officers and control of administrative agencies, congressional impeachment of the president, and judicial revision of legislation.
These counterweighting mechanisms play in favor of power sharing between institutions. As they induce negotiations and agreements between offices with different political orientation, they are equivalent devices to supermajority rules for decision making. The obstacles introduced by the numerous institutional checks to innovative decision making may stabilize socially inefficient status-quo policies, but they also guarantee that most important decisions are made by broad majorities able to prevent the imposition of a small or minority group’s will. With similar analytical insight but a different evaluation, other analyses have remarked that separate elections and divided governments create a “dual legitimacy” prone to “deadlock,” that is, legislative paralysis and interinstitutional conflict.
A unified government can exist when the president’s party controls a majority of seats in the assembly. In the United States, there has been a situation of unified government with the president’s party having a majority in both houses of Congress during less than 60 percent of time from 1832 to 2008, while divided government was more frequent during the second half of the twentieth century. However, U.S. congressional rules have traditionally included the ability of 40 percent of senators to block any decision by filibustering, which has almost always made the president’s party unable to impose its decisions by its own. This could explain why no significant differences in legislative performances between periods of unified and divided governments have been observed.
Presidential dominance has been attempted in other countries, especially in several republics in Latin America and Africa, by supplementing the president’s veto power over legislation and his control of the army, which do exist in the United States, with other constitutional mechanisms favoring the concentration of power. They include long presidential terms and reelections, the president’s unconstrained powers to appoint and remove members of cabinet and other high officers, legislative initiative, capacity to dictate legislative decrees, fiscal and administrative authority, discretionary emergency powers, suspension of constitutional guarantees and, in formally federal countries, the right to intervene in state affairs. The other side of this same coin is weak congresses, which are not usually given control over the cabinet and are frequently constrained by short session periods and lack of resources. However, in democratic periods in the ten countries of South America since 1945, the president’s party has not had a majority in congress 65 percent of the time; in about half of these cases, multiparty presidential cabinets have been formed by means of post electoral, congressional negotiations (a formula which always applies, for instance, in the case of Brazil).
Semi-Presidential Constitutional Regimes
In another variant of regimes with division of powers, usually called semi-presidentialism, the presidency and the assembly are elected separately, like in a checks-and-balances regime, but it is the assembly that appoints and can dismiss a prime minister, like in a parliamentary regime. As a result, in parallel to the multiple-person assembly, two one-person offices, the president and the prime minister, share the executive powers in a governmental diarchy, as in the current Fifth Republic of France.
At the beginning of the French experience, it was speculated that this constitutional model would produce an alternation between presidential and parliamentary phases, respectively favoring the president and the prime minister as a one-person dominant figure. The first phase of the alternation was indeed confirmed with presidents enjoying a compact party majority in the assembly. In these situations, the president becomes more powerful than in the classical presidential regimes, as well as more powerful than the British-style prime minister because the president accumulates the latter’s powers plus those of the monarch. The second parliamentary phase was, in contrast, not confirmed, since, although in the so-called cohabitation experience the president faces a prime minister, a cabinet and an assembly majority with a different political orientation, the president usually retains significant powers, including the dissolution of the assembly, as well as partial vetoes over legislation and executive appointments, among others, depending on specific rules in each country. This makes the president certainly more powerful than any monarch or republican president in a parliamentary regime. There can, thus, be indeed two phases, depending on whether the president’s party has a majority in the assembly and can appoint the primer minister or not; however, the two phases are not properly presidential and parliamentary, but they rather produce an even higher concentration of power than in a presidential regime and a dual executive, respectively.
Centralization or Federalism
In addition to horizontal relationships between institutions above discussed, vertical relationships can be distinguished as corresponding either to unitary states or to decentralized, federal-type large states and empires. In the unitary model, a single, central government holds all relevant powers. In decentralized polities, the party in the central government may control different proportions of regional or local governments. Analogously to what has been discussed for vertical interinstitutional relationships, the degree of coincidence between the parties in central government and those in smaller territorial governments can produce different levels of unified or divided government. In contrast to unitary states, where only those citizens whose preferences coincide with the statewide majority obtain political satisfaction, in vertically divided governments global minorities can become local majorities. In multilevel political regimes, the number of total losers is likely to be smaller than in a unitary state and the aggregate amount of social utility should, thus, be higher, only depending on the intensity of preferences given by the citizens to different policy issues associated with each governmental level.
Horizontally unified governments, such as those that are typical of parliamentary regimes with majoritarian electoral rules, do not suit well with vertical division of powers. If a single party controls the central government, but does not control most non-centrally governments, it may try to increase the concentration of power by replacing the constitutional scheme of vertical division of powers with a unitary formula (as happened in Britain throughout the nineteenth century). In contrast, an effective vertical division of powers of federal type is more likely to exist and survive in the framework of a divided central government, whether in the form of multiparty coalition cabinets (like in Germany and Switzerland) or with coexistence of different party majorities in the presidency and the congress (like in the United States).
The more direct political consequences of different constitutional formulas regard the type, party composition, and degree of stability of governments. The rest of political, economic, and social consequences from constitutions should be considered relatively remote, indirect and identifiable in terms of constraints, limits, and opportunities, rather than determining specific decisions or outcomes. They may affect economic and other public policy making, as well as the corresponding performance. Also, different constitutional formulas may help democracy to endure or facilitate its shortening.
Single-party governments in parliamentary regimes and unified government in regimes with constitutional separation of powers can be compared for their high degree of concentration of powers around a one-person institution. Likewise, multiparty coalition cabinets in parliamentary regimes with proportional representation can be considered to be a variant of divided government. However, the two basic forms of constitutional regime differ because in a parliamentary regime, the prime minister can dissolve the parliament and call anticipated elections, while regimes with separation of powers typically have fixed terms and electoral calendars. Thus, in parliamentary regimes, while single-party governments tend to be relatively consistent and durable, multiparty coalition or minority governments are more vulnerable to coalition splits, censure or confidence-lost motions, and other events and strategies provoking anticipated elections. In contrast, in separation of powers regimes, situations of divided government—if they do not lead to the formation of multiparty coalitions between the president’s and other parties with a sufficient congressional majority—may produce legislative paralysis and deadlock.
Relatively stable single-party parliamentary governments, as well as presidential governments with a president’s party majority in the assembly and fixed terms, tend to produce more changing and unstable policies than those relying upon the support of multiple parties or interinstitutional agreements. A parliamentary regime with majoritarian electoral rules creating single-party governments on the basis of a minority of popular votes is the classical scene of adversarial politics. This implies two major consequences. First, electorally minority governments with a social bias are more prone to be captured by minority interest groups and to implement redistributive and protectionist policies hurting broad social interests. Second, frequent alternation of socially and electorally minority parties in government produces policy reversal and instability (including changes in regulations of prices, the labor market, or taxes), which may depress investment incentives.
In contrast, in multiparty elections producing coalition cabinets, as well as in interinstitutional relations involving different political majorities, each party can focus on a different set of issues, globally enlarging the electoral agenda and the corresponding debate. In the further institutional process, certain issues (typically including major domains such as macroeconomic policy, interior, and foreign affairs) can be the subject of a broad multiparty or interinstitutional agreement around a moderate position. This precludes drastic changes and induces mid or long-term policy stability. Other issues can be negotiated in a way that the minority with more intense preferences on each issue may see its preferred policy approved, whether through the distribution of cabinet portfolios to parties focusing on different domains (such as finances for liberals, education for Christian Democrats, social policy or labor for Social Democrats, etc.) or through logrolling among different groups on different congressional issues. This second mechanism creates different but enduring political supports to decisions on each issue and also tends to produce relative policy stability.
A number of empirical studies show that parliamentary regimes with proportional representation perform better regarding electoral participation, low levels of politically motivated violence, women’s representation, and social and environmental policies. They also appear to be associated to better growth-promoting policies, although they tend to imply relatively high taxes and public spending, which do not necessarily favor growth. Parliamentary regimes with proportional representation tend to develop broad programs benefiting a majority of the voters, including redistribution through social security and welfare policies, in contrast to narrower targets in both parliamentary regimes with majoritarian elections and presidential regimes. Other favorable conditions for economic growth include administrative effectiveness and an independent judiciary, which may be favored by a robust and pluralistic democratic regime. However, economic performance also depends on other factors, such as economic institutions (including those regulating property rights, contracts, and finances) and an educated population able to make technological innovation available and operational, which may not be directly associated with specific constitutional formulas.
Different constitutional alternatives have been linked to different rates of success in attempts of democratization and the duration of democratic regimes. Strategic choices of different constitutional formulas may be driven by actors’ relative bargaining strength, electoral expectations, and attitudes to risk. Citizens and political leaders tend to support those formulas producing satisfactory results for themselves and reject those making them permanently excluded and defeated. As a consequence, those constitutional formulas producing widely distributed satisfactory outcomes can be more able to develop endogenous support and endure. Widely representative and effective political outcomes can feed social support for the corresponding institutions, while exclusionary, biased, arbitrary, or ineffective outcomes might foster citizens’ and leaders’ rejection of the institutions producing such results.
Generally, constitutional democracies favoring power sharing and inclusiveness should be able to obtain higher endogenous support and have greater longevity than those favoring the concentration of power. Empirical accounts show that democratic regimes are the most peaceful ones, while semidemocratic or transitional regimes are most prone to conflict, even more than exclusionary dictatorships (basically because the latter increase the costs of rebellion). Among democracies, parliamentary constitutional regimes are more resilient to crises and more able to endure than presidential ones. More specifically, parliamentary regimes with majoritarian electoral systems appear to be associated to higher frequency of ethnic and civil wars than presidential regimes, while parliamentary regimes with proportional representation are the most peaceful ones.
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