There are two main types of political systems in the world. These include presidential and parliamentary systems of government. In the understanding that no political system can be perfect, both of these political systems have their own benefits and disadvantages and, in some instances, share some commonalities. Whereas that remains the truth behind these two political systems, history has shown that they have the capacity to show relative political stability in most countries. It must, however, be pointed out some countries have failed in the application of both forms of political systems, and as such, it can be stated that no political system is perfect. This analytical essay presents a comparison and contrast of the presidential and parliamentary systems of government in terms of their key characteristics as well as their strengths and weaknesses. In addition to the above, differences and commonalities between the two political systems will be highlighted and a conclusion drawn on the basis of the discussions. This will involve a justification from the discussions of this essay.
Comparative Analysis of the two Political Systems
The major differences between the presidential and parliamentary political systems lie primarily in the division of power. According to Dana (248), “Parliamentary political system has been defined as having the parliament as the only democratically legitimate institution, whereby the government’s authority is completely dependent upon parliamentary confidence.” In fact, it has been pointed out that a number of theoretical differences exist between these two types of political systems.
In addition to the above, “in a presidential system, the central principle is that the legislative and executive branches of government should be separate” ( Ström, Müller, and Torbjörn, 98). This means that the election of the president is done by the electorate or Electoral College. The president is elected to office for a fixed term and can only be removed from the office under very serious abuse of office through dismissal or impeachment. Furthermore, the presidential system is characterized by the powers vested on the president in power to choose cabinet members without seeking the approval of a legislative majority.
The presidential system is characterized by the office of the president, who is the Chief Executive and the head of state. According to Ström, Müller, and Torbjörn (98), “the President is unique in that he or she is elected independently of the legislature and the powers invested in the President are usually balanced against those vested in the legislature.” An examination of the American political system that is an example of a presidential political system involves the legislature, which has the power to debate and pass bills. However, the president has the power to veto the bills and avoid their entrenchment into the constitution. This important role of the president is expounded by Sirota (11) in succinctly stating that “in a presidential system, the president usually has special privileges in the enactment of the legislation, namely the possession of a power of veto over the legislation of bills, in some cases subject to the power of the legislature by the weighed majority to override the veto.” In some nations, the legislature may override the powers of the president to veto a bill by mustering enough votes on the floor of the legislative house.
The president has powers within the political order of the presidential to deploy military personnel as situations may arise but has no powers to declare war on another nation. In his perspective, the president has to seek the approval of Congress to declare war. According to Sirota (10), “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.” However, in presidential government, the behavior of political actors differs in terms of executive and legislative.
On the other hand, the parliamentary system refers to a political system in which the cabinet is headed by the Prime Minister. This means that the head of state and the chief executive are two separate offices that are serving in different roles. According to Sirota (12), “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” (Sirota, 12). In fact, most European nations follow the parliamentary system. Britain is the most well-known parliamentary system that was once a pure monarchy characterized by the division of powers between the royal family as the head of state and the parliament as the Chief Executive.
The election of the Prime Minister is not chosen by the people but by the legislature, which has the power to control the excesses of the Prime Minister. The majority party in the parliament has the constitutional right to choose the Prime Minister, who is the Chief Executive. In instances where no political party has the acquired majority to choose the Prime Minister, this role is given to the parliament to decide on whom to elect as the Prime Minister.
By definition, “a parliament is the supreme legislative body of a major political unit that is a continuing institution comprising a series of individual gatherings” Siaroff (61). According to Siaroff (63), “the term parliament is also derived from the French adjective parle, which is to speak.” It is a common political system in many countries in the world, such as Canada and Australia. The cabinet is a composition of members of the legislature and is directly answerable to the parliament. As opposed to the presidential system, the parliament has the power to dismiss the cabinet and the Prime Minister through a parliamentary vote. Many parliamentary systems have a ceremonial or symbolic president whose roles are carried out by the Prime Minister.
Strengths of Presidential Political System
Whereas each and every political system has its weaknesses, the presidential political system has demonstrated a cocktail of strengths that have made it a preferred choice over other types of political systems. These include a direct mandate, separation of powers, speed and decisiveness, and stability. On direct mandate, the president is elected by the people through popular mandate and is answerable to the people. According to Kaminsky (253), “a popularly elected leadership is inherently more democratic than a leadership chosen by a legislative body, even if the legislative body was itself elected to rule.” On separation of power, the presidential system separates power between the presidency and the legislature, and the lines are clear-cut as entrenched in the constitutions. The speed and decisiveness by which decisions and policies can be made and effected are more important in emergency situations as opposed to a parliamentary system, where the parliament must debate on an issue before adoption. Last, the president who is elected for a fixed term may provide a more stable form of government than the Prime Minister, who can be easily dismissed by the parliament.
Weaknesses of Presidential Political System
Critics of the presidential political system argue there are weaknesses that undermine its effectiveness in ensuring stability for nations that have adopted it. These include the tendency to become authoritarian, the problem of separation of power, and impediments to leadership change. On the tendency towards authoritarian rule, political scientists point out that the constitutionality of the presidential political system is unstable. Most countries that have adopted this form of the political system have fallen into the trap of authoritarian rule, while others have totally failed to achieve their mandates. According to Kaminsky (247), “the office of the presidency in the United States as essentially undemocratic and presidential political system encourages the worship of the presidency by citizens which tends to undermine civic participation.”
In addition to the above, in the presidential political system, a winner takes everything and has the capacity to marginalize other parties or their influence. This gives the president a choice to rule without allies. According to Kaminsky (251),
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.
The second concern of the presidential political system is the separation of powers. The residential system falls short of offering the level of accountability that is entrenched in other forms of political systems. This has been the reason behind cases of abuse of office in many nations that have adopted this system. It is also easier for the president and Congress to escape from taking responsibility for their actions that may have been carried out in wrong judgments. This can then open a Pandora box for a blame game between the president and Congress over failed policies. Sirota (13) quotes Woodrow Wilson, in which the former president 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.
The confusion that the reign within the presidential system is, therefore, historical and separation of powers puts this political system out of order with its objectives. The problem of separation of powers became apparent in the presidency of Ronald Regan when the Federal debt of the United States increased to disproportionate levels. The conflict of powers between the president and the Speaker of the House of Representatives signed budgets that failed to restrain federal spending. Such are the seeds of blame games between the two sides that are likely to pile the blame on the other.
Last, the weakness in the presidential political system has been demonstrated in impediments to leadership change. This is because of the difficulty in removing the president from the office even if the president has proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be inefficient. His countrymen may have no choice but to endure poor leadership until the end of the term. The analysis of John Tyler’s debacle at the helm of presidential leadership following the death of William Henry Harrison is a pointer to this weakness. Tyler vehemently refused to sign the Whig legislation and, as such, remained in power even when the nation and Congress did not support his leadership. According to Siaroff (61), “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.” This fact is buttressed by Ilan (1) in stating that “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.”
Strengths of Parliamentary Political System
Just like the presidential system, the parliamentary system has strengths that have made it a preferred choice of political system over the other political systems. First, it provides a faster and easier way of passing legislation. According to Ström, Müller, and Torbjörn (98), “this is because the executive branch is dependent upon the direct or indirect support of the legislative branch and often includes members of the legislature. Thus, this would amount to the executive possessing more votes in order to pass legislation.” In addition to the above, this type of political system is best suited to nations that are ethnically, racially, or ideologically divided because the representation of power is more divided in the parliament. “It can be argued that power is evenly spread in a parliamentary system and thus ensures stability” (Dann, 1).
Weaknesses of Parliamentary Political System
As has been stated above, no political system is perfect. The weaknesses of the parliamentary political system include the head of a government that is not directly elected by the people. The Prime Minister in the parliamentary system is elected by the legislature under the majority of members in the house. According to Hauss (29), “a party’s candidate for the head of government is usually known before the election, possibly making the election as much about the person as the party behind him or her.” In addition to the above, the conflict between a popular candidate under an unpopular party can become a challenge to electorates. Another weakness of this political system is possible to abuse election time due to the lack of an election calendar. A ruling party can avoid elections at a time when its popularity is down and schedule it at a time of high popularity. This can impact negatively on the levels of democracy and expose people to political manipulation by the ruling party.
The level of democracy has also been put into question under the parliamentary system. This fact has been expounded by Dana (248) in stating that “people with significant popular support in the community are prevented from becoming prime minister if they cannot get elected to parliament since there is no option to “run for prime minister” like one can run for president under a presidential system.” Last, the Prime Minister can easily lose his or her seat in parliament simply by losing his or her seat in parliament. This puts in question the level of stability of this form of the political system.
Commonalities between the Two Political Systems
Whereas there are many differences between the two types of political systems, there is one commonality that I have retrieved from the analysis of the two systems. This commonality, as demonstrated by Bates (4), is that “each system has a leader, the President and the Prime Minister, respectively, and power is held on the basis of popular support through political constituencies that are generally equal in population.”
From the discussions above, a number of discoveries are made that provide pointers to a better political system over the other. It can be discerned and confidently stated that the parliamentary system offers a better approach to the political system, management controls, divided representation, and more stability. In addition to the above, the weaknesses of the presidential political system outweigh its strengths and are more than those of the parliamentary system.
Bates, John. Parliament, Policy and Delegated Power. Statute Law Review. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1986.
Dana, Nelson. Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 2008.
Dann, Phillip. “The Gubernative in Presidential and Parliamentary Systems.”Comparing Organizational Structures of Federal Governments in the USA and Germany. N.p., 2006. Web.
Hauss, Charles. Comparative Politics: Domestic Responses to Global Challenges. Washington: Cengage Learning, 2008.
Ilan, Shahar. “Study: Parliamentary systems have longer shelf life than presidential ones.” Haaretz.com, 2006. Web.
Kaminsky, Elijah. On the Comparison of Presidential and Parliamentary Governments. Journal of Presidential Studies. Vol. 27 no. 13. (1997)241-567.
Siaroff, Alan. Comparing political regimes: a thematic introduction to comparative politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Sirota, David. Why cult of presidency is bad for democracy. San Francisco Chronicle. 2008.
Ström, Kaare.,. Müller, Wolfgang, and Bergman, Torbjörn. Delegation and accountability in parliamentary democracies. London: Oxford University Press, 2006.