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A presidential system is a system of government where an executive branch is led by a president who serves as both head of state and head of government. In such a system, this branch exists separately from the legislature, to which it is not responsible and which it cannot, in normal circumstances, dismiss.
The title president has been carried over from a time when such person actually presided over (sat in front of) the government body, as with the US President of the Continental Congress, before the executive function was split into a separate branch of government. After this split, the President was no longer needed to sit in front of the legislative body, although the executive title remained in legacy.
Although not exclusive to republics, and applied in the case of semi-constitutional monarchies where a monarch exercises power (both as head of state and chief of the executive branch of government) alongside a legislature, the term is often associated with republican systems in the Americas. Presidential systems are numerous and diverse, but the following are generally true of most such governments:
Countries that feature a presidential system of government are not the exclusive users of the title of President or the republican form of government. For example, a dictator, who may or may not have been popularly or legitimately elected may be and often is called a president. Likewise, many parliamentary democracies are republics and have presidents, but this position is largely ceremonial; notable examples include Germany, India, Ireland, Israel and Portugal (see Parliamentary republic).
Some national presidents are "figurehead" heads of state, like constitutional monarchs, and not active executive heads of government (although some figurehead presidents and constitutional monarchs maintain reserve powers). 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. Many parliamentary governments have a symbolic head of state in the form of a president or monarch (Again, in some cases these symbolic heads of state maintain active reserve powers). That person is responsible for the formalities of state functions, or in cases where the head of state has reserve powers, the "hands off" ensuing of a functional parliament, while the constitutional prerogatives of 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 Slovakia, Ireland and Portugal, do have a popularly elected ceremonial 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, and Nauru.
Presidents in a presidential system 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 Weimar Germany and South Korea, there is an office of prime minister or premier but, unlike in semi-presidential or parliamentary systems, the premier is responsible to the president rather than to 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. 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.
Supporters generally claim four basic advantages for presidential systems:
In most presidential systems, the president is elected by popular vote, although some such as the United States use 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. Since prime ministers are not elected directly, it could be argued their mandate to lead is not a personal mandate and therefore less legitimate.
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 regarded to be 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.
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 to be a vote of no confidence. 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.
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:
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 to be 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 to be a welcome "check" on the powers of the executive, contrasting parliamentary systems, which often allow the prime minister to call elections whenever he sees fit, or orchestrate his own vote of no confidence to trigger an election when he 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 he cannot alter to suit his 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 they) 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 of.
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Critics generally claim three basic disadvantages for presidential systems:
Winning the presidency is a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize. A prime minister who does not enjoy a majority in the legislature will have to either form a coalition or, if he is able to lead a minority government, govern in a manner acceptable to at least some of the opposition parties. Even if the prime minister leads a majority government, he 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, once elected a president can not only marginalize the influence of other parties, but can 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 allies for the duration of one or possibly multiple terms, 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[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[who?] political scientists say that presidentialism is not constitutionally stable. Some political scientists[who?] 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. According to political scientist Fred Riggs, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in nearly every country it has been attempted. 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. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the presidential system may have played a role in some situations. 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 equally valid mandates from the public. There is often no way to reconcile conflict between the branches of government. When president and legislature are in disagreement and government is not working effectively, there is a powerful incentive to employ extra-constitutional maneuvres to break the deadlock.
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 was kidnapped by paratroopers until he agreed to certain congressional demands. 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 tends to undermine civic participation.
Some political scientists speak of the "failure of presidentialism" because the separation of powers of a presidential system frequently creates undesirable and long-term political gridlock and political instability whenever the president and the legislative majority are from different parties. This is common because the electorate usually expects more rapid results from new policies than are possible and often prefers candidates from 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.
In addition, 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 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".
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 constitution 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.
Consider the example of 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 not to oppose tax cuts favored by Reagan, and in exchange Reagan agreed to sign budgets that failed to adequately restrain spending. In such a scenario, each side can claim to be displeased with the debt, plausibly blame the other side for the deficit, and still tout its own success.
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." (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 most presidential systems provide no legal means to remove a president simply for being unpopular, many presidential countries have experienced military coups to remove a leader who is said to have lost his mandate.
In parliamentary systems, unpopular leaders can be quickly removed by a vote of no confidence, a procedure which is reckoned to be 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, nonetheless he is often in a far less secure position than a president. Removing a president through impeachment is a procedure mandated by most constitutions, but impeachment proceedings usually cannot be initiated except in cases where the president has violated the constitution and/or broken the law. Impeachment is usually made into a very difficult process, by comparison the process of removing a party leader is governed by the (often much less formal) rules of the party in question. Nearly all parties (including governing parties) have a relatively simple and straightforward process for removing their leaders. If a premier sustains a serious enough blow to his/her popularity and refuses to resign on his/her own prior to the next election, then members of his/her party face the prospect of losing their seats. So other prominent party members have a very strong incentive to initiate a leadership challenge in hopes of mitigating damage to the party. More often than not, a premier facing a serious challenge will resolve to save face by resigning before he/she is formally removed—Margaret Thatcher's relinquishing of her premiership being a prominent, recent example.
In The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot criticized presidentialism because it does not allow a transfer in power in the event of an emergency.
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 as opposed to a weakness in times of crisis. In such times, a prime minister might hesitate due to the need to maintain the support of parliament, whereas a president can act without fear of being removed from office by those who might disapprove of his actions. Unlike what would be possible in a presidnetial system, a perceived crisis in the parliamentary system might provide disgruntled backbenchers or leadership rivals an opportunity to launch a vexatious challenge for a prime minister's leadership. In such a circumstance, there is no guarantee that the sudden accession of an unproven prime minister during such a crisis will be a change for the better - the ouster of Thatcher is cited as one such example by those who argue her successor John Major proved less able to defend British interests in the ensuing Gulf War than Thatcher would have.
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.)
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 legislature and/or executive that holds a contrary view point, especially when there are frequent, scheduled elections.
British-Irish philosopher and MP Edmund Burke stated that officials should be elected based on "his [or her] unbiased opinion, his [or her] mature judgment, [and] his [or her] 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 to be 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.
A number of key theoretical differences exist between a presidential and a cabinet system:
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.
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