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A presidential system is a republican system of government where a head of government is also head of state and leads an executive branch that is separate from the legislative branch. The United States, for instance, has a presidential system. The executive is elected and often titled "president" and is not responsible to the legislature and cannot, in normal circumstances, dismiss it. The legislature may have the right, in extreme cases, to dismiss the executive, often through impeachment. However, such dismissals are seen as so rare as not to contradict a central tenet of presidentialism, that in normal circumstances using normal means the legislature cannot dismiss the executive.
The title president has persisted from a time when such person personally presided over the government body, as with the US President of the Continental Congress, before the executive function was split into a separate branch of government and could no longer preside over the legislative body.
Presidential systems are numerous and diverse, but the following are generally true:
- The executive can veto legislative acts and, in turn, a supermajority of lawmakers may override the veto. The veto is generally derived from the British tradition of royal assent in which an act of parliament can only be enacted with the assent of the monarch.
- The president has a fixed term of office. Elections are held at regular times and cannot be triggered by a vote of confidence or other parliamentary procedures. Although in some countries there is an exception, which provides for the removal of a president who is found to have broken a law.
- The executive branch is unipersonal. Members of the cabinet serve at the pleasure of the president and must carry out the policies of the executive and legislative branches. Cabinet ministers or executive departmental chiefs are not members of the legislature. However, presidential systems often need legislative approval of executive nominations to the cabinet, judiciary, and various lower governmental posts. A president generally can direct members of the cabinet, military, or any officer or employee of the executive branch, but cannot direct or dismiss judges.
- The president can often pardon or commute sentences of convicted criminals.
Countries that feature a presidential system of government are not the exclusive users of the title of President. For example, a dictator, who may or may not have been popularly or legitimately elected may be and often is called a president. Likewise, leaders of one-party states are often called presidents. Most parliamentary republics have presidents, but this position is largely ceremonial; notable examples include Germany, India, Ireland, Israel and Italy. The title is also used in parliamentary republics with an executive presidency, and also in semi-presidential systems.
- 1 Characteristics of presidents
- 2 Subnational governments
- 3 Advantages of presidential systems
- 4 Criticism and disadvantages
- 5 Differences from a Parliamentary system
- 6 Republics with a presidential system of government
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes and references
- 9 External links
Characteristics of presidents
Some national presidents are "figurehead" heads of state, like constitutional monarchs, of parliamentary governments and are not active executive heads of government (although some figurehead presidents and constitutional monarchs maintain reserve powers). They are responsible for the formalities of state functions and ensuring a functional parliament, while the constitutional prerogatives of head of government are generally exercised by the prime minister. Such symbolic presidents tend to be elected in a less direct manner than executive presidents of full presidential systems, for example by legislative vote. Only a few nations, such as Ireland, do have a popularly elected ceremonial president.
In contrast, in a full-fledged presidential system, a president is chosen by the people to be the head of the executive branch. Presidential governments make no distinction between the positions of head of state and head of government, both of which are held by the president.
A few countries (e.g., South Africa) have powerful presidents who are elected by the legislature. These presidents are chosen in the same way as a prime minister, yet are heads of both state and government. These executives are titled "president", but are in practice similar to prime ministers. Other countries with the same system include Botswana, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Suriname.
Presidents in a presidential system are always politically active, though the extent of their relative power may be influenced by whether their supporters or opponents have the dominant position in the legislature. In some presidential systems such as Azerbaijan or Mozambique, there is an office of prime minister or premier but, unlike in semipresidential or parliamentary systems, the premier is responsible to the president and not dependent on the legislature.
Subnational governments, usually municipalities, may be structured as a presidential system. All of the state governments of the United States use the presidential system, however this is not constitutionally required. On a local level, many cities use the Council-manager government, which is equivalent to a parliamentary system (although the post of a city manager is normally a non-political position). Another example is Japan where the national government uses the parliamentary system but the prefectural and municipal governments have governors and mayors elected independently from local assemblies and councils.
Advantages of presidential systems
Supporters generally claim four basic advantages for presidential systems:
- Direct elections — in a presidential system, the president is often elected directly by the people. This makes the president's power more legitimate than that of a leader appointed indirectly. However, this is not a necessary feature of a presidential system. Some presidential states have an unelected or indirectly elected head of state.
- Separation of powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. This allows each structure to monitor and check the other, preventing abuses of power.
- Speed and decisiveness — A president with strong powers can usually enact changes quickly. However, the separation of powers can also slow the system down.
- Stability — a president, by virtue of a fixed term, may provide more stability than a prime minister, who can be dismissed at any time.
In most presidential systems, the president is elected by popular vote, although some such as the United States uses an electoral college (which is itself directly elected) or some other method. By this method, the president receives a personal mandate to lead the country, whereas in a parliamentary system a candidate might only receive a personal mandate to represent a constituency. That means a president can only be elected independently of the legislative branch.
Separation of powers
The fact that a presidential system separates the executive from the legislature is sometimes held up as an advantage, in that each branch may scrutinize the actions of the other. In a parliamentary system, the executive is drawn from the legislature, making criticism of one by the other considerably less likely. A formal condemnation of the executive by the legislature is often considered a vote of no confidence. According to supporters of the presidential system, the lack of checks and balances means that misconduct by a prime minister may never be discovered. Writing about Watergate, Woodrow Wyatt, a former MP in the UK, said "don't think a Watergate couldn't happen here, you just wouldn't hear about it." (ibid)
Critics respond that if a presidential system's legislature is controlled by the president's party, the same situation exists. Proponents note that even in such a situation a legislator from the president's party is in a better position to criticize the president or his policies should he deem it necessary, since the immediate security of the president's position is less dependent on legislative support. In parliamentary systems, party discipline is much more strictly enforced. If a parliamentary backbencher publicly criticizes the executive or its policies to any significant extent then he/she faces a much higher prospect of losing his/her party's nomination, or even outright expulsion from the party. Even mild criticism from a backbencher could carry consequences serious enough (in particular, removal from consideration for a cabinet post) to effectively muzzle a legislator with any serious political ambitions.
Despite the existence of the no confidence vote, in practice, it is extremely difficult to stop a prime minister or cabinet that has made its decision. In a parliamentary system, if important legislation proposed by the incumbent prime minister and his cabinet is "voted down" by a majority of the members of parliament then it is considered a vote of no confidence. To emphasize that particular point, a prime minister will often declare a particular legislative vote to be a matter of confidence at the first sign of reluctance on the part of legislators from his or her own party. If a government loses a parliamentary vote of confidence, then the incumbent government must then either resign or call elections to be held, a consequence few backbenchers are willing to endure. Hence, a no confidence vote in some parliamentary countries, like Britain, only occurs a few times in a century. In 1931, David Lloyd George told a select committee: "Parliament has really no control over the executive; it is a pure fiction." (Schlesinger 1982)
By contrast, if a presidential legislative initiative fails to pass a legislature controlled by the president's party (e.g. the Clinton health care plan of 1993), it may damage the president's political standing and that of his party, but generally has no immediate effect on whether or not the president completes his term.
Speed and decisiveness
Some supporters of presidential systems claim that presidential systems can respond more rapidly to emerging situations than parliamentary ones. A prime minister, when taking action, needs to retain the support of the legislature, but a president is often less constrained. In Why England Slept, John F. Kennedy said that Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were constrained by the need to maintain the confidence of the Commons.
Other supporters of presidential systems sometimes argue in the exact opposite direction, however, saying that presidential systems can slow decision-making to beneficial ends. Divided government, where the presidency and the legislature are controlled by different parties, is said to restrain the excesses of both parties, and guarantee bipartisan input into legislation. In the United States, Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel wrote in 1995:
- There are some of us who think gridlock is the best thing since indoor plumbing. Gridlock is the natural gift the Framers of the Constitution gave us so that the country would not be subjected to policy swings resulting from the whimsy of the public. And the competition—whether multi-branch, multi-level, or multi-house—is important to those checks and balances and to our ongoing kind of centrist government. Thank heaven we do not have a government that nationalizes one year and privatizes next year, and so on ad infinitum. (Checks and Balances, 8)
Although most parliamentary governments go long periods of time without a no confidence vote, Italy, Israel, and the French Fourth Republic have all experienced difficulties maintaining stability. When parliamentary systems have multiple parties and governments are forced to rely on coalitions, as they often do in nations that use a system of proportional representation, extremist parties can theoretically use the threat of leaving a coalition to further their agendas.
Many people consider presidential systems more able to survive emergencies. A country under enormous stress may, supporters argue, be better off being led by a president with a fixed term than rotating premierships. France during the Algerian controversy switched to a semi-presidential system as did Sri Lanka during its civil war, while Israel experimented with a directly elected prime minister in 1992. In France and Sri Lanka, the results are widely considered to have been positive. However, in the case of Israel, an unprecedented proliferation of smaller parties occurred, leading to the restoration of the previous system of selecting a prime minister.
The fact that elections are fixed in a presidential system is considered a welcome "check" on the powers of the executive, contrasting parliamentary systems, which often allow the prime minister to call elections whenever they see fit, or orchestrate their own vote of no confidence to trigger an election when they cannot get a legislative item passed. The presidential model is said to discourage this sort of opportunism, and instead force the executive to operate within the confines of a term they cannot alter to suit their own needs. Theoretically, if a president's positions and actions have had a positive impact on their respective country, then it is likely that their party's candidate (possibly them) will be elected for another term in office.
Proponents of the presidential system also argue that stability extends to the cabinets chosen under the system, compared to a parliamentary system where cabinets must be drawn from within the legislative branch. Under the presidential system, cabinet members can be selected from a much larger pool of potential candidates. This allows presidents the ability to select cabinet members based as much or more on their ability and competency to lead a particular department as on their loyalty to the president, as opposed to parliamentary cabinets, which might be filled by legislators chosen for no better reason than their perceived loyalty to the prime minister. Supporters of the presidential system note that parliamentary systems frequenty go through disruptive "cabinet shuffles" where legislators are moved between portfolios, whereas in presidential system cabinets (such as the United States Cabinet), cabinet shuffles are unheard.
Criticism and disadvantages
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Critics generally claim three basic disadvantages for presidential systems:
- Tendency towards authoritarianism — some political scientists say presidentialism raises the stakes of elections, exacerbates their polarization and can lead to authoritarianism (Linz).
- Political gridlock — the separation of powers of a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Critics argue that this frequently creates undesirable and long-term political gridlock whenever the president and the legislative majority are from different parties, which is common because the electorate usually expects more rapid results from new policies than are possible (Linz, Mainwaring and Shugart). In addition, this reduces accountability by allowing the president and the legislature to shift blame to each other.
- Impediments to leadership change — presidential systems often make it difficult to remove a president from office early, for example after taking actions that become unpopular.
A prime minister without majority support in the legislature must either form a coalition or, if able to lead a minority government, govern in a manner acceptable to at least some of the opposition parties. Even with majority government, the prime minister must still govern within (perhaps unwritten) constraints as determined by the members of his party—a premier in this situation is often at greater risk of losing his party leadership than his party is at risk of losing the next election. On the other hand, winning the presidency is a winner-take-all, zero-sum game. Once elected, a president might be able to marginalize the influence of other parties and exclude rival factions in his own party as well, or even leave the party whose ticket he was elected under. The president can thus rule without any party support until the next election or abuse his power to win multiple terms, a worrisome situation for many interest groups. Yale political scientist Juan Linz argues that:
The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president's fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate... losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization.
Constitutions that only require plurality support are said[who?] to be especially undesirable, as significant power can be vested in a person who does not enjoy support from a majority of the population.
Some political scientists say that presidential systems are not constitutionally stable and have difficulty sustaining democratic practices, noting that presidentialism has slipped into authoritarianism in many of the countries in which it has been implemented. According to political scientist Fred Riggs, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in nearly every country it has been attempted. Political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out that this has taken place in political cultures not conducive to democracy and that militaries have tended to play a prominent role in most of these countries. On the other hand, an often-cited list of the world's 22 older democracies includes only two countries (Costa Rica and the United States) with presidential systems. It is noteworthy that the youngest democracy (established under US influence), Afghanistan, is presidential, and many[who?] predict its quick failure after American pull-out.
In a presidential system, the legislature and the president have equal mandates from the public. Conflicts between the branches of government might not be reconciled. When president and legislature disagree and government is not working effectively, there is a strong incentive to use extra-constitutional measures to break the deadlock. Of the three common branches of government, the executive is in the best position to use extra-constitutional measures, especially when the president is head of state, head of government, and commander in chief of the military. By contrast, in a parliamentary system where the often-ceremonial head of state is either a constitutional monarch or (in the case of a parliamentary republic) an experienced and respected figure, given some political emergency there is a good chance that even a ceremonial head of state will be able to use emergency reserve powers to restrain a head of government acting in an emergency extra-constitutional manner - this is only possible because the head of state and the head of government are not the same person.
Ecuador is sometimes presented[who?] as a case study of democratic failures over the past quarter-century. Presidents have ignored the legislature or bypassed it altogether. One president had the National Assembly teargassed, while another disagreed with congress until he was kidnapped by paratroopers. From 1979 through 1988, Ecuador staggered through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations that created a near permanent crisis atmosphere in the policy. In 1984, President León Febres Cordero tried to physically bar new Congressionally appointed supreme court appointees from taking their seats.
In Brazil, presidents have accomplished their objectives by creating executive agencies over which Congress had no say.
Dana D. Nelson in her 2008 book Bad for Democracy sees the office of the president of the United States as essentially undemocratic and characterizes presidentialism as worship of the president by citizens, which she believes undermines civic participation.
Some political scientists speak of the "failure of presidentialism" because the separation of powers of a presidential system often creates undesirable long-term political gridlock and instability whenever the president and the legislative majority are from different parties. This is common because the electorate often expects more rapid results than are possible from new policies and switches to a different party at the next election. These critics, including Juan Linz, argue that this inherent political instability can cause democracies to fail, as seen in such cases as Brazil and Chile.
Lack of accountability
In such cases of gridlock, presidential systems are said by critics[who?] not to offer voters the kind of accountability seen in parliamentary systems. It is easy for either the president or the legislature to escape blame by shifting it to the other. Describing the United States, former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon said "the president blames Congress, the Congress blames the president, and the public remains confused and disgusted with government in Washington".
An example is the increase in the federal debt of the United States that occurred during the presidency of Republican Ronald Reagan. Arguably, the deficits were the product of a bargain between President Reagan and the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill. O'Neill agreed to tax cuts favored by Reagan, and in exchange Reagan agreed to budgets that did not restrain spending to his liking. In such a scenario, each side can say they are displeased with the debt, plausibly blame the other side for the deficit, and still claim success.
Impediments to leadership change
Another alleged problem of presidentialism is that it is often difficult to remove a president from office early. Even if a president is "proved to be inefficient, even if he becomes unpopular, even if his policy is unacceptable to the majority of his countrymen, he and his methods must be endured until the moment comes for a new election." John Tyler was elected Vice President and assumed the presidency because William Henry Harrison died after thirty days in office. Tyler blocked the Whig agenda, was loathed by his nominal party, but remained firmly in control of the executive branch. Most presidential systems provide no legal means to remove a president simply for being unpopular, or even for behaving in a manner that might be considered unethical and/or immoral provided it is not illegal. This has been cited as the reason why many presidential countries have experienced military coups to remove a leader who is said to have lost his mandate.
Parliamentary systems can quickly remove unpopular leaders by a vote of no confidence, a procedure that serves as a "pressure release valve" for political tension. Votes of no confidence are easier to achieve in minority government situations, but even if the unpopular leader heads a majority government, he is often in a less secure position than a president. Usually in parliamentary systems a basic premise is that if a premier's popularity sustains a serious enough blow and the premier does not as a matter of consequence offer to resign prior to the next election, then those members of parliament who would persist in supporting the premier will be at serious risk of losing their seats. Therefore, especially in parliaments with a strong party system, other prominent members of the premier's party have a strong incentive to initiate a leadership challenge in hopes of mitigating damage to their party. More often than not, a premier facing a serious challenge resolves to save face by resigning before being formally removed—Margaret Thatcher's relinquishing of her premiership being a prominent, recent example.
On the other hand, while removing a president through impeachment is allowed by most constitutions, impeachment proceedings often can be initiated only in cases where the president has violated the constitution and/or broken the law. Impeachment is often made difficult, by comparison the removal a party leader is normally governed by the (often less formal) rules of the party. Nearly all parties (including governing parties) have a relatively simple process for removing their leaders.
Walter Bagehot criticized presidentialism because it does not allow a transfer in power in the event of an emergency.
- Under a cabinet constitution at a sudden emergency the people can choose a ruler for the occasion. It is quite possible and even likely that he would not be ruler before the occasion. The great qualities, the imperious will, the rapid energy, the eager nature fit for a great crisis are not required—are impediments—in common times. A Lord Liverpool is better in everyday politics than a Chatham—a Louis Philippe far better than a Napoleon. By the structure of the world we want, at the sudden occurrence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman—to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm.
- But under a presidential government you can do nothing of the kind. The American government calls itself a government of the supreme people; but at a quick crisis, the time when a sovereign power is most needed, you cannot find the supreme people. You have got a congress elected for one fixed period, going out perhaps by fixed installments, which cannot be accelerated or retarded—you have a president chosen for a fixed period, and immovable during that period: ..there is no elastic element... you have bespoken your government in advance, and whether it is what you want or not, by law you must keep it ...
However, supporters of the presidential system question the validity of the point. They counter that republics such as the United States successfully endured this and other crises without the need to change heads of state. Supporters argue that presidents elected in a time of peace and prosperity have proven themselves perfectly capable of responding effectively to a serious crisis, largely due to their ability to make the necessary appointments to his cabinet and elsewhere in government, and/or by creating new positions to deal with new challenges. One prominent, recent example would be the appointment of a Secretary of Homeland Security following the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Some supporters of the presidential system counter that impediments to a leadership change is a strength instead of a weakness in times of crisis. In such times, a prime minister might hesitate due to the need to keep parliament's support, whereas a president can act without fear of removal from office by those who might disapprove of his actions. Unlike what would be possible in a presidential system, a perceived crisis in the parliamentary system might give disgruntled backbenchers or rivals an opportunity to launch a vexing challenge for a prime minister's leadership. As noted above, in such situations a prime minister often resigns if they even moderately doubt their ability to endure a challenge, and there is no guarantee that the sudden accession of an unproven prime minister during a crisis will be a change for the better—the ouster of Thatcher is seen as an example by those who argue her successor, John Major, proved less able to defend British interests in the ensuing Gulf War.
Finally, many[who?] have criticized presidential systems for their alleged slowness to respond to their citizens' needs. Often, the checks and balances make action difficult. Walter Bagehot said of the American system, "the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others [and not itself] will suffer the effects".
Defenders of Presidential systems, on the other hand, hold that this can serve to ensure that minority wishes and rights are not trampled upon, thus preventing a "Tyranny of the majority" and vice versa protect the wishes and rights of the majority from abuse by a legislature and/or an executive that holds a contrary viewpoint, especially when there are frequent, scheduled elections.
British-Irish philosopher and MP Edmund Burke stated that an official should be elected based on "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience", and therefore should reflect on the arguments for and against certain policies before taking positions and then act out on what an official would believe is best in the long run for one's constituents and country as a whole even if it means short-term backlash. Thus Defenders of Presidential systems hold that sometimes what is wisest may not always be the most popular decision and vice versa.
Differences from a Parliamentary system
A number of key theoretical differences exist between a presidential and a parliamentary system:
- In a presidential system, the central principle is that the legislative and executive branches of government are separate. This leads to the separate election of president, who is elected to office for a fixed term, and only removable for gross misdemeanor by impeachment and dismissal. In addition he or she does not need to choose cabinet members commanding the support of the legislature. By contrast, in parliamentarianism, the executive branch is led by a council of ministers, headed by a Prime Minister, who are directly accountable to the legislature and often have their background in the legislature (regardless of whether it is called a "parliament", assembly, a "diet", or a "chamber").
- As with the president's set term of office, the legislature also exists for a set term of office and cannot be dissolved ahead of schedule. By contrast, in parliamentary systems, the prime minister need to survive a vote of confidence otherwise a new election must be called. The legislature can typically be dissolved at any stage during its life by the head of state, usually on the advice of either Prime Minister alone, by the Prime Minister and cabinet, or by the cabinet.
- In a presidential system, the president usually has special privileges in the enactment of legislation, namely the possession of a power of veto over legislation of bills, in some cases subject to the power of the legislature by weighted majority to override the veto. The legislature and the president are thus expected to serve as checks and balances on each other's powers.
- Presidential system presidents may also be given a great deal of constitutional authority in the exercise of the office of Commander in Chief, a constitutional title given to most presidents. In addition, the presidential power to receive ambassadors as head of state is usually interpreted as giving the president broad powers to conduct foreign policy. Though semi-presidential systems may reduce a president's power over day-to-day government affairs, semi-presidential systems commonly give the president power over foreign policy.
Presidential systems also have fewer ideological parties than parliamentary systems. Sometimes in the United States, the policies preferred by the two parties have been very similar (but see also polarization). In the 1950s, during the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Democrats included the right-most members of the chamber—Harry Byrd and Strom Thurmond, and the left-most members—Paul Douglas and Herbert Lehman. This pattern does not prevail in Latin American presidential democracies.
In practice, elements of both systems overlap. Though a president in a presidential system does not have to choose a government answerable to the legislature, the legislature may have the right to scrutinize his or her appointments to high governmental office, with the right, on some occasions, to block an appointment. In the United States, many appointments must be confirmed by the Senate, although once confirmed an appointee can only be removed against the President's will through impeachment. By contrast, though answerable to parliament, a parliamentary system's cabinet may be able to make use of the parliamentary 'whip' (an obligation on party members in parliament to vote with their party) to control and dominate parliament, reducing parliament's ability to control the government.
Some countries, such as France have similarly evolved to such a degree that they can no longer be accurately described as either presidential or parliamentary-style governments, and are instead grouped under the category of semi-presidential system.
Republics with a presidential system of government
- Republic of the Congo
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- Sierra Leone
- South Sudan
- United States
Presidential systems with a prime minister
- List of countries by system of government
- Parliamentary system & Westminister system
- Rotating Regional Primary System
- Semi-presidential system
Notes and references
- Nelson, Dana D. (2008). Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. p. 248. ISBN 978-0-8166-5677-6.
- David Sirota (August 22, 2008). "Why cult of presidency is bad for democracy". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
- Sundquist, James (1992). Constitutional Reform and Effective Government. Brookings Institution Press. p. 11.
- Balfour. "Introduction". The English Constitution.
- Balfour. "The Cabinet". The English Constitution.
- While the office of prime minister exists, the president is both the head of state and government.
- The Great Debate: Parliament versus Congress
- Castagnola, Andrea/Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal: Presidential Control of High Courts in Latin America: A Long-term View (1904-2006), in: Journal of Politics in Latin America, Hamburg 2009.