A presidential system, or a congressional system, is a system of government of a republic where the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative.
The defining characteristic of a presidential government is how the executive is elected, but nearly all presidential systems share the following features.
- the president is both head of state and head of government.
- the president has a fixed term of office. Although the president can be impeached for misconduct, there is no vote of confidence by which the president can be removed for incompetence or unpopularity.
- the executive branch is unipersonal. Cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the president and can be removed at any time.
The term presidential system is often used in contrast to cabinet government, which is usually a feature of parliamentarism. There also exist a kind of intermediate, the semi-presidential system.
Countries with congressional and presidential systems include the United States, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, South Korea, and most countries in South America. The widespread use of presidentialism in the Americas has caused political scientists to dub the Americas as "the continent of presidentialism."
Types of presidents
Many countries with a president as head of state do not operate under what is described as a presidential system. Many parliamentary nations, Germany and Italy, for instance, have an office of president, but these presidents are merely heads of state, like constitutional monarchs, and not heads of government. In a fledged presidential system, a president would be chosen by the people and be the center 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. Most parliamentary governments have a symbolic head of state in the form of a "president" or monarch. That person is responsible for the formalities of state functions as the figurehead while the constitutional prerogatives as head of government are generally exercised by the Prime Minister. Such figurehead presidents tend to be elected in a much less direct manner than active, presidential system presidents, for example by a vote of the legislature. A few nations, such as Ireland, do have a popularly elected ceremonial president.
There are also a few countries - the Czech Republic and South Africa being examples - which have powerful presidents who are elected by the legislature. These presidents are chosen in the same way as a prime minister, yet are both heads of state and heads of government, and cannot be deposed early as easily as a prime minister. Thus, these nations do not easily fit into either presidential or parliamentary category. Incidentally, the method of legislative vote for president was a plank in Madison's Virginia Plan and was seriously considered by the Framers of the American Constitution.
Some political scientists consider the conflation of head of state and head of government duties to be a problem of presidentialism because criticism of the president cum head of state is criticism of the state itself.
Presidents in presidential systems are always active participants in the political process, though the extent of their relative power may be influenced by the political makeup of the legislature and whether their supporters or opponents have the dominant position therein. In some presidential systems such as South Korea or the Republic of China (on Taiwan), there is an office of the prime minister or premier, but unlike in semi-presidential or parliamentary systems, the premier is responsible to the president rather than to the legislature.
Perceived advantages of presidential systems
Supporters generally claim four basic advantages for presidential systems:
- Direct mandate — in a presidential system, the president is generally elected directly by the people. To some, this makes the president's power more legitimate than that of a leader appointed indirectly.
- Separation of powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Supporters of the system claim that this arrangement allows each structure to supervise the other, preventing abuses.
- Speed and decisiveness — some argue that a president with strong powers can usually enact changes quickly, and that this is a good thing. Others argue that the separation of powers slows the system down, and that this is a good thing.
- Stability — a president, by virtue of a fixed term, may provide more stability than a prime minister who can be dismissed at any time.
A prime minister is usually chosen by a few individuals of the legislature, while a president is usually chosen by the people. According to supporters of the presidential system, a popularly elected leadership is inherently more democratic than a leadership chosen by a legislative body, even if the legislative body was itself elected.
It is also claimed that the direct mandate of a president makes them more accountable. The reasoning behind this argument is that a prime minister is "shielded" from public opinion by the apparatus of state, being several steps removed. 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. To vote down the cabinet's legislation is to bring down a government and have new elections, a step few backbenchers are willing to take. 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)
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 scrutinise 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. 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, 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.)
Not all people agree that separation of powers is an advantage — see the equivalent section under the Perceived disadvantages of presidential systems heading.
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, even when checks on their power are in existence — checks and balances did not interfere significantly with the legislative programs of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, or Lyndon Johnson.
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 of 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 votes of no confidence tend to be rare in some parliamentary systems, they are common in a few others. Italy, Israel and the French Fourth Republic all have or had problems with governmental stability. When parliamentary systems have multiple parties and governments depend on coalitions, as they do with nations that vote by proportional representation, extremist parties can theoretically use the threat of leaving the coalition to blackmail the centrist parties who are leading.
Many people consider presidential systems to be superior in surviving 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, Sri Lanka did likewise during its civil war, and Israel experimented with a directly elected prime minister in the 1990's. In at least the first two cases, the results are widely considered to have been positive. In the latter case, however, the system was met with disapproval, and the previous arrangement was restored.
Perceived disadvantages of presidential systems
Critics generally claim three basic disadvantages for presidential systems:
- Tendency towards authoritarianism — some political scientists say that the presidentialism is not constitutionally stable. According to some political scientists, such as Fred Riggs, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in every country it has been attempted, except the United States.
- Separation of powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Critics argue that this creates undesirable gridlock, and that it reduces accountability by allowing the president and the legislature to shift blame to each other.
- Impediments to leadership change — it is claimed that the difficulty in removing an unsuitable president from office before his or her term has expired represents a significant problem.
Tendency Towards Authoritarianism
Winning the presidency is a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize -- unlike a prime minister, who may have to form a coalition, a president's party can rule without any allies for four to six years, a worrisome situation for many interest groups. 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 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 go further, and argue that presidential systems have difficulty sustaining democratic practices, noting that presidentialism has slipped into authoritarianism in many of the countries in which it has been implemented. Seymour Martin Lipset and others are careful to point out that this has taken place in political cultures unconducive to democracy, and that militaries have tended to play a prominent role in most of these countries. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the presidential system may have played a role in some situations.
In a presidential system, the legislature and the president have equally valid mandates from the public. There is often no way to reconcile conflict between the branches of government. When president and legislature are at loggerheads and government is not working effectively, there is a powerful incentive to employ extra-constitutional maneuvres to break the deadlock.
Ecuador is presented as a case study of democratic failures over the past quarter-century. Presidents have ignored the legislature or bypassed it altogether. One president even had the National Assembly teargassed, while another was kidnapped by paratroopers until he agreed to certain congressional demands. In 1984, President Febres Cordero tried to physically bar new Congressionally-appointed supreme court appointees from taking their seats. "From 1979 through 1988, Ecuador staggered through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations that created a near permanent crisis atmosphere in the polity." Colombia has similarly exhibited the problems said to be inherent in presidentialism in the last twenty years. Presidents have also gone around Congress to legislate and simply to govern. In Brazil, presidents have accomplished their objectives by creating executive agencies over which Congress had no say (Checks and Balances, pp 34-35).
Separation of powers
Presidential systems are said by critics not to offer voters the kind of accountability seen in parliamentary systems. It is easy for either the president or Congress to escape blame by blaming 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." (Checks and Balances, 10).
In Congressional Government, Woodrow Wilson asked,
- . . . how is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping? . . . Power and strict accountability for its use are the essential constituents of good government. . . . It is, therefore, manifestly a radical defect in our federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility as it does. The main purpose of the Convention of 1787 seems to have been to accomplish this grievous mistake. The `literary theory' of checks and balances is simply a consistent account of what our constititution makers tried to do; and those checks and balances have proved mischievous just to the extent which they have succeeded in establishing themselves . . . [the Framers] would be the first to admit that the only fruit of dividing power had been to make it irresponsible.(Congressional Government, 186-7)
Consider the example of the increase in the federal debt that occurred during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Arguably, the deficits were the product of a bargain between President Reagan and Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill: O'Neill agreed not to oppose Reagan's tax cuts if Reagan would sign the Democrats' budget. Each side could claim to be displeased with the debt, plausibly blame the other side for the deficit, and still tout their own 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 till the moment comes for a new election." (Balfour, intro to the English Constitution). Consider John Tyler, who only became president because William Henry Harrison had died after thirty days. Tyler refused to sign Whig legislation, was loathed by his nominal party, but remained firmly in control of the executive branch. Since there is no legal way to remove an unpopular president, many presidential countries have experienced military coups to remove a leader who is said to have lost his mandate, as in Salvador Allende. Presumably, in a parliamentary system, the unpopular leader could have been removed by a vote of no confidence, a device which is a "pressure release valve" for political tension.
In The English Constitution, 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 . . . (The English Constitution, the Cabinet.)
Years later, Bagehot's observation came to life during World War II, when Neville Chamberlain was replaced with Winston Churchill.
Finally, many have criticized presidential systems for their alleged slowness in responding to their citizens' needs. Often, the checks and balances make action extremely 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." (ibid.)
Differences from a cabinet system
A number of key theoretical differences exist between a presidential and a cabinet system:
- In a presidential system, the central principle is that the legislative and executive branches of government should be 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 legislation. By contrast, in parliamentarism, 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", a "diet", 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 legislature can typically be dissolved at any stage during its term of office 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 weighed majority to override the veto. However, it is extremely rare for the president to have the power to directly propose laws, or cast a vote on legislation. The legislature and the president are thus expected to serve as a 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.
In reality, 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 scrutinise 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. 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 its ability to control the government.
In the late nineteenth century, it was speculated that the United States Speaker of the House of Representatives would evolve into a quasi-prime minister, with the US system evolving into a form of parliamentarianism. However this did not happen. More recently, it has been suggested that the office of White House Chief of Staff, the President's chief aide, has become a de facto United States prime minister of sorts, with his dominance or weakness in the US governmental system depending on whether there is a "hands off" or "hands on" president. (Ronald Reagan was the former, Bill Clinton the latter). Reagan's Chiefs of Staff in many ways ran the day to day affairs of government, with the President standing back from intervention.
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.
Bagehot, Walter, The English Constitution. (multiple printings)
Lijphart, Arend, Ed, Parliamentary Versus Presidential Government (Oxford Readings in Politics and Government), Oxford University Press, 1992.
Parliamentary Versus Presidential Government contains a number of articles which are directly quoted in this wikipedia article.
- Leave the Constitution Alone, Arthur M. Schlesinger.
- The Centrality of Political Culture, Seymour Martin Lipset.
- Presidentialism: A Problematic Regime Type, Fred W. Riggs.
Linz, Juan, and Arturo Valenzuela, The Failure of Presidential Democracy: The Case of Latin America Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Manuel, Paul Christopher and Anne Marie Cammisa,Checks & Balances: How a Parliamentary System Could Change American Politics, Westview Press, 1998.
(The above book is intended for students who are just beginning to learn about comparative government).
Wilson, Woodrow, Congressional Government. (multiple printings)
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12