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Joseph de Sousa Somerville College
What are the distinctive features of parliamentary and presidential systems of government?
"As more of the world's nations turn to democracy, interest in alternative constitutional forms and arrangements has extended well beyond academic circles" (Linz, quoted in Lijphart, 1992, p.118) with the debate assuming practical importance with the construction of new states, and intensified by the tragic individual and economic costs of government failure. One only needs to consider the examples of Sierra Leone and Somalia, both of which have suffered stalled development and consequent deprivation due to the lack of a functioning state. The question regarding the features characteristic of parliamentary and presidential systems of government asks for not only a recognition of individual features, such as the direct election of the head of government in a presidency in comparison to the selection of a prime minister by intra-party election, inter-party bargaining or presidential appointment, but appraisal of their relative merits and failings in order to determine whether either system of government, by which we mean the manner in which the state is organized in order to assert its will over the population, attains a greater degree of success in the form of stability or legitimacy. Presidentalism, while virtuous on the basis that the chief executve is directly elected by the population and, given the correct voting system, according to the majoritarian principle, is characterised by irresolvable executive-legislature deadlock, damaging temporal rigidity and divisive "winner-takes-all" government with the consequences these major issues entail. By contrast, parliamentary systems of government, while by no means identical or infallible, offer "the flexible and adaptable institutional context for the establishment and consolidation of democracy" (Linz, quoted in Lijphart, 1992, p.126). It is important to note that there are not merely two discrete forms of government, purely presidential and purely parliamentary. As Elgie discusses, this notion is too simplistic and instead a pluralistic approach should be taken, with systems of government determined by the power of different political actors (Elgie, 1997). However, there are several key differences which one must acknowledge before serious discussion of the benefits or failings of a primarily presidential, primarily parliamentary or semi-presidential system can take place. Firstly, given we have defined a system of government as the form in which the state is organised to exercise power over the population, it is necessary to observe that in parliamentary governments, the head of the government is dependent upon the confidence of the legislature, while in presidential forms, the head of the government is elected for a fixed term and cannot be forced to resign by the legislature, bar exceptional circumstances such as impeachment. Second, presidential systems feature monocratic, non-collegial executives in contrast to the collective executives of parliamentary forms, in which a prime minister can vary in power between pre-eminence and equality with other ministers but the cabinet as a whole remains accountable to the legislature. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Westminster system, whereby the Cabinet is collectively responsible to Parliament with individual ministers additionally responsible for their department. Finally, the means of election should be considered. Presidents are popularly elected, usually directly, while prime ministers are selected by a variety of methods, as noted above (Lijphart, 1992, p.2). These key differences serve to distinguish between the definitions of presidential and parliamentary forms of government and as such provide a framework in which to analyse and evaluate the consequential benefits and failings of each.
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