Semi-presidentialism versus parliamentarism

A long-standing question in Finnish politics is whether to move from semi-presidentialism (PDF) to parliamentarism. Despite occasionally despairing with the arguments of supporters of parliamentarism, I have some sympathy for the position itself. In theory prime ministers should be more responsive to the public opinion than presidents, as the parties on which they rely for their parliamentary majorities always have to consider the next election. Since prime ministers don't serve for fixed terms, they can be ousted from office at any time for political misjudgments. Removing a president from office would require impeachment. A purely parliamentarian system would remove the possibility of a clash between two institutions with popular legitimacy derived from elections.

The historical record is mixed. There are times when having a semi-presidential system has served Finland well, e.g. after the war conservative presidents Gustaf Mannerheim and Juho Kusti Paasikivi kept the military out of Communist hands. It's difficult to evaluate how much of that was down to the constitutional arrangement, though. The dangers of including the Communists in government coalitions would have increased without a powerful presidency safely in non-communist hands, but it's possible that the non-communist parties would have put more effort into monopolizing the cabinet portfolios that are important for national security. On the flip side, while I believe that Finland's political life in the 1960s and 1970s would have been healthier under a parliamentarian system, the big flaws revealed in the system during Urho Kekkonen's presidency have already been fixed by introducing term limits and sharply reducing the president's influence over the process of forming governments.

Although this is an important question, it's not one on which many people have heartfelt preferences. The power political considerations tend to define various parties' positions more than the principle of the thing. Back when the semi-presidential system was introduced in 1919, the Social Democrats supported a purely parliamentarian form of government, believing that presidents were likely to come from the non-socialist majority. Nowadays they've provided the last three presidents and mostly want to retain presidential powers. The National Coalition Party had originally wanted to establish a king with considerable powers as a bulwark against socialism, but when monarchist parties were defeated resoundingly in the 1919 parliamentary election, they switched to demanding strong presidential powers. Today the party hasn't had a president since the 1950s and supports pure parliamentarism.

A considerable difficulty in moving to parliamentarism is that the president's cooperation is required and presidential candidates have every incentive to oppose the move. Not only do they hope that they get to use the president's powers, but reducing the president to a figurehead is not a popular position and thus would hurt their chances of being elected in the first place. For example, Speaker Sauli Niinistö, the Coalition's presidential candidate in 2006, is one of few prominent Coalitionists who support semi-presidentialism.

No comments: