Government: Parliamentary vs. Presidential Systems
Government types are determined and defined by the way the state’s executive, judicial, and legislative institutions are organized. In present times, the majority of governments are democratic, which means that they “permit nation’s citizens to manage their government either directly or through elected representatives” (Faraji, 2015, p. 269).
There are two main types of democratic governments: the parliamentary and presidential systems. There are also systems such as semi-parliamentary and semi-presidential, which emerged as a combination of both systems’ best traits and advantages; the debate continues over which system – parliamentary or presidential – is more conducive to stable democracies.
The idea of a presidential system is that one and the same person holds the offices of head of state and acts as head of government. The main advantages of this system are, “executive stability due to the President’s fixed term, greater democracy because of the popular election of the President, and greater protection for liberty because of the separation of powers doctrine” (Dawood, 2014, p. 923).
However, when executive power is concentrated solely in the hands of a single person, the system may easily turn from democratic to authoritarian. As opposed to presidential systems in which executive and legislative bodies are in constant disagreement, in parliamentary systems, the executive branch is dependent upon the support of the Parliament, which represents the interests of the legislative branch.
This fusion of powers makes parliamentary systems more conducive to stable democracies. Although presidential systems are commonly considered more stable due to this inherent separation of powers, parliamentary systems are superior because of their inherent fusion of powers, which rejects the concentration of power in the hands of a single entity.
One of the primary characteristics of parliamentary systems is a fusion of powers that makes the government unitary, efficient, and more flexible (O’Neil, 2015). Parliament combines two institutions: the Government and the Assembly, thus reducing the conflict between the executive and legislative branches and aiding in their support of one another.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the parliamentary majority elects the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister remains the executive as long as “his party maintains control of the House of Commons” (Faraji, 2015, p. 272). In the United Kingdom, Parliament combines the part of the judiciary power as well since the House of Lords is the highest court of appeal.
Thus, according to Verney (2013), “the Parliament may seem to wield executive, legislative, and judicial power” (p. 41). These factors explain how the fusion of powers concept, active in parliamentary systems, does not negate that the United Kingdom’s government is still categorized as unitary.
The unitary government has several distinct advantages: the first one is the accountability of the Prime Minister to the Parliament. Despite the fact that Prime Minster holds executive power, he or she must still maintain the support of the legislative body.
If the legislative body does not support the Prime Minister, he or she subsequently loses the authority to govern and must “either advise the head of state that a general election be held or must resign so that a different government can be formed” (Bradley & Pinelli, 2012, p. 654).
The Prime Minister’s accountability to the Parliament is reinforced by the questioning time in the House of Commons, and this occurs weekly. On this occasion, the Parliament questions the Prime Minister on policies and decisions. This then makes for an efficient method by which the government is controlled by Parliament (Faraji, 2015).
Another advantage of the unitary government, and therefore of the parliamentary system, is that political parties act in a “stable, efficient, and decisive intra-party unity” (Faraji, 2015, p. 272).
For example, in the United Kingdom, the same party controls both the executive and legislative branches and uses the whipping system to encourage the voting discipline of each party; this ensures that the parties act as a connection or bridge between the executive and legislative branches.
In the United States, the party discipline is looser, and the legislative body may paralyze the political agenda of the executive body “to the extent that the party that does not occupy the White House may possess a majority in either or both houses of Congress” (Bradley & Pinelli, 2012, p. 653).
Since the President, Senate, and House of Representatives may belong to different parties, the United States’ government may, at times, prove unstable and uncoordinated.
The third benefit of parliamentary systems is parliamentary sovereignty. According to Bradley and Pinelli (2012), “there are no legal limits upon the laws that may be enacted by Parliament, and there is no judicial review of Acts of Parliament” (p. 653), which means that no person or institution can cancel the decisions of the Parliament.
Parliamentary sovereignty ensures a stable political system since decisions that were made by the Parliament cannot be overruled. As Faraji (2015) states, “the sovereignty of the Parliament also prevents the Prime Minister and other governmental authorities from exercising too much authority and becoming ‘above law’” (p. 272).
Moreover, parliamentary sovereignty maintains and guarantees that the Parliament is not subject to the restrictions made by the previous Parliaments (Verney, 2013).
During the debates, the supporters of presidential systems name two main advantages of presidential: “executive stability due to the President’s fixed-term and greater democracy because of the popular election of the President” (Dawood, 2014, p. 923). These advantages can, however, be reasonably rebutted by the opposition.
First, the executive power in the hands of the President may lead to “authoritarian deviations,” and the fact that one president takes office for some time does not necessarily imply the stability (Fix-Fierro & Salazar-Ugarte, 2013). The
President may increase his power in a crisis situation; thus, “presidential systems tend to swing between ‘normal’ situations of deadlock and ‘crisis’ situations marked by surges of presidential power and activism” (Dawood, 2014, p. 923).
Second, the popular election for President cannot ensure a greater democracy. The existing dual democratic legitimacy presupposes that “no democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people” (Dawood, 2014, p. 924).
This means that when citizens directly elect members of the executive and legislative branches, both branches may claim their independent source of legitimacy; consequently, this may lead to social and political crises (Fix-Fierro & Salazar-Ugarte, 2013).
The “winner-take-all” aspect of presidential systems can “turn politics into a zero-sum game” (Dawood, 2014, p. 924). Because the presidency represents a single office, it marginalizes all losing parties for the entire period of that presidency. For this reason, presidential systems are less flexible than parliamentary ones, where all parties act together, united in coalitions, and thus generating greater democratic stability (Dawood, 2014).
The parliamentary separation of the head of state from the head of government within the executive branch ensures more stability than the presidential separation of powers.
Such systems allow the President to act as a unifying national figure, while “the Prime Minister and the other responsible Cabinet ministers take political responsibility for all government policy before the people’s elected representatives in Parliament” (Presidentialism vs. parliamentarian in the West Wing, 2011, para. 6).
The President in the parliamentary system follows the advice of the government, and if this advice proves ineffective or politically damaging, the Prime Minister, in turn, suffers the serious political and electoral consequences.
“The American separation of executive and legislative powers diffuses political responsibility along these two lines of authority and thus creates inefficiency and deadlock” (Presidentialism vs. parliamentarian in the West Wing, 2011, para. 6). Because of the above-mentioned factors, almost all presidential systems, except the United States’ presidential system, have eventually proved unstable and authoritarian.
In spite of the fact that the basic principle of presidential systems is the separation of powers, these systems are unstable due to the constant disagreement between the legislative and executive branches. The option to concentrate power in the hands of a unipersonal organ, that in case of emergency, may increase its power while serving its own interests, also contributes to instability.
Parliamentary systems provide greater democratic stability due to the fusion of powers in which the executive branch depends on and is accountable to the legislative one; this proves that the parliamentary system is thus superior to presidential systems in terms of democracy.
Bradley, A. W., & Pinelli, C. (2012). Parliamentarism. In M. Rosenfeld & A. Sajó (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of comparative constitutional law (pp. 650-670). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Dawood, Y. (2014). Democratic dysfunction and constitutional design. Boston University Law Review, 94(913), 913-937.
Faraji, M. H. (2015). A survey on principles and concepts of parliamentary systems. Journal of Social Issues & Humanities, 3(8), 269-273.
Fix‐Fierro, H., & Salazar‐Ugarte, P. (2013). Presidentialism. In M. Rosenfeld & A. Sajó (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of comparative constitutional law (pp. 628-649). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
O’Neil, P. H. (2015). Essentials of comparative politics (5th ed.). New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
Verney, D. V. (2013). The analysis of political systems (Vol. 3). New York, NY: Routledge.
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