PARLIAMENTARY AND PRESIDENTIAL
SYSTEMS OF GOVERNMENT
What is meant by a democratic state, in the first place? The citizens govern the nation; protect their welfare and national interests in a democracy. It requires every individual to form an inclusive form of government for all. Political freedom is the main essence of democracy, including constitutionalism and the idea of liberalism. Before discussing the differences between the two systems of government, it seems pertinent to elucidate them in detail.
A. The Presidential System of Government
The presidential system, also known as the Congressional system, defines a system of governance in which the chief executive of the state is the President who is directly elected by the people. He is independent of the legislature. However, the presidential system has separation of powers. While the legislature makes the laws, the President enforces them and it is the courts that are responsible for exercising judicial oversight.
Historically, the presidential system of government can be dated back to medieval France, England and Scotland, where the Crown was the supreme power and no states had the authority over the monarchs. The governance system of the United States is influenced by the aforementioned countries. The presidents or monarchs were elected by the people through direct elections as manifested by the United States even today. The removal of the president from his office is impossible, except through impeachment. For example, in the United States, the president is elected for a term of four years for a maximum of two terms. To run state affairs, the president has a small body of people collectively called the cabinet which is truly based on the choice of the President and can be changed or overturned by him. There is a clear separation of powers in a presidential system. The president has the veto power over the acts of the legislature.
The direct election of the president by the people makes it more legitimate than an indirect one. The concept of separation of powers, like in the United States, makes it easier to have a system of checks and balances on the three arms of the state. The decision-making is easier and quicker; the government is more stable as the term of the president is not subjected to the number game, unlike the parliamentary system. Once in power, the president is the supreme authority and everyone has to respect his/her decisions.
The president, being the sole authority, makes the presidential system autocratic. The independence of legislature and executive may give birth to internal rifts, and even conflicts. The freedom to choose his cabinet accorded to the president may lead to nepotism. The government of the president is less accountable and in a time of crisis, the blame game becomes high between the legislature and the executive. In the United States, the president may be from a party that is in minority in one or both houses of the Congress; the only way the president can get his/her policy agenda made into law is by cooperating and compromising with Congress and vice versa.
The Parliamentary System
The parliamentary form of democracy, also known as the Cabinet or Responsible form of government, is a type of government in which the citizens elect their representatives in national legislature, i.e. parliament. The parliament is responsible for making laws and policies to run the state. The parliamentary system is answerable to the public. In this system, the government is usually formed by a political party that wins the highest number of seats in the assembly in a national election. The leader of the house is the Prime Minister, who is the head of the government and performs the executive functions in cooperation with his cabinet selected by him from amongst the members of the two houses of the parliament. The prime minister can be dismissed through a vote of no-confidence by the members of the Parliament – National Assembly in case of Pakistan.
In the parliamentary system, the head of the government (Prime Minister) and the head of the state (President) are different. The President enjoys only ceremonial powers. However, the Prime Minister has real power. The parliamentary system can be either bicameral (with two houses of parliament) or unicameral (single house). The lines between the legislature and the executive are blurred. The system is full of majority party rule. The Council of Ministers is very important in policymaking. However, the opposition parties try to challenge the policies of the ruling party.
In a parliamentary form of government, there is better coordination between the executive and the legislature. The executive is a part of the legislature that lowers the chances of conflict within the Parliament. The government of the Prime Minister is relatively flexible and the premier can be replaced, if needed, any time. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the parliamentary majority elects the Prime Minister, who then remains the executive as long as his party maintains majority in of the House of Commons. The parliamentary system is diverse in ethnicity and it is not autocratic in nature because the executive is responsible to the legislature, and it is possible to vote out the Prime Minister through a no-confidence move. Hence, the power is not in one hand. Moreover, the parliamentary system is incomplete without accountability.
In a parliamentary form of government, the policies are directed by parties and hence the individuals’ perspectives are overlooked. The cabinet may lack experts because it mostly comprises the members of the majority party, and not the experts. The term-based government hinders the long-term developmental programs and policies. The parliamentary system is unstable. Moreover, the greed for power makes the authorities less concerned for the common people. The rule of bureaucracy exists in the parliamentary system of government. In some parliamentary republics, the head of the government is the head of the state, but is elected by and is accountable to the parliament such as South Africa, Botswana and Suriname.
The system of governance varies depending on whether it is a parliamentary system or the presidential system. Many countries have evolved from one system to another. There are some instances whereby countries form a mixture of both systems, giving rise to a set of multiple differences involving the separation of powers, accountability, executives, etc. Every country is different in its structure, policing, population, culture and ethics. It is important to choose the best system for the country by identifying the indigenous needs. However, the world has seen many trends and transitions between the two systems. What is best and what is worst can’t be judged or said explicitly, however, certain pieces of evidence from the world’s systems will prove to be the best guide.
Which system is best for Pakistan?
In general, most developed states in the world have a presidential form of government; for instance, the United States, China, France and Russia. On the other hand, the parliamentary system is very common among Third-World countries. Different political scientists have different preferences between the two systems. However, the following arguments will show that the world superpowers follow the presidential systems and it can be considered their magic ingredient in the recipe for the progress they have made.
India is regarded as one of the best parliamentary systems in the world. One important characteristic of a good system of government is how well it is protected from being corrupted or captured by popular leaders. In India, for instance, from the very beginning, the political leaders have failed to retain the balance. Jawaharlal Nehru did respect the institutions but he operated them according to his will. Similarly, Indira Gandhi almost ended democracy by making the institutions subservient to her. However, the world’s longest-running democracy in the world has been the United States. The US constitutional continuity is exceptional.
In the past seventy years, India has had 27 governments, Italy a whopping 65, Japan 35, Israel 41 and, the US 17. India has been a victim of political party bosses. On the flip side, the gridlock in the US has never been successful in keeping the presidents from making their decisions, like Obama’s healthcare and Trump’s tax plan. In the US, the powers are divided, and every side has freedom of say. This is a true democracy at work. The federal structure in the US leads to real self-governance.
Some countries in the world have experienced variations between both systems of governance. Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and South Korea are prime examples.
In Turkey, following two weeks of intense debates in 2017, the Turkish Parliament adopted a controversial 18-article constitutional amendment package which aimed at the transformation of the country from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Turkey’s first directly-elected president in 2014. Afterward, a failed coup in 2015 and the support of political parties made the idea stronger. The new change brought many administrative fruits for Turkey. It got rid of direct military interference – the military establishment had forced four elected governments out of power since 1960. For the first time in the history of Turkey, the military became accountable to the civilian State Supervisory Council. The President got more powers being the head of the state as well as the head of the government. The country started to unveil new eras of progress. The economic and geostrategic situations of Turkey have also improved since then. In a similar fashion, the judiciary has been made effective manifold. The Council of Judges and Prosecutors has been restructured. Thus, the presidential system has proved very fruitful for Turkey from a general perspective.
China, which has been following the presidential system since 1949, is another pertinent example in this regard. If the overall stability of the political systems around the world is analyzed, it can be seen that the per-capita income of China over the last twenty years has grown from $959 to $10,216.
That of the United States has grown from $49,887 to $65,298 in the years 2011 to 2019. It also follows the presidential system.
On the contrary, Pakistan, being a parliamentary system, has seen a decline in the per capita income of 13.33% in the past year only. India, on the other hand, has shown haphazard trends on the GDP index in the past thirty years. A study was conducted by the American Journal of Applied Sciences, which concluded that China, the United States, and Malaysia have higher political stability while the parliamentary states like India, Pakistan, Philippines, and Bangladesh have least political stability.
Among the Central Asian States (CARs), the only parliamentary state, i.e. Kyrgyzstan, has recently decided to transition to the presidential system. On 05 May 2021, Kyrgyztan’s President Sadyr Japarov signed a decree, paving the way for the country to transition from the parliamentary to the presidential system. The decision has been made because of the failure of democratic stability in the country under a weaker parliamentary system. Some analysts claim that a strong president is best for such a young democracy and can bring stability and bring the country at par with the countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China, Iran, and Russia that have conventional strong, authoritarian and strict presidential systems.
Why presidential system is better?
The parliamentary-presidential debate is a never-ending topic among political scientists. Some argue in the favour of the parliamentary form of government while some argue against it. There are, nonetheless, a few good reasons why presidential system is better for the economy, growth, development and well-being of states.
First, greater separation of powers, combined with responsible decisions, which underlie the presidential systems, allow for flexible and more stable participation in decision-making. This has significantly positive impacts.
Furthermore, the presidential system has a very objective and unbiased standing across consecutive governments. In contrast, the party-based transitions between leaders in the parliamentary system regimes, such as in Pakistan, are usually stark and volatile due to the negation of individuality.
It is very important to remember that the mutual checks and balances among the domains of presidential systems are just what is needed for both democratic and economic stability. Moreover, the parliamentary regimes can be very unstable and may fall at any time. They are notorious for their instability around the globe.
To cap it all, the presidential form of democracy, without a doubt, gives much better protection from dictators than the parliamentary system. The presidential system holds firmly the ruling individual and protects the country from a cavalier, myopic person. The accountability is the key factor in this regard. The prevention from the military intervention and dictatorship is the real fruit for a state after all.
Based on the arguments above as well as the trends of the world, the presidential system can be a more suitable one especially in the context of Pakistan, in order to bring stability, seriousness and effectiveness in the governance. Some societies are heterogeneous; while some are homogenous. The people are from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. But a diverse society is not necessarily a divided society. The early one understands this fact, the better it would be.
The author is a psychologist, freelancer and analytical writer. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org