Presidential Power: Measurement and Comparison of Presidents' Strength

Presidential Power: Measurement and Comparison of Presidents’ Strength

Photo: pexels.com / Daniel Eliashevsky
2 May 2024
FacebookTwitterTelegram
1642

Despite transitioning from a presidential-parliamentary to a premier-presidential republic in Ukraine in 2014, where the prime minister gained the majority of powers, the head of state remains a key figure in the Ukrainian political landscape. This is especially evident during Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidency, who obtained the leading role in the political system and the ability to control key political institutions without hindrance due to early parliamentary elections.

This example clearly demonstrates that the head of state’s formal and actual powers can significantly differ. In this study, we compare the constitutional powers of presidents in former Soviet Union countries and Eastern and Central Europe and examine how these powers correlate with their actual authority and the level of democracy in the country. This research contributes to the discussion on rebuilding Ukraine, which should include not only the reconstruction of physical infrastructure but also the establishment of strong institutions that will safeguard the “rules of the game” so that any player, even the president, cannot bypass or change them to their advantage. We recommend (when feasible) reducing the presidential formal powers to decrease the likelihood of conflicts in central government and align its format closer to that of European countries.

How the presidents’ power was gauged

Based on an analysis of constitutions, I identified 20 indicators (see Table 1 in the Appendix), which can be provisionally divided into five groups:

  1. General political provisions regarding presidents;
  2. Interaction of presidents with executive and legislative institutions;
  3. Legislative activity of heads of state;
  4. Appointment powers;
  5. Presidential powers related to enforcement.

The portion of indicators that have a more significant impact on the power of presidents was evaluated on a 4-point scale. Primarily, these are indicators related to the president’s relations with executive and legislative institutions, describing the president’s influence on appointing heads of security structures and declaring a state of emergency or martial law. Less significant for the president’s power are provisions describing the peculiarities of presidential elections, constitutional terms of their powers, and the right of legislative initiative. The maximum score for these indicators is 2 points. The head of state could receive from 0 to 70 points, where 0 represents an extremely weak president, and 70 represents maximum strength. I predominantly examine so-called post-communist states because, firstly, they have a similar experience to Ukraine, and secondly, they have significantly reformed their political systems since the early 1990s. As “reference points” and for comparison, I also consider certain Western European countries.

Democracies and autocracies: where are presidents stronger?

According to the assessment results of the constitutions of post-communist states, the countries under consideration can be clearly divided into two groups. The first group comprises states with very strong presidents. Their powers are evaluated at 40 points or more (Figure 1; in red). Typically, these are countries with presidential or presidential-parliamentary systems of government located in Central Asia and Eastern Europe

Figure 1. Assessment of the constitutional powers of presidents in post-communist countries 

For countries in the first group, the president’s dominance and significant weakening of other branches of power are characteristic. Presidents can exert substantial influence over the formation of the government (appointing the prime minister and ministers, dismissing the government), appoint individuals to other vital positions (such as the attorney general) unilaterally or with minimal oversight, and determine the political course of the state. In presidential systems, presidents are the sole heads of the executive branch, which significantly increases their influence compared to heads of state who share executive powers with the head of government or have no relevance to the executive vertical at all.

It is noticeable that in countries from our sample that cannot be called democracies, informal components of presidential power gradually solidify formally, meaning the term of presidential powers increases, restrictions on the number of terms in office for the president are removed, etc. (Figure 2). Consequently, the respective presidents strive to preserve their formal legitimacy while simultaneously reducing the risks of control or removal from power by dismantling mechanisms of checks and balances. For example, in Azerbaijan, although the parliament can formally initiate a vote of no confidence in the government, the president can dissolve the parliament in such a case. Among the presidents of states in this group, there are several “record-holders,” e.g., Alexander Lukashenko and Emomali Rahmon have been leading Belarus and Tajikistan, respectively, since 1994, while Nursultan Nazarbayev was at the helm of Kazakhstan for 29 years (1990-2019).

Considering the hypertrophied powers of the presidents in countries of the first group, it is customary to speak of the phenomenon of super-presidency in these states. Formally significant presidential powers are further strengthened by the absence of systemic opposition and the existence of parliament and government loyal to the president. Established political practice in the region enables presidents to fully exercise their constitutional powers: independently forming government cabinets, influencing the legislative process, initiating changes to laws, rewriting constitutions, and completely subordinating all state bodies to themselves.

States in the second group have moderately strong or weak presidents. Mostly, these are countries with premier-presidential or parliamentary systems of governance. The creators of these states’ constitutions sought to reduce the role of presidents to avoid the personalization of power. In premier-presidential systems, presidents share executive power with the head of government. Hypothetically, this diminishes the president’s weight in the system of interinstitutional relations and requires cooperation among key political institutions. Presidents typically cannot independently appoint or dismiss the government and its head, sharing these powers with the parliament. Presidents have no relation to the executive branch in purely parliamentary systems and primarily perform ceremonial functions. 

Kyrgyzstan in 2010, Armenia in 2015, and Georgia in 2018 underwent constitutional reforms that significantly reduced the powers of their presidents. Today, the heads of these states have much fewer powers than presidents in developed European countries. In October 2024 in Georgia, the president will not be elected by citizens but by an Electoral College. However, such weakening of the president also has a downside since in the absence of developed political parties (or due to the suppression of the opposition), excessive powers may be acquired by the prime minister, as happened, for instance, in Hungary. We can assume that the transition to indirect presidential elections in Georgia is also partially motivated by the resistance of the country’s current president to the pro-Russian course of the Georgian government. In 2004, one of the conditions for resolving the political crisis in Ukraine caused by election fraud was the limitation of the president’s powers. Thus, the parliament sought to weaken Viktor Yushchenko, who enjoyed very high public trust at that time.

Figure 2. Relationship between presidential power and type of democratic regime 

Note: the data reflect indicators of the global level of democracy for the year 2023

Comparing the strength of presidents with the type of political regime suggests that hyperinflated presidential powers are characteristic of autocracies, while weak presidents are primarily typical of democracies (Figure 2). Moreover, the cause-and-effect relationship works both ways: strong presidential powers lead to authoritarianism, and an authoritarian-leaning president seeks to strengthen their powers (a vivid example being Yanukovych). However, as mentioned above, the institution of a weak president does not guarantee a departure from autocratic tendencies (examples of this are Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Georgia). This is because, regardless of formal rules, the immaturity or weakness of political institutions and the prevalence of informal practices undermine democracy.

As seen in Figure 1, Ukraine is practically on the verge between the two previously mentioned groups under the current edition of the Constitution. However, before the constitutional changes, the Ukrainian president had powers similar to the leaders of super-presidential post-Soviet republics. Moreover, the indicators of freedom in Ukraine from  2010 to 2014 were significantly lower than they are today. Despite Ukraine remaining an example of a hybrid political regime, our regime leaned towards autocracy during the period of presidential strengthening. Today, the powers of the Ukrainian head of state are significantly lower than in autocratic Russia, slightly higher than in Poland or Lithuania, and considerably higher than in parliamentary Latvia and Hungary (Figure 3).

Compared to the president of neighboring Poland, the Ukrainian president is involved in appointing the prosecutor general, can propose candidates for the positions of defense minister and foreign minister for consideration by parliament, and has a more substantial veto power. Although the president shares a number of significant powers with the parliament and government, they can influence other political institutions through the constitutionally provided levers of influence. Furthermore, the powers of the Ukrainian president are higher than those of the President of France, a semi-presidential republic. Unlike the Ukrainian President, the French president has the right to appoint the head of government independently but is not authorized to initiate legislative bills (in some situations, they can issue decrees with the force of law, such as declaring a state of emergency). The right of legislative initiative is crucial because even if parliament rejects a presidential bill, the mere fact of its discussion by the legislative body increases the president’s weight in the political system. 

A strong institute of presidency within a formally premier-presidential system creates conditions for conflicts within the executive branch, similar to those that occurred from 2006 to 2010. Conflict is particularly intensified when the president and the head of government represent opposing political forces.

Figure 3. Strength of the President of Ukraine in different years compared to European  countries 

Formal vs. actual levers of presidential influence

Clearly, the actual power of presidents does not always align with the provisions of the law. While constitutions delineate the formal framework of power distribution, political conditions can significantly alter the balance of power. A telling example is France, where, formally, the president does not direct the executive branch but serves as an arbiter between other branches of government. However, for a long time, pro-presidential political forces have won parliamentary elections in this country. Thus, even in the absence of specific legislative powers, the president can form a government loyal to them, dismiss the prime minister, indirectly influence the legislative process, and make socially significant decisions. Consequently, a legislatively weak president becomes the central figure in the executive branch and the political system as a whole.

A contrasting scenario is also possible, wherein political conditions serve as impediments to a president’s execution of certain powers. In nations characterized by multiparty systems and parliamentary fragmentation, presidents may not consistently garner firm backing from the legislative body. A prime illustration of this is the six-month delay in the United States’ aid to Ukraine.

In other words, to accurately gauge a president’s real influence, one must consider not just their popularity but also the configuration of political forces within parliament, as well as the informal channels of influence they possess over the political process.

Despite declarations, Ukraine has not transitioned to a premier-presidential model. Despite the significant empowerment of the prime minister, the president, according to the Constitution, remains sufficiently strong to influence various processes within the executive branch and at local levels. This either leads to conflicts between the president and the prime minister, as seen in 2006-2010 and 2014-2015, or to complete subordination of the prime minister to the president, as is the case today. Moreover, Ukrainian presidents often use their constitutional powers to strengthen their own influence, even against the Constitution. 

Thus, during the conflict with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in 2007, President Viktor Yushchenko dissolved parliament in a legally questionable manner, thereby gaining victory over the prime minister. There are also questions about the appointment process of Volodymyr Groysman as the head of government under President Petro Poroshenko, given the absence of a coalition that, according to the legislation, should have proposed a prime ministerial candidate to the president. Similarly, Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision in 2019 to dissolve parliament and hold early elections was also legally dubious.

One of the mechanisms that allow presidents to strengthen their influence on the political process and act bypassing the Constitution is the practice of using informal levers of influence on political institutions. To realize their objectives, presidents use tools such as bribery, distribution of government portfolios, appointment of loyal individuals to key positions, etc. In conditions of an incompletely formed political system and ineffective “rules of the game,” the use of informal leverage forms a conducive environment for autocratic tendencies, as it enables the president to enhance their influence on the political process through informal means.  

This was especially evident during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. The formal expansion of powers (reverting to the 1996 Constitution) in 2010 allowed him to create a “pocket” Cabinet of Ministers. However, this was not enough for him: Yanukovych began to build a rigid executive vertical from his own “loyalists.” In the absence of the rule of law, the president managed to maximize the concentration of power in his hands and govern the country despite alternative opinions. The interaction between the president and parliament was based on informal relationships (unfortunately, no Ukrainian parliament was free from such influence). There were questionable instances of people’s deputies switching sides to the pro-presidential camp, which deepened parliamentary corruption.

Informal practices did not disappear even after the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime. Some of these practices have legislative grounds. For example, since the president’s formal participation in coalition formation is not regulated, they can play a significant but externally unnoticed role in it, creating favorable conditions for informal political exchanges. In other words, the president can secure parliamentary support for decisions that are beneficial to them through the distribution of portfolios in the government among respective parties.

Practically every Ukrainian president has sought to consolidate power in their hands by controlling parliament, the prime minister, the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, the prosecutor general, and so on. The most successful in this regard has been President Volodymyr Zelensky. A well-executed media campaign and the simultaneous holding of presidential and parliamentary elections gave him the opportunity to achieve what no president before him had — the so-called mono majority. This essentially legalized a situation where it is not the parliament that controls the president but vice versa. This significantly facilitated the formation of a government loyal to the president and the adoption of legislation initiated by the head of state. In this aspect, Volodymyr Zelensky was even more potent than Viktor Yanukovych for quite some time, who had had to rely on the support of communists and socialists to pass the decisions he needed.

However, over time, and especially with the onset of full-scale war, the parliamentary majority faced a crisis, with some deputies fleeing the country and others being stripped of their mandates. As a result, today, the “servants” cannot independently gather the necessary votes and must negotiate with other factions to pass important initiatives. If initially, during the war, pro-Ukrainian parties supported the “servants,” over time, the necessary votes began to be provided by representatives of the “banned” OPFL party (this may be why MPs associated with this political force have not been stripped of their mandates). Therefore, the formal interaction mechanisms between branches of power are flexible only to a certain extent. In the Ukrainian system, the president must still cooperate and negotiate with the parliament to adopt necessary decisions.  

Final Thoughts

In the post-Soviet space, less democratic states have presidents with stronger powers, and in many cases, these powers have been gradually increased. For example, in Russia in 2020, the presidential term was extended from 4 to 6 years, allowing the president to be elected unlimited times. The self-proclaimed president of Belarus in 2022 “reset” his term in office through constitutional changes. Thus, the country falls into a “closed loop” where the hyperinflated powers of presidents enshrined in the constitution are reinforced through informal methods (primarily the destruction of opposition), leading to the unchecked strengthening of formal powers, and so on. In 2014, Ukraine managed to break out of this closed loop, and it would be undesirable to return there again.

The negative consequences of power personalization should serve as a warning for Ukraine. Despite formally being a premier-presidential republic, in practice, relations between the president and the executive and legislative branches are close to presidential-parliamentarian. In the presence of a mono majority, the president has virtually unlimited influence over appointing the prime minister, ministers, prosecutor general, and head of the security service. The president can submit bills to the Verkhovna Rada and be confident in their quick consideration and adoption (the parliament approves about ¾ of the bills submitted by the president). Additionally, the president’s influence significantly increased with the onset of the full-scale war. After declaring martial law, the head of state, as the supreme commander-in-chief, becomes a key figure in making the most critical decisions. Such a president’s status in wartime is justified and does not violate the Constitution. However, involving a greater number of players in decision-making can improve the quality of decisions and distribute responsibility. 

Unfortunately, the war has not made Ukrainian institutions stronger. The problem of incompletely formed rules of the game, which sometimes allow the president to bypass the Constitution and use instruments of informal influence, remains relevant. This undermines the still-developing Ukrainian democracy. Therefore, in post-war Ukraine, it will be necessary to review the balance of power institutions to reduce leadership influence, improve and develop parliamentarism, and expand the powers of the government and the prime minister while simultaneously strengthening their accountability to society.

We created this material as a participant in the Recovery Window Network. Find out everything about the recovery of affected regions of Ukraine on the unified platform at recovery.win 

Appendices

Table 1. Indicators for assessing the strength of presidents

Indicator Indicator score Points for Ukraine 
General political provisions regarding presidents
The method of electing the president President is elected by popular vote — 2

President is not elected by popular vote, but by another institution (e.g., parliament) — 0

2
Presidential term of office Not less than six years — 2

More than four years, but less than 6 — 1

Four years or less — 0

1
Limitation on the number of presidential terms Unlimited number of terms — 2

No more than two terms / no more than two consecutive terms — 1

No more than one term — 0

1
The procedure for removing the president from office Impeachment is constitutionally impossible — 4

There is a provision allowing for the president’s early removal from office, with parliament empowered to make such a decision based on the results of a nationwide referendum — 2

Parliament can initiate the impeachment process independently if there are sufficient grounds — 0

0
Executive powers of the president The president is the sole head of the executive branch — 4The president shares executive power with the government — 2

The head of state has no relation to the executive branch — 0

2
Interaction of the president with the executive and legislative branches of government 
Formation of the government The president appoints the cabinet of ministers independently without parliamentary approval — 4The president appoints only the prime minister, who is authorized to form the government independently — 3

The president proposes the candidacy of the prime minister and individual ministers for approval by parliament/The President appoints the prime minister; parliament approves his candidacy; the prime minister appoints the ministers — 2

The president does not have the authority to appoint the government cabinet and the prime minister; these powers belong to parliament — 0

2
Resignation of the government The president has unlimited authority to dismiss the government independently — 4

Dismisses the government only with the consent of parliament — 2

Has no authority regarding the dismissal of the government — 0

2
Expression of no confidence in the government The parliament cannot express a vote of no confidence in the government — 4

The parliament has the right to express a vote of no confidence in the government, but it can be dissolved by the president — 2

The parliament can express a constructive vote of no confidence — 1

The parliament’s right to express no confidence in the government is unrestricted — 0

0
Dissolution of parliament The president has an unrestricted right to dissolve parliament — 4

The president’s right to dissolve parliament is limited by the number of dissolutions and the grounds for dissolution — 3

The president’s right to dissolve parliament is limited, only in the event of a vote of no confidence in the government — 2

The president has very limited grounds for dissolving parliament/after the dissolution of parliament, presidential elections must take place — 1

The president cannot dissolve parliament under any circumstances — 0

1
Legislative activity of the president
The right to issue decrees that have the force of laws Unlimited reserved influence of the president — 4Temporary influence with some limits — 3

The authority to issue decrees is limited — 1

The president’s right to issue legislative acts with the force of law is absent — 0

0
The right of legislative initiative The president has the right of legislative initiative — 2

The president does not have the right of legislative initiative — 0

2
The right to propose amendments and changes to the Constitution The president has the right to freely and unconditionally propose amendments to the Constitution — 4

The president has the right to propose amendments to the Constitution, which must be considered in a referendum or in parliament — 2

The president does not have the right of initiative — 0

2
The right of package veto The veto cannot be overridden by the parliament — 4The veto is overridden by more than 2/3 of the parliament’s votes — 3

The veto is overridden by at least 2/3 of the votes in parliament — 2

The veto is overridden by at least half of the votes of the parliament’s composition — 1

There is no veto right, or it is overridden by the minimum number of votes — 0

2
The right of partial veto A veto cannot be overridden by parliament — 4

Veto is overridden by more than 2/3 of parliament votes — 3

Veto is overridden by at least 2/3 of votes in parliament — 2

Veto is overridden by at least half of the total number of parliament votes — 1

There is no veto power, or it is overridden by the minimum number of votes — 0

2
Counter-signing presidential acts Presidential acts do not require approval by the prime minister or ministers — 4

Only specific presidential acts require approval by the prime minister or ministers — 2

Presidential acts are effective only after being signed by the prime minister and ministers — 0

0
Appointment powers 
The right to appoint judges to the Supreme or Constitutional Court

 

Independent and unrestricted right of the president — 4

The president can appoint only a certain number of individuals independently — 3

Provided but limited by parliamentary voting or government recommendations — 2

The president is not involved in the processes of forming the constitutional court — 0

3
The right to appoint the prosecutor general The president has unlimited competence – 4

The president appoints only with the consent of the parliament – 3

The president approves the candidacy by signing the proposal of another institution – 2

The president has no relevant authority in this area – 0

3
Presidential powers related to enforcement
The president’s powers in states of emergency The president independently takes measures to ensure the country’s defense capability and introduce a state of emergency – 4

The president acts unilaterally with the subsequent approval of the steps taken in defense of the country or the introduction of a state of emergency with the approval of parliament, or they approve them with the government – 3

The president declares martial law upon the recommendation of the head of government, with the support of parliament – 1

The president is not responsible for introducing a state of emergency – 0

3
The president as commander-in-chief The president is always the commander-in-chief of the armed forces – 2

The president performs this function only in states of emergency – 1

The president is not the commander-in-chief – 0

2
The right to appoint senior command leadership The president independently and unrestrictedly appoints the senior leadership – 4

The president appoints the senior command leadership independently only in exceptional circumstances – 3

The president shares this authority with parliament – 2

The president does not have such competence – 0

4

Table 2. Assessment results of the strength of presidential powers

Authors

Attention

Автор не є співробітником, не консультує, не володіє акціями та не отримує фінансування від жодної компанії чи організації, яка б мала користь від цієї статті, а також жодним чином з ними не пов’язаний