Political Explainer: Ukraine’s System of Government

This article answers the most frequent questions about the systems of government around the globe, Ukraine’s form of government, its weaknesses and strengths. What is wrong with Ukraine’s system of government and should it be reformed?

Author: Rostyslav Averchuk

The quality of the country’s political life and its form of governance often figure in the discussions of possible ways to improve the economic and social situation in Ukraine. The forthcoming presidential and, later, parliamentary elections add relevance to the question as to what system of government is most appropriate for Ukraine. Many leading politicians have expressed an intention to modify the Constitution and change the country’s system of government yet again.

In order to make it easier to assess the variety of differing proposals, this article provides brief answers to the most common questions about the systems of government in Ukraine and around the globe.

  1. What systems of government are there?
  2. Is there one best system of government?
  3. What system of government does Ukraine have and how is it unique?
  4. How and why was the presidential office created in Ukraine?
  5. How have the president’s constitutional role and the system of government changed over the past 27 years?
  6. Do the constitutional provisions that determine the system of government matter in the country with a weak rule of law?
  7. What is wrong with Ukraine’s system of government?
  8. What do Ukrainian politicians offer?
  9. Should Ukraine change its form of government?

1. What systems of government are there?

Based on how constitutional powers are divided within and between the executive and the legislature, political scientists usually differentiate between the presidential, parliamentary, and semi-presidential systems (or forms) of government (Source: Åberg and Sedelius (2016)). A system is presidential if the people elect the president that then appoints and can dissolve the government (with little or no involvement of the parliament). If the government (the cabinet of ministers) is accountable only to the parliament (i.e. if its “survival“ depends on the legislature), while the formal head of the state is a monarch or an indirectly elected president, the system is a parliamentary one. If the people elect the president yet the government is accountable to the parliament, the system is classified as semi-presidential. Importantly, semi-presidential systems can be premier-presidential (also known as parliamentary-presidential) or presidential-parliamentary, depending on who plays the key role in appointing and dissolving the government.

Parliamentary and presidential systems are the most common ones (in place in about 65 and 50 states, respectively). European constitutional monarchies and some former British colonies are parliamentary systems, while the Unites States and many countries in Latin America, Central Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa are presidential ones. Presidential-parliamentary states (21) are located in Africa, some post-Soviet countries and in the Middle East. Parliamentary-presidential systems (31) are particularly common in France, some African and many Central-Eastern European countries, including Ukraine.

This classification does not cover all the countries. For example, many countries of the Arab Peninsula are absolutist monarchies, some countries (like Bosnia and Herzegovina) have uniquely designed systems, while others may be close to a parliamentary or presidential system yet share some of the features of the other system (without falling under the “semi-presidential” category). Being classified as one of the four main types does not necessarily mean that the country is a democracy where constitutional provisions are followed all or most of the time. For instance, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, the presidential-parliamentary Russia and the presidential Venezuela are authoritarian states. However, even in these nondemocratic states political institutions and the constitutionally defined system of government may play a role.

2. Is there one best system of government?

* - from The Economist Intelligence Unit. ** - the latest values of the Presidential Powers Index (according to Doyle and Elgie) for Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia are unavailable due to relatively recent constitutional reforms there

No form of government is indisputably the best one. They all have their limitations and strengths. Their impact is also modified by other elements of the political mechanism, such as electoral rules and party systems. Political scientists continue trying to determine the impact that various forms of government may have on a country’s economic and social development.

Earlier, presidential systems were believed to be particularly unreliable, since they were thought to involve excessive concentration and personalization of power, foster conflicts within the government and between the executive and the parliament, and to bring incompetent people into power, etc.

Other forms of government, however, also have certain limitations. For example, parliamentary systems that are conducive to one party parliamentary majorities usually ensure more resolute government actions but may concentrate even more power in the hands of the head of the executive branch and exclude the political interests of minorities. Parliamentary systems with multi-party coalitions are better at taking into account the diversity of interests and demands in society, but make it harder to create an efficient government. Semi-presidential systems provide for the mechanisms of reciprocal control among the president, the prime minister and the parliament, but they may combine the drawbacks of the presidential and the parliament systems and cause frequent political conflicts around the division of powers.

It is an undeniable fact though that the presence of presidential and presidential-parliamentary forms of government in post-Soviet countries correlates with excessive concentration of power, suppression of political competition and decline of democracy. Many leading experts argue that vesting too much power in the office of the president — especially in post-authoritarian society with no traditions of checks and balances — prevents the buildup of independent political parties and impedes the development of parliamentarism.

At the same time, one should be cautious when drawing conclusions about the direction of the causal relationship between the system of government and the regime’s performance. It is very hard to separate the influence of the system of government from other potentially important factors. For example, it has turned out that non-institutional factors, such as the political activity of military forces or geopolitical considerations, were largely responsible for the failure of presidential systems in Latin America and other regions. Against the backdrop of the economic and political instability in such countries as Chile, Mexico, and Argentina, the military developed the sense of political responsibility and thus repeatedly took power in the course of the 20th century. Having met with the conceived threat of the spread of leftist ideas in the region in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, the United States turned a blind eye to numerous coups and sometimes played a certain part, economically and diplomatically, in the efforts to replace a regime.

Certain “political education” may also occur. For example, as time went by and rules were adjusted, the presidential systems in Latin American states became more stable. Previously, the hyperactivity and “messianism” of presidents went along with relatively weak powers. When a president was opposed by their parliaments, this often led to the paralysis of the state mechanism and long periods of confrontation, coups and military dictatorships. Therefore, e.g. in Brazil, in order to prevent this from happening again, presidential powers were expanded in 1988. Some difficulties persisted over the next few years, but the presidents eventually became more efficient in using the tools in their disposal and building coalitions in parliament. Coalition building policies generates some specific problems of their own, but allow presidents to implement their electoral promises without running into opposition all the time. Conflicts tend to occur less frequently and their consequences are less threatening to the regime’s stability.

One can also argue over whether it is the form of government in post-Soviet countries that has led to concentration of power in states with a strong president or, on the contrary, the respective form of government was chosen by politicians in those states where power had already been sufficiently concentrated and check and balances week. This point will be discussed later, but it is likely that both perspectives are to some extent correct.

3. What system of government does Ukraine have and how is it unique?

3.1. On February 21, 2014, Verkhovna Rada voted for a return to the premier-presidential form of government, which had also been in place earlier, in 2006-2010. Under that system, a parliamentary coalition appoints and dismisses the head of the cabinet and its ministers.

At the same time, Ukraine’s head of state retains a number of powers that separate him/her from other presidents of countries with a premier-presidential form of government. The president submits to the Verkhovna Rada the names of candidates for the positions of minister of defense and minister of foreign affairs, heads of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Security Service. He also has a decisive influence on the appointment of the heads of regional (oblast and rayon) administrations, as well as a strong veto power (2/3 of votes needed to overrule it), and can suspend government decrees until the Constitutional Court checks its constitutionality, etc.

It is probable that Ukraine’s president has stronger constitutional powers than any other president does in the countries with the same form of government. While formally Ukraine’s president does not belong to the executive branch of powers, he/she is in charge of some sort of a parallel executive system. The strong veto power alone enables the president to take an active part in the legislative process.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Ukraine’s president, if supported by the majority in the parliament, while relying on a number of constitutional instruments and carrying the symbolic weight of being a popularly elected political leader, plays a much more significant role than provided for in Ukraine’s current premier-presidential Constitution.

3.2. Ukraine is not the only premier-presidential system where the president wields considerable influence. In France, the president holds a leading role in politics despite very limited constitutional powers if his/her political party wins the parliamentary majority, which is what usually happens. If he does not have the parliamentary majority backing him (which in fact only happened twice during the 70 years since the adoption of the 1958 Constitution), then the relevant provisions of the Constitution come into force and the executive power shifts to the prime minister and the political forces that support him/her in the parliament.

However, France’s arrangement persists due to certain political traditions as well as a specific electoral system — which provides for a small number of factions in the parliament and ‘punishes’ relatively radical political parties. For example, although the National Front’s Marine Le Pen received 21.3% of votes in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, her political party, known for its eurosceptic and socially conservative attitudes, won only 7 out of the 577 seats in the lower chamber of the parliament.

Yet the institutional restrictions on the presidential authority in Ukraine do seem to work. The powers and the influence of the president are weaker than they were under the former presidential-parliamentary model (1996-2006 and 2010-2014). Meanwhile legitimate concern regards the compliance with the constitutional procedure during the formation of the coalition and the Cabinet of Ministers after the resignation of Arseniy Yatsenyuk's government in April 2016.

In any case, the stable balance of the distribution of power has not been achieved so far in Ukraine’s political system, which is perhaps not surprising in view of how frequently the rules of political competition have been changing.

4. How and why was the presidential office created in Ukraine?

When an attempt is made to explain the reasons for choosing a particular form of government in any given country, historical, cultural, or functional explanations usually fare worse than a simple principle: those who are confident of gaining power try to maximize it, while others try to reduce the risks of concentration of power in someone else’s hands (see, e.g. Frye 1997). Therefore, while any borrowings from domestic history or from other countries’ experience do play a certain role, they are substantially modified.

The introduction of the presidency in Ukraine may have been influenced both by the example from Moscow and by considerations of Ukrainian leaders. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, was the first to bring the idea of establishing the presidency back into the political discourse. He established the post of president (of the USSR) to obtain an independent political footing in the midst of the struggle with the leaders of the Communist Party. Later, Boris Yeltsin resorted to a similar logic. The most popular Russian politician at the time, he hoped that the presidency (in Russia) would make him less dependent on the communist majority in the Russian parliament and would reinforce his position in the confrontation with Gorbachev. Yeltsin succeeded in establishing the office by a popular vote though a referendum, yet the parliament made sure the president would have only very limited powers. It was only in 1993, after the armed suppression of the parliamentary resistance, that Yeltsin used his now undisputed real power to codify substantial constitutional powers, which later contributed to the creation of a super-presidential system in Russia.

By contrast, for example, in Belarus the office of president was created only in 1994. As Timothy Frye explains in his article, for a long period, no politician was popular and influential enough to be sure he would win potential presidential elections. Hence, nobody wanted to vest the lion’s share of power in a single office. The presidential office was nevertheless established later and granted considerable executive powers. However, the parliament protected itself by not empowering the president to dissolve it and restricting its veto power.

In Ukraine, the Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR was amended to create the presidential office on July 5, 1991, even before the parliament voted in favor of the country’s independence. Leonid Kravchuk, the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of UkrSSR and arguably the most popular politician at the time, headed the commission entrusted with the drafting of the Concept of the new Constitution. Establishing an office with considerable authority outside the parliament was likely to make him less dependent on the parliament. Many representatives of the People’s Rukh and other democratic forces also hoped the president would be better able to escape the control by the communist majority in parliament and to be able to resolutely guide the required economic and social transformation.

However, neither Kravchuk nor the Rukh members had enough weight in the parliament to “push through” considerable presidential powers. The parliament agreed to establish the office of president only after securing control over his/her actions and ensuring significant barriers to his/her influence. Therefore, while the president did become the head of the executive branch, he/she had to get the approval of the Verkhovna Rada of their nominees for the positions of prime minister and some of the ministers for approval. The president lacked the power to dissolve the Rada and had rather limited appointment powers.

5. How have the president’s constitutional role and the system of government changed over the past 27 years?

In Ukraine, the drafting of the Constitution began as early as on October 24, 1990, when the respective commission was created, headed by Leonid Kravchuk. However, the balance of powers remained undetermined for a long time, while the struggle and negotiations around it continued. In June 1995, Leonid Kuchma pushed through a temporary Constitutional Treaty with the Verkhovna Rada, which was approved by a simple majority (240 MPs). The treaty significantly expanded the presidential powers. In particular, the president no longer required the immediate consent of the Verkhovna Rada for the appointment of the prime minister and the ministers (the Rada was to vote on the program of the government two months after its appointment). Appointment powers also expanded as the president obtained the right to submit for approval by the parliament his nominees for a number of posts, such as the Prosecutor General and the Chairperson of the Board of the National Bank of Ukraine. One year later, faced with the threat of the nationwide referendum on the adoption of the Constitution, the parliament did adopt the Constitution of Ukraine. The Constitution secured most of the presidential powers provided for by the Constitutional Treaty, yet the MPs succeeded in preserving the shared accountability of the Cabinet of Ministers to the Verkhovna Rada and the President. The presidential-parliamentary form of government was thus established in Ukraine.

The switch to the premier-presidential system in December 2004 happened in the wake of the Orange Revolution. The consent of the new President Viktor Yushchenko to a reduced scope of authority was probably one of the conditions the incumbents set forward in exchange to agreeing to a transition of power. The new Constitution came into force one year later, in 2006, but the inevitability of losing much of his constitutional power probably affected Yushchenko’s rule during the first year of his presidency.

One of the first political decisions that Yanukovych made in 2010 was to reinstate the 1996 Constitution through the Constitutional Court in order concentrate power and prevent even a hypothetical challenge from the prime minister and the parliament.

Therefore, the decision of the Verkhovna Rada to return to the premier-presidential Constitution of 2004 immediately after Yanukovych had fled from Ukraine is easy to understand. It implemented one of the demands of the Euromaidan, established a check against the concentration of power and signaled the rejection of Yanukovych’s policies.

6. Do the constitutional provisions that determine the system of government matter in the country with a weak rule of law?

Source: Wikipedia.

As already mentioned, the choice of a particular system of government in itself reflects, to a certain extent, the existing balance of powers in the political system. Moreover, in a society with no rule of law formal rules are often foregone in favor of personal connections. Is it not naive to hope that constitutional provisions will have an essential impact on the behavior of politicians who routinely neglect or manipulate the law? The brief answer is no. There are good reasons to think that rules are often important even under such unfavorable conditions.

The very fact of frequent changes of the formal balance of powers and the struggle around them, as in the aforementioned examples from Ukrainian history, show that the institutions do have an influence. Informal political processes coexist with formal ones but do not replace them.

Henry Hale further argues that premier-presidential systems of government function differently from president-parliamentary or presidential systems even when formal constitutional provision hardly seem to influence actual politics.

Hale writes, “Presidentialist constitutions have their effect not so much because they are “followed” as because (all other things being equal) they signal that whichever patronalistic network captures presidential office is likely to be the most powerful one in the country and make the occupant of the presidency a singular focal point for elite coordination. Such signals better enable the president to set informal rules and practices and to selectively give life to formal rules that other networks must acknowledge or risk political or economic isolation, creating a strong tendency to single-pyramid politics. Conversely, divided-executive constitutions complicate this process, creating uncertainty as to which network will be dominant and incentivizing rivalry among networks based in top state executive offices, primarily the presidency and the premiership, a process that tends to promote political opening”.

As an example, Hale considers the contrasting political developments in the aftermath of the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In both countries, two leaders that were backed by patronalistic networks of approximately equal strength obtained the positions of president and prime minister respectively. In Kyrgyzstan, the presidential group used its clear constitutional advantage within the presidential-parliamentary system and quickly consolidated power. The political system organized itself around a single pyramid again, and the prime minister lost any political support.

By contrast, after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the parliamentary-presidential Constitution made it harder to consolidate power around a single political center. It is enough to recall that Viktor Yushchenko dissolved the Verkhovna Rada when, after the defection of a number of deputies from other factions, the coalition led by the Party of the Regions got close to gaining the constitutional majority. 2006-2010 thus became the only period in the history of Ukraine when, in spite of all the highly public political conflicts, international organizations recognized it as a democracy.

7. What is wrong with Ukraine’s system of government?

Figure 6. Some deficiencies of the system of government in Ukraine

The division of the executive power between two political institutions of approximately equal strength and the resulting uncertainty around the separation of powers often leads to conflicts between their leaders (the president and the prime minister) as well as between the president and the parliament. Internal political strife reached its peak during Yushchenko's presidency and probably weakened the government’s ability to counteract the raging financial crisis. Conflicts become especially pronounced in the absence of a pro-presidential majority in parliament, but even otherwise the separate institutional basis for the prime minister’s authority encourages tensions between the prime minister and the president. The fact that Ukraine’s president retains particularly significant powers further contributes to conflicts.

Political instability is detrimental to the level of trust that people have in the democratic political institutions and the state as a whole. A recent study found that semi-presidential varieties of the form of government have a negative impact on the level of confidence in the government and the parliament, which can have a further negative impact on the stability of young democracies. Looking back at the recent history of Ukraine, it is not surprising that Yanukovych's decision to return to the 1996 Constitution met no significant resistance, as the population was sick and tired of political strife after years of highly public conflicts between President Yushchenko and Prime Ministers Tymoshenko and Yanukovych.

It is possible that certain political traditions and expectations can develop over time and that more skillful politicians will help avoid conflicts. At present, however, research indicates that conflicts do not become less frequent over time in semi-presidential systems. The problem thus persists and is grounded in institutions.

The duality of executive power also raises the issue of accountability. If the division of powers is unclear, who is ultimately responsible for the government’s performance? A blurred division of responsibilities makes it harder for voters to hold politicians accountable.

Another problem is the lack of transparency as to the president's role in coalition-making. The president’s involvement in the process is not regulated in any way — and so there is ample room for informal exchange of political services in a patrimonial political system. Hence suspicions abound about the nature of the tools that the president uses to gain parliamentary support.

8. What do Ukrainian politicians offer?

Most of Ukraine’s leading politicians expressed, in greater or smaller detail, their views. Yulia Tymoshenko proposed to introduce a parliamentary republic of the “chancellor type” in which the winning party would receive a guaranteed absolute majority of parliamentary seats. The office of president will be abolished and its functions will be divided between the de-facto popularly elected prime minister (the leader of the winning party) and the “collective president” formed by a group of “moral leaders”.

The People's Front, represented by Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Arsen Avakov, has suggested that the premier-presidential system should be preserved but presidential powers, such as the right to appoint (with the Rada’s approval) the ministers of defense and of international affairs, should be significantly curtailed. Samopomich leaders also call for an increased role of the parliament within a reformed premier-presidential system. Oleh Lyashko and Anatoliy Hrytsenko have both spoken out in favor of the presidential form of government. Petro Poroshenko has so far offered no change to the existing constitutional balance of powers between the executive and the legislature.

9. Should Ukraine change its form of government?

The evident faults of the current system invite conversations about the need to reform it. Yet the weaknesses of a system are always plain to see, while its strengths can go unnoticed. For example, mass popular protests against an unpopular president took place twice under the previous presidential-parliamentary system in Ukraine. Under the current system, if the president becomes highly unpopular, it is more likely that the politician will cede real power to the Cabinet and/or the parliament — and the conflict will be resolved within the political system, thus avoiding potentially unpredictable and destabilizing effects.

We can only guess what else would have happened if the existing system were different. Moreover, the very fact that changes occur quite frequently leads to a certain cynicism about the rules. Certain political education may also take place over time, when political actors come to increasingly accept formal provisions as binding rules and, possibly, make them function more smoothly by complementing (yet not replacing) them with certain informal, yet widely accepted, traditions or informal rules. Finally, any system of government cannot be considered in isolation from other elements of the political system, such as the party system, the electoral system, the degree of the decentralization of political decision-making etc.

This is why, unsurprisingly, political scientists hold differing opinions as to whether it is necessary to change Ukraine’s system of government. You can read more on this here on VoxUkraine.

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