Dual(ing?) Executives

The New York Times has a feature article today on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The main thrust of the article is the difficulties Ahmadinejad is facing because of his conflict with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As the Times notes:

The system allows for two presidents, one divine, the other democratic. The divine leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, holds most of the power levers, controlling the military, the judiciary and the state broadcasting services. The divine leader is also permanent, while elected presidents serve a maximum of eight years. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s predecessors — Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who also clashed with the supreme leader over prerogatives — have gradually faded from view.

In some ways, the situation in Iran is similar to that of Russia, where an elected President, Dmitry Medvedev, has to content with an ex-President, Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister, and whom many suspect of wielding real executive power in Russia.* Indeed, three years into the Medvedev presidency, the question of the relationship between Putin and Medvedev still tends to be the overarching question facing observers of Russian politics, especially as we head into the next election cycle in Russia. Indeed, analysis of the source of real power in Russia has even spawned the use of a new term: Tandemnocracy (or its Russian version ТандемократиÑ).

In political science, we refer to these situations as a “dual executive”, where more than one individual is that the top of the executive power pyramid in the government. These types of arrangements have been defined and studied in democracies. Here, for example, is a definition from a paper by University of California San Diego Professor Matthew Shugart:

These features define a dual executive (Blondel 1984), in that the elected president is not merely a head of state who lacks political authority, but also is not clearly the “chief” executive, because of the existence of a prime minister who may not be strictly a subordinate of the president. The precise relationship of the president to the prime minister (and cabinet), and of the latter to the assembly vary widely across regimes that fit the basic Duvergerian conception of semi-presidentialism, and these formal institutional variations are likely to have significant consequences for the behavioral performance of different systems.

What I was wondering – and what motivated me to write this post – is if the political science literature has any sort of theoretical framework for studying dual executives in non-democracies. For example, do we have a classification scheme that sorts out “formal” dual-executives (Iran?) from “informal” dual-executives (China? Russia?**). Could we differentiate, for example, a military dual-executive from a civilian dual-executive? Do we have any sense as to whether dual-executives have important effects on outcomes about which we care in non-democracies, such as regime survival? I have this vague memory from Introduction to International Relations classes that the one of those ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean (Romans? Greeks?) thought dual-executives were problematic enough to replace them with a single leader in war time, but do we know if empirically this is indeed the case (i.e., that dual-executives negative impact military success)? If anyone has conducted research on this topic – even to the point of simply setting up a classification scheme – I would be interested in hearing about it in the comments section, or as a stand alone guest post. If not, then I think this could be a promising topic for future study both in authoritarian regimes and in the ever growing number of competitive authoritarian regimes out there.

Finally, I close with a visual reminder of how dual executives can get along (h/t to The Power Vertical for the photo!):


* A joke making the rounds in Russia a couple years ago was the Putin and Medvedev are eating together at a restaurant and the waiter comes up and asks Putin what he wants to order. Putin says, “I’ll have the beef.” The waiter says “What about the vegetable?”. Putin replies, “Oh, he’ll have the beef too.”

** I list Russia as a potentially “informal” dual-executive because according to the constitution, Russia is a strong presidential regime with little doubt about who weilds ultimate executive authority. The source of Putin’s power is therefore not constitutional, but rather by dint of his person.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.