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Introduction to Political Science

10.1 Democracies: Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semi-Presidential Regimes

Introduction to Political Science10.1 Democracies: Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semi-Presidential Regimes

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify the three types of democratic regimes.
  • Distinguish between the roles of “head of state” and “head of government” and describe how each is typically selected by regime.
  • Describe and evaluate the importance of the head of state for government legitimacy and national unity.

Democratic regimes are typically classified into three categories: presidential, parliamentary, and semi-presidential.4 The keys to understanding the differences among the three are (1) how the head of government is selected and (2) if there is a separate head of state who is popularly elected to a fixed term of office. In presidential regimes, heads of government are popularly elected to fixed terms and do not depend on legislatures for their power. Presidents also serve as heads of state. In parliamentary regimes, the head of government, the prime minister, is selected by the legislature. Semi-presidential regimes include a popularly elected head of state and a legislature selected head of government. In semi-presidential regimes, both presidents and prime ministers wield political power. See Table 10.1 and Table 10.2.

Head of Government
  Presidential Parliamentary Semi-Presidential
Selection Method Popular election Selected by the legislature Selected by the legislature
Fixed Term? Yes No No
Responsible to Legislature? No Yes Yes
Table 10.1 Heads of Government in Democratic Regimes

Using Witten/Herdecke University professor Nils-Christian Bormann and Penn State University professor Matt Golder’s classification and supplementing the data with former Dublin City University professor Robert Elgie’s list of semi-presidential countries, approximately 36 percent of democracies are parliamentary, 25 percent are presidential, and 39 percent are semi-presidential. (See Figure 10.2.) Following a traditional approach within comparative politics, this chapter will focus primarily on parliamentary and presidential regimes and not semi-presidential ones. Even though semi-presidential regimes comprise a large category, they are not easily defined and have considerable variation.5

Head of State
  Presidential Parliamentary Semi-Presidential
Selection Method Typically, the head of government is also the head of state. There is considerable variation, including elected (e.g., Germany) and unelected (e.g., Great Britain) methods. Generally, the head of state is selected by popular election.
Fixed Term? Yes Depends if position is elected or unelected. Elected are fixed term; unelected are not fixed term and include hereditary monarchies (e.g., Belgium). Yes
Responsible to Legislature? No Yes In select situations, potentially. Enjoys dual authority with prime minister, but there is considerable variation across countries regarding the scope of authority the head of state has.
Table 10.2 Heads of State in Democratic Regimes

Show Me the Data

A bar graph shows that, among democratic regimes, more than a third are semi-presidential, nearly as many are parliamentary, and a quarter are presidential.
Figure 10.2 As of 2018, presidential systems were the least common regime type among democratic countries. (data source: Nils-Christian Bormann and Matt Golder. “Democratic Electoral Systems around the World, 1946–2011.” Electoral Studies 32 (2013): 360–369; Robert Elgie. “Up-to-Date List of Semi-Presidential Countries with Dates.” The Semi-Presidential One (blog). Last updated June 28, 2018.; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Roles of Chief Executives within Democratic Regimes: Head of State

Chief executives play two general roles: head of state and head of government. Head of state is a ceremonial role, while head of government is a political one that confers real power. Within a presidential regime, the president is both head of state and head of government. In a parliamentary regime, however, the roles are separate, with a president (as in Germany or India) or emperor (as in Japan) serving as head of state and the prime minister (or, in Germany, the chancellor) serving as head of government.

While the position of head of state is largely ceremonial, images and symbols are extremely important, and the head of state provides a national symbol for a country’s citizens that works to unify a country. It would be a mistake to view the head of state as a mere figurehead. Heads of state attend national celebrations, host events such as state dinners, and often play a role in sporting events. For example, Queen Elizabeth II opened the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Similarly, Japan’s Emperor Naruhito opened the Summer 2020 Olympic Games held in Tokyo from July to August 2021. Their visibility is important to national identity.


Heads of State Open the Olympic Games

In this video, heads of state—including a führer, kings, a queen, a duke, an emperor, a chairperson, a governor-general, a vice president, and multiple presidents—preside over Olympic opening ceremonies.

Illustrating the unifying role a head of state provides, one of the more memorable moments of President George W. Bush’s first administration was when he threw the ceremonial first pitch in game 3 of the 2001 World Series. Taken just a few short months after 9/11, the pictures of him at the mound, throwing a strike, are iconic. Presidents are the most recognizable leaders of their countries, and one of the key roles they play is to symbolically represent the state. Additionally, sports are intricately woven into each country’s cultural fabric. Baseball is known as “America’s pastime.” When President Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch, he stood as a unifying symbol relatable to people across party lines. As noted author David Fisher observed: “I didn’t vote for him. But at that point, my personal feelings about him as a politician [were] gone. I watched him, and he was my representative. And I had never felt that way before.”6 Nineteen years later, writing for Newsweek, Marina Watts commented on the power of imagery: “That night, the first pitch meant more than just ‘play ball.’ It meant moving forward. It meant unity. With that throw, Bush helped heal a city and a nation.”7


President George W. Bush’s Opening Pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9-11

This video portrays the ceremony and symbolism of a leader acting in the role of head of state.

Heads of state also provide legitimacy to a government. While all states have coercive power, democratic governments depend upon citizen recognition that the authority the state has and the power it exerts are legitimate. When the head of state is separate from the head of government, the head of state can play a significant role in establishing and reinforcing the legitimacy of that government.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip sit on thrones, wearing formal regalia, at the front of a room filled with well-dressed people seated in rows.
Figure 10.3 Queen Elizabeth II opens Canada’s 23rd Parliament in the Senate Chamber, Ottawa, Ontario. (credit: “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opens Canada’s 23rd Parliament in the Senate Chamber, Ottawa, Ontario” by Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain)

In Great Britain, the Queen invites the winning party’s leader to form a government, and the Queen then gives a speech prepared by that new government laying out the government’s policy agenda and legislative initiatives. The new government has immediate legitimacy based on both winning elections and the visible support of the Crown. Often, the Queen’s representative performs her duties as head of state in the 16 Commonwealth realms, like Australia and New Zealand, but early in her reign Queen Elizabeth II traveled more extensively and performed more of those duties in person.

The Roles of Chief Executives within Democratic Regimes: Head of Government

As head of government, the chief executive has both the power and the authority to take action. Both presidents and prime ministers serve as heads of their governments as they take the lead in setting policy agendas, crafting legislation, and responding to crises. As previously noted, they are the ones people look to for solutions to a nation’s problems and the ones citizens hold accountable. An April 2020 Al Jazeera headline puts it bluntly: “COVID-19 pandemic is testing world leaders. Who’s stepping up?”8

To illustrate how people evaluate a leader based on that leader’s response to a crisis, consider the cases of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Donald Trump of the United States. In their summer 2020 Global Attitudes survey, Pew Research found that 88 percent of Germans reported that their country had “done a good job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.” For the United States, only 47 percent of Americans responded the same.9 Pew also found that 76 percent of Germans reported confidence in Merkel “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” the highest such rating among world leaders. Within her own country, Merkel’s approval rating was 72 percent.10 Nevertheless, as the pandemic raged on, her support fell, and her party “fared poorly” in elections.11

In the United States, Donald Trump’s approval ratings make clear voters’ perceptions of how his administration responded to the pandemic. In September 2020, Trump’s 44 percent approval rating was nearly identical to the percent of respondents who believed the country was doing a good job dealing with COVID-19.12 In November 2020, Trump was defeated in his bid for reelection. In exit polls, 17 percent of respondents indicated that the coronavirus was the most important issue affecting their vote. It was the third most frequently mentioned issue, behind the economy and racial inequality. Of those respondents who indicated coronavirus as the most important issue, 81 percent voted for Joe Biden.13 While Trump’s handling of the issue was only one factor in his defeat, it was a significant factor. Prior to the election, 55 percent of respondents indicated that the pandemic was a very important issue to how they would vote.14

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