Another co-presidency

Madagascar may be adopting a three-person presidential council.

So, if the agreement is confirmed (and allowing for its being only transitional), we can add Madagascar to a small list of countries ever to have had such an institution. There are also Iraq (where the council is chosen by parliament, but has suddenly burst on to the world scene as a relevant institution), and Bosnia-Herzeogovina (where it is elected, in a semi-presidential system. And then formerly Cyprus and Uruguay (in presidential systems, i.e. directly elected and head of government).

Did I miss any? I suppose there have been others, at least on an interim basis.

There is, of course, the granddaddy of plural executives–Switzerland.

17 thoughts on “Another co-presidency

  1. While it’s not your usual method, it might be interesting to look for other examples of co-chief executives from non-democratic regimes. First to mind is the Sandinista government between 79 and 84, which was officially a three person council. There’s probably examples of military juntas actually ruling as a group rather than a single leader/dictator.

    Just thinking out loud, wondering if there is any academic value to be gained by studying the institutional dynamics, even if they weren’t voted into power.

  2. Sure, lots of authoritarian systems have collective executives. (It’s the meaning of “junta,” after all, though not every government with a junta has it serve as a genuine collective executive.)

    See Phil Roeder’s work (especially his book, Red Sunset) on the “oligarch’s dilemma,” or the tension between collective and tyrannical leadership, which he says is inherent in authoritarian rule.

  3. I guess it’s worth noting that the Bosnian-Herzegovinan, Cypriot, and Iraqi, cases are all attempts at power-sharing in ethnically divided societies. One could also include Northern Ireland where the special powers of the deputy premier are rather close to those of the vice-president in the Cypriot example. South Africa had a similar situation with a constitutionally entrenched coalition and irremovable deputy presidents under the interim constitution.

  4. @Tom: you mean the Consulate, the first Napoleonic regime before Bonaparte made himself Emperor-three consuls, wasnt it? Of course only one mattered.

    Collective heads of state-how about the Malaysian monarchy, or is that just an elective kingship?

  5. Yes, Consulate/ Directoire.

    Interestingly, one can make an argument that most democracies have been evolving towards a semi-dyarchy (1.5-archy?) at the top of the executive. Most now have (1) a head of state (president, monarch, viceroy) with either (1.1) a Vice-President (if the HoS is an executive president) or (1.2) a Prime Minister (otherwise). Very few seem to have either only the one (exception – Chile?) OR more than two (exceptions are India and the late unlamented South Vietnam, which both had President, VP, PM).

    Maybe we’re just re-inventing the Roman model of having two consuls to check each other. Granted, the “top two” are usually not formally symmetrical – the VP would rarely have a legal veto over the President – but certainly political power can ebb and flow between the two, as Lord North, President de Gaulle and Vice-President Cheney would attest.

  6. Tom Round;

    I’d assumed he meant modern examples, otherwise Rome is too obvious to miss.

    That’s an interesting point, about dyarchy. It would seem that how strongly dyarchical a system is depends on each dyarch having his own source of authority. Both holding the same office, like the consuls, is an obvious case, but semi-presidential systems also fit here. A hereditary monarch in a democracy can never have much more than a ceremonial role (otherwise it’s not a democracy), and the American Vice President doesn’t have any authority except what the President delegates. Even in cases like Cheney, it was simply a relatively large delegation. Well, the VP is also ex officio President of the Senate, but the Senate creates its own rules and they’re not likely to give much power to a non-member, even if he is nominally the head of their chamber. Not even LBJ could make the Presidency of the Senate an independent source of authority.

    If we like dyarchies, the way forward is pretty obvious for Parliamentary monarchies; replace the monarch with an elected president (I know that in countries like Australia and Canada, the Governor-General is sometimes more active than the Queen of England, but it’s still a very weak dyarchy) with the understanding that this new president will be less shy with vetos and calling new elections; i.e., go semi-presidential.

    The United States is a bit tougher, since not only does the VP have no independent power, he and the President are elected as a team. Maybe we could go back to the old idea that the person who came in second should be Vice President. We wouldn’t need a Constitutional amendment to make this happen; there’s already a proposal going around for an interstate compact to make sure the popular vote winner always carries the electoral college. We could just tweak the compact a little. The process for choosing a VP needs fixing anyway. We’d also have to use an election method other than plurality (which we should do anyway), I think, since while we want at least some independency and different perspectives, a system which always chooses rivals who are the chief leaders each of the left and right strikes me as potentially destructive. I of course think the Condorcet winner and the second Condorcet winner are perfect here. If we went with AV, it would be best to run the whole count a second time with President taken out. As for strengthening the VP, that would require an amendment. Maybe we could give them both a veto, or both the power to sign legislation and only allow a veto if both agree. Concurrence on appointments and treaties is natural, and perhaps we should even give the VP some sort of control on the use of the military (although, properly speaking, that should be Congress).

    Alternatively, abolish the Vice Presidency altogether and make the Speaker of the House the other dyarch. Something like that might happen if we implemented the idea I suggested in another thread, that regulatory rulemaking authority be transferred from executive branch agencies to House committees. But I’m not sure I’d like this; it seems to imply that the Speaker is deciding what the regulations will be (which in turn implies that he has an unelected apparatus of his own for producing regulations) and the committees are reduced to formalities. That just reproduces the system I object to. But it’s also possible that by abolishing the Vice Presidency the Speaker will naturally become the other dyarch, rulemaking power or no.

  7. The first time a Vice President became President (and they weren’t sure at the time if he was really President, a later amendment clarified things), John Tyler took over from William Henry Harrison, who expired from an illness caught during the ignaugeration ceremony. Harrison had just defeated the incumbent President, Martin Van Buren. Had the 12th Amendment not been passed, Van Buren would have bounced back into office after being ejected by the voters! While the presidency is not as powerful as it is now, I’m pretty sure that if the 12th Amendment had not been in existence in 1841 it would have come into existence pretty quickly.

    Keep in mind that the framers for some reason did not anticipate the existence of political parties, a mistake which trips up the US constituton in lots of other areas.

    The US Vice President is not really a dyarch, the growth of influence in the office is really a feature of the US system becoming even more presidential centered. Two post WWII amendments strengthened the Vice Presidency, but very weakly. And other countries have managed to do without it.

    The legislation making the Speaker of the House third in line of succession (and as acting president only!) has been criticized for the possibility of a President of one party being succeeded by the President of another. But one strength is that the Speaker is elected, in a sense, if voters wanted to avoid this situation they could keep the presidential party in charge of the House. They tend to give the other party a majority when they are sick or at least ambivalent about the administration. Putting the Speaker third in line may turn out to be brilliant if an adminstration ever becomes so thorough discredited that it just has to go after the midterms.

  8. “… may turn out to be brilliant if an adminstration ever becomes so thorough discredited that it just has to go after the midterms.”

    But only if Congress managed to impeach both the President and the VP jointly, or in quick succession (NPI).

    Since impeachment is supposed to be a quasi-criminal judgment on the individual officeholder’s personal fitness, and not a de facto no-confidence motion (even by bicameral supermajority), this might be difficult. Impeaching one of the Top Two might be accepted as impeachment, but to lose both might start to look like “playing politics”.

    Unless the scandal were so big that it implicated both. Ironically, this has been advanced as an argument for keeping the VP out of the policy-making loop. Sure, let Truman know “The President’s authorised this thing called the Manhattan Project…”, by all means, but don’t involve the VP in making decisions that might later get the President impeached as this could taint the VP as well. Glenn “Instapundit” Harlan Reynolds takes this view, arguing that the VP is like a spare tyre – you keep it in reserve so it’s ready to use when needed.

  9. Correction: Or unless Congress first blocked the President from confirming a new VP to replace a vacancy, and finally impeached the President (which could be many months later). Then the Speaker would succeed.

    It was Akhil Amar, I think, who’s argued that this is an argument against the prudence (and even the constitutionality) of interposing the Speaker in the line of succession: s/he has both the motive and the opportunity to induce the House to block the President from replacing a Vice-President.

    Congress need not, of course, say that this is the Speaker’s plan: just “We have serious concerns about President Smith, tainted as she is by the XYZ scandal, nominating Rep Mukherjee to replace disgraced VP Jones… We need to investigate this allegations more fully before we confirm Mukherjee… Oh, wait, now Smith’s resigned!” (etc)

  10. Rephrasing (what happened to the Ten Minute Rule for editing comments?): ‘Impeaching one of the Top Two might be accepted as impeachment, but to lose both might start to look like “playing politics”’ should have read something like “‘Impeaching one of the Top Two might be accepted as a quasi-judicial verdict, but to lose both might start to look like “playing politics”.’

  11. Rome had its problems. From the end of the Punic Wars to the Second Triumvirate the optimates ignored all social questions and simply resorted to disappearances and assassinations. justified, remarkably, as a lawful way to defend the state, to ensure the populares could never enact their program. One of their number, Cicero. invented the word piscinarii to describe those of his party who refused to leave their estates and fishponds except when their dominance of the state machinery was threatened.

    Caesar ensured his fate by proving to be a legislative genius and actually getting land reform etc into law in the shape of the leges Juliae, laws that the optimates proceeded to simply ignore while they focused on finding some way to prosecute him for succeeding where Scipio, the Gracchi, Marius and Cinna had failed. Ultimately they lacked the imagination to think of anything new so they just went back to the tried and true assassination route.

    I’m not entirely sure that Rome is a happy precedent for dyarchy.

  12. Ed;

    I think I did address the problem of a President being voted out and then returned, with my comments on the election method. I don’t at all mean the second-place candidate according to the electoral vote, or the second place plurality candidate. What I’m imagining here is that every state would use ranked ballots and that states with a majority of electoral college votes will agree in advance that they will all vote for, e.g., the Condorcet winner for President and the second Condorcet winner for Vice President. There would be no reason for running mates any more.

    If the there is a majority in favor of replacing the incumbent, I doubt he would be the second Condorcet winner, although he would probably remain the second (or first!) plurality winner, because that majority can probably find several candidates more acceptable to them. If not, and only one other person beats the incumbent one-on-one, it seems to me that the old President is probably the most democratically legitimate successor, if events require one.

    Keep in mind that the framers for some reason did not anticipate the existence of political parties, a mistake which trips up the US constituton in lots of other areas.

    I think they knew parties were possible, they just didn’t want them.

    Tom Round;

    Amar seems to be thinking of something like a repetition of Agnew and Nixon, but close together in time. Probably the only way this is likely to happen is if they’re implicated in the same business, what Reynolds was recommending against. But this seems like only a partial solution — Nixon was undermining democracy, but as far as underminers of democracy go, he was pretty mild stuff. I would even rank the two Presidents who signed Sedition Acts as worse. What happens if an intelligent, consciously illiberal ideologue takes office, like Hugo Chavez or — I won’t say his name this time? I don’t believe it’s ever happened at the national level in any English-speaking country in modern times, but that’s no guarantee it can’t happen. I can’t picture any other scenario where an administration might be so discredited it and everyone associated with it needs to go immediately, but in that case I think it would.

    But we still have Amar’s problem: perverse incentives. Presumably if removing the administration root and branch is a matter of democratic self-preservation, any reasonable Speaker would try to do it without needing personal incentives. But here’s another perverse incentive, and if we’re talking about unlikely but possible scenarios, we might as well bring it up: anyone in the line of succession has an incentive to arrange the absence of everyone above him, Richard III style. If he ever knows when he’ll be the designated successor, he can do it all at once. (Sounds like the plot of a season of 24, if it isn’t already.)

    I’ve never seen much point to making “spare tire” its own office. If we abolish the Vice Presidency, the best replacement may be to have the President designate someone (or several people in a defined order) to become Acting Persident if the time comes, to remain such until the House chooses a new President (by concurrent majority?). We could require that the new President can’t be the Acting President and can’t be a member of the House. Then the new President serves out the rest of the term, with the same rule about how this figures into the two-term limit that Vice Presidents are under now. This way, nobody knows in advance who the beneficiary of the death or removal of the President will be.


    I think the ten tribunes, who each had a veto, the composition of the Senate, and the fact that augurs could call off public business by saying the omens were bad, contributed more to the late Roman Republic’s sclerosis than the consuls did. Besides, the routine violence (not just by the optimates, remember Clodius) was seriously destructive regardless of the formal institutional arrangements.

  13. One of the stranger things about the US Vice Presidency is that the President is not directly elected, and the Constitution provides for two indirect methods: the Electoral College, and the House of Representatives (albeit using an incredible vote counting method) if the Electoral College is deadlocked. This means that the Vice President as an office is not really necessary, just reassemble the Electoral College to choose a new President in the case of a vacancy. The House could select the successor if the US ever went to direct elections.

    All that is really needed is an acting president until the permanent successor is chosen, and one of the post WWII amendments (the 25th?) has provisions for that too.

  14. In France the President of the Senate acts as Acting President for I think 30 days until a new election can be organised. One long serving President of the Senate was Acting President twice, and a failed candidate in a subsequent election.

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