Friday, July 1, 2011

Presidential and parliamentary governments

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A nation’s type of government refers to how that state’s executive, legislative, and judicial organs are organized. All nations need some sort of government to avoid anarchy. Democratic governments are those that permit the nation’s citizens to manage their government either directly or through elected representatives. This is opposed to authoritarian governments that limit or prohibit the direct participation of its citizens. Two of the most popular types of democratic governments are the presidential and parliamentary systems.

The office of President characterizes the presidential system. The President is both the chief executive and the head of state. The President is unique in that he or she is elected independently of the legislature. The powers invested in the President are usually balanced against those vested in the legislature. In the American presidential system, the legislature must debate and pass various bills. The President has the power to veto the bill, preventing its adoption. However, the legislature may override the President’s veto if they can muster enough votes. The American President’s broadest powers rest in foreign affairs. The President has the right to deploy the military in most situations, but does not have the right to officially declare war. More recently the American President requested the right to approve treaties without the consent of the legislature. The American Congress denied this bill and was able to override the President’s veto.

In parliamentary governments the head of state and the chief executive are two separate offices. Many times the head of state functions in a primarily ceremonial role, while the chief executive is the head of the nation’s legislature.

The most striking difference between presidential and parliamentary systems is in the election of the chief executive. In parliament systems, the chief executive is not chosen by the people but by the legislature. Typically the majority party in the parliament chooses the chief executive, known as the Prime Minister. However, in some parliaments there are so many parties represented that none hold a majority. Parliament members must decide among themselves whom to elect as Prime Minister.

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The fusion of the legislative and executive branches in the parliamentary system tends to lead to more discipline among political party members. Party members in parliaments almost always vote strictly along party lines. Presidential systems, on the contrary, are less disciplined and legislators are free to vote their conscious with fewer repercussions from their party.

Debate styles also differ between the two systems. Presidential system legislators make use of a filibuster, or the right to prolong speeches to delay legislative action. Parliamentary systems will call for cloture or an end to debate so voting can begin.

An advantage in a presidential government would be that a directly elected president is identifiable and accountable to voters to a high degree. The office of the president can be held directly accountable for decisions taken because, in contrast to parliamentary systems, the chief executive is directly chosen by popular vote. It is thus easier for the electorate to reward or retrospectively punish a president by voting him or her out of office than is the case with parliamentary systems.

Another advantage is that a president can act as a unifying national figure, standing above the fray of sectarian disputes. A president enjoying broad public support can represent the nation to itself, becoming a symbol of moderation of the middle ground between rival political groupings. To play this role, however, it is essential that the rules used to elect the president are tailored so as to achieve this type of broad support, rather than enabling one ethnic or regional group to dominate.

A presidential government gives the nation a higher degree of choice. The fact that presidential systems typically give voters a dual choice - one vote for the president and one vote for the legislature - means that voters are usually presented with a considerably higher degree of choice under presidential systems.

A presidential government gives stability of the office and continuity in terms of public policy. Unlike parliamentary governments, which can shift and change completely without recourse to the electorate, the president and his or her administration normally remains relatively constant.

A parliamentary government has the ability to facilitate the inclusion of all groups within the legislature and the executive. Because cabinets in parliamentary systems are usually drawn from members of the elected legislature, parliamentary government enables the inclusion of all political elements represented in the legislature, including minorities, in the executive. Cabinets comprising a coalition of several different parties are a typical feature of many well established parliamentary democracies. This means that participation in government is not the preserve of one group alone, but can be shared amongst many, or all, significant groups.

A parliamentary government has the flexibility and the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Because parliamentary coalitions can be made and unmade to suit changing circumstances, and because governments in many parliamentary systems can change on the floor of the legislature without recourse to a general election, advocates of parliamentarism point to its flexibility and capacity to adapt to changing circumstances as a strong benefit.

Checks and balances. By making the executive dependent, at least in theory, upon the confidence of the legislature, parliamentary systems are said to foster greater accountability on the part of the government of the day towards the peoples representatives. Proponents argue that this means that there is not only greater public control over the policy-making process, but also greater transparency in the way decisions are made. However, such arguments often fail to take account of the degree of party discipline in many parliaments, where the legislature acts more as a rubber stamp than a check upon the power of the executive.

Relative stability and continuity of new democracies that have adopted parliamentary systems. Of the many states that became independent in the three decades following the end of World War Two, all the countries which could claim to have maintained a continuously democratic record to the late 180s were parliamentary systems. The statistics are illuminating of the new democracies that gained their independence between 145 and 17, all of the 15 countries which remained democratic throughout the 180s were parliamentary rather than presidential systems, including some of the developing worlds most successful democracies like India, Botswana, Trinidad and Tobago and Papua New Guinea. Conversely, all the new presidential democracies from this period suffered some form of democratic breakdown. Overall, parliamentary systems have a rate of survival over three times that of presidential systems.

Presidency captured by one political or ethnic group. The major disadvantage of presidentialism for divided societies is the propensity of the office to be captured by one political or ethnic group. This can create particular difficulties for multi-ethnic societies.

There are no real checks on the executive in a presidential government. This becomes even truer when there is a direct concordance between the presidents party and the majority party in parliament. In this case, the parliament has almost no real checks on the executive and can become more of a glorified debating chamber than a legitimate house of review. This problem can be exacerbated by the fact that a president, unlike a parliamentary prime minister, can become virtually inviolable during his or her term of office, with no mechanism for dismissing unpopular incumbents.

A presidential government is empirically associated with democratic failure. In marked contrast to the relative success of parliamentary democracies established between 145 and 17, none of the presidential established during this period were continuously democratic. Presidential democracies were also twice as likely as pure parliamentary democracies to experience a military coup in the period 17-18, five parliamentary democracies experienced a military coup compared to 10 presidencies. At the time of writing, there are only four presidential democracies that have enjoyed 0 years of continuous democracy the United States, Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela. The shining example of the US apart, this is not an encouraging record of democratic stability.

A parliamentary government has the tendency towards ponderous or immobile decision-making. The inclusiveness that typifies grand coalitions can easily turn into executive deadlocks caused by the inability of the various parties to agree on a coherent position on issues of disagreement.

A parliamentary government lack accountability and discipline. Critics also argue that parliamentary systems are inherently less accountable than presidential ones, as responsibility for decisions is taken by the collective cabinet rather than a single figure. This is especially problematic when diverse coalitions form the executive, as it becomes increasingly difficult for electors to establish who is responsible for a particular decision and make a retrospective judgment as to the performance of the government.

A parliamentary government has the propensity towards weak or fragmented government. Some parliamentary systems are typified by shifting coalitions of different forces, rather than by disciplined parties. Under such circumstances, governments are often weak and unstable, leading to a lack of continuity and direction in public policy.

Survival of new parliamentary democracies may be attributable to other factors. Finally, the successful record of survival of parliamentary democracies cited above is mitigated by the fact that almost all the successful cases are former British colonies, with the majority being small island nations in the Caribbean and the South Pacific - a concentration which suggests that other factors apart from parliamentarism may be responsible for their democratic success.

An alternative critique of parliamentarism sees it as being as or more conducive to unadulterated majority-rule than even the purest forms of presidentialism. In reality, many parliamentary governments, particularly in new democracies, are not comprised of inclusive multi-party coalitions but rather by disciplined single parties. In divided societies, such parties can represent predominantly or exclusively one ethnic group. When placed in a parliamentary system, a 51 per cent majority of the seats in such cases can result in 100 per cent of the political power, as there are few or no ameliorating devices to restrain the power of the executive, hence the term elective dictatorship associated with some cases of single-party parliamentary rule. Moreover, and in direct contrast to the separation of powers that occurs under presidentialism, many parliaments in practice provide a very weak legislative check on governments because of the degree of party discipline - which means that a slim parliamentary majority can win every vote on every issue in the parliament. In such cases, parliamentary government can lead to almost complete winner-take-all results.

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