A presidential system of government is one that has an executive branch headed by an elected leader, who serves the dual roles of head of state and head of government. Although the elected leader is usually titled “president,” unelected monarchs can also assume similar roles. The presidential system is unique from other forms of government mainly because it consists of three separate centers of power that are independent from each other. They include the executive (presidency), the legislature (parliament), and the judiciary.
Characteristics of a Presidential System of Governance
- The constitution bars the executive branch from proposing bills. However, the executive has the power to veto or sign into law bills passed by the legislature. This practice borrows from the British tradition, whereby acts of parliament come into effect only after the royal monarch’s assent. In turn, a majority vote by the legislature can veto or override decisions made by the executive. This relationship between the executive and the legislature serves as a balance and checks measure that prevents one arm of the government from exercising too much power and having the privilege to make laws at will. Most important, it is a safeguard measure that prevents the executive from usurping power and evolving into a dictatorship.
- In presidential republics, the president’s term in office runs for a fixed term, after which he or she must seek reelection. Similarly, the constitution bars the president for exceeding two terms in office. In addition, elections are held periodically as scheduled by the constitution, and therefore cannot be triggered by a parliamentary act or vote of no confidence in the president. However, there are constitutional exceptions in some countries that allow the legislature to impeach the president in case of abuse of power.
- The executive is unipersonal- power is invested in only one person. It is the prerogative of the president to appoint members of the cabinet. Accordingly, they serve at his pleasure and are expected to support and enforce policies passed by the executive and the legislature. However, the executive’s appointment powers are not final because legislative approval is required to legitimize any presidential appoint of officials into the cabinet and other government positions.
- As the head of state and government, the president can issue orders to members of the military, cabinet, or any civil servants under the executive arm of government. However, the executive cannot interfere with the judicial system, for example by dismissing judges unilaterally.
Nevertheless, the presidency is not exclusive only to popular governments or countries that elect their heads of state. This is because a dictator who attains power illegitimately such as through coups can assume the title of “president” and the roles pertaining to a head of state. Likewise, some parliamentary democracies with republic governments have presidents who are ceremonial, and therefore cannot exercise executive powers. Notable examples of such countries include India, Israel, Portugal, and Germany. In such forms of government, it is the prime minister, usually the leader of majority on parliament, who serve the roles of the executive.
Advantages of presidential systems
Direct election of leaders
The presidential system allows the people to directly elect their head of state. This means of appointment into office gives legitimacy to the powers exercised by the executive as compared to those exercised by leaders elected indirectly, such as prime ministers. In addition, the election of presidents through popular vote ensures that the will of the majority is respected. Consequently, the presidential system gives the head of state “a personal mandate to rule.” This is different from a parliamentary system that gives mandate to a leader who may not be the choice of the majority of the citizens within the country. Direct election of leaders gives the power to the people and hence the system is seen as being more democratic where the majority of citizens are used determine the president
Separation of powers
The presidential system allows for the separation of power among the three arms of government. This separation of powers promotes accountability because each branch is in a position to monitor the others. For example, the legislature can overturn an unpopular policy passed by the executive while the judiciary can overrule an unconstitutional decision by either the executive or the legislature. This contrasts with a parliamentary system, whereby it is very rare for the legislature to criticize the actions of the executive because it (the legislature) is responsible for choosing the leader who exercises executive powers (prime ministers). Consequently, misconducts by a prime minister may go unchallenged because there are no clear checks and balances to safeguard against the excesses of the executive. For instance, the Italian premier has repeatedly survived scandals because his party controls parliament, which makes it difficult to trigger or successfully pass a vote of no confidence against him. The impeachment of President Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal was possible because of the existence of a strong opposition in the U.S. legislature. It could have been a different story if the scandal had happened in a country with a parliamentary system whereby the prime minister enjoys majority support in the legislature. Not surprisingly, commenting on the Watergate scandal, a former British member of parliament stated that "don't think a Watergate couldn't happen here, you just wouldn't hear about it." Critics of the presidential system argue that a similar situation may exist where a president’s part controls the legislature. However, its proponents point out that this is not necessarily the case because party discipline is not as strict in presidential systems as in parliamentary systems. Consequently, the president’s immediate security is not dependant on the legislature, and therefore it is common for a legislator from the president’s side in parliament to criticize his policies if they violate the law.
Speed and decisiveness
The presidential form of government allows for swift response to emerging issues as opposed to the parliamentary system. This is because of the procedures that have to be followed in the legislature in passing a bill before an action is taken. A prime minister has to seek approval of the parliament before making a decision on any particular issue. This is particularly fast when the government is in control of the executive and the legislative arm of the government. The speed in making decisions is vital at times when the country is faced with emergencies like war or disaster.
The presidential system also gives the president the right to make prompt and bold decisions through the power and mandate he receive from his people and the constitution. The cabinet does not tie the powerful president while making his decisions and is only expected to advise him.
The President, being all powerful, is in a position to take bold and prompt decisions. His ministers, being subordinate to him, cannot tie hands. They may advise him, but they have to implement his decisions.
Even though most parliamentary governments are characterized with stability and long un interrupted periods, the system has experienced problems in both Italy and Israel. Instability in the parliamentary system largely emanates from situation where the government does not have enough numbers in the parliament forcing it to form coalitions with members of the other parties in order to boost its numbers. Parties within the coalition may threan the stability of the system by constantly issuing threat of leaving the coalition when lobbying for their agendas. This makes the presidential form of government appealing for many countries facing emergencies. A president elected to serve for a particular period within the country is therefore suitable to guide the country thorough turbulent times more than a premier is.
The election of the president to serve for a particular period of time that is fixed is another form of ensuring stability. This is because it offers the check and balances for the executive; this is in sharp contrast to many parliamentary systems that gives the prime minister the duty of deciding when the polls are to be held. Presidential systems are guided by the terms of the presidency and term the president is expected to be in power. The election of the president also creates stability in that the president has to garner support from the majority of a country’s population. The party that sponsors the president has also to ensure that stability in the country is maintained in order to have a chance of being elected for for more terms.
Presidential form of government stability is also extended to the formation of the cabinet by the president. This ensure stability in that the president can chose members of the cabinet from a large pool not limited to the members of the parliament like it is for parliamentary system. The large pool allows the president to choose the cabinet based on competence and ability to perform rather than based on party affiliations. This results to both social and economic stability within the country. In parliamentary systems of government, cabinet positions are used to reward loyalty and are therefore occasioned by wrangles whenever people change their party loyalties. At times, the cabinet witnesses reshuffles that disrupt the operation of the cabinet and its stability.
The presidential system also allows for stability through the fact that the presidency is a symbol of national unity. For one to become president, he has to have the mandate from the majority of people within his country regardress of their race, tribe, religion or even economic background. The president can therefore be seen as the unifying factor within the nation.
Weakness of the presidential form of government
Tendency to create authoritarianism
The presidential system is characterized by the winner takes all while the loser goes home with nothing after the elections. In a parliamentary system, this is different in that the prime minister has to seek the approval of the parliament before taking certain decisions. If the prime minister does not enjoy the majority in parliament, he has to form coalition in order to be able to govern th county. If he intends to run a minority government without forming coalitions, the prime minister has to do it under the terms that are acceptable to the majority. The parliamentary system of government therefore creates checks and balances for the prime minister. The president on the other hand can become authoritarian once he assumes office. He can use the presidency to marginalize those who never voted for him. He can also use his position to exclude his rivals within the party from the government. The president can rule for a term or more without accommodating the views of others. The rigidity of the presidential term allows him to exercise authoritarian rule. In a presidential system, the president is not accountable to the legislature and is therefore capable of abusing his powers.
Conflict with the parliament
The separation of powers between the executive and the legislature in the presidential form of government can be a cause of conflict between the two. The conflict between the two is commonly referred to as the political gridlock. It mostly happens when the president and the parliamentary majority comes from two opposing parties. This situation causes conflict as the two tries to outdo each other in implementing their party policies and exercising their authority and power over each other. This gives the president a hard time in trying to persuade the parliament to accept his proposals and policies. The conflict is aggravated by the fact that an majority parliament from the opposing side is inclined to finding faults with the sitting president.
Rigidity and impediments to change leadership
This is another weakness associated with a presidential form of government. In a parliamentary system, it is easy to change from the prime minister and the parliament if certain circumstances calls for. The presidential system is however rigid in that the president is elected to serve for a particular period of time and removing him in order to implement change may have to wait for him to serve his/her full term. Even if the president is proved ineffective, he cannot be removed before his term expires. If the country wishes to implement change, it has to wait for the president to serve his term and change the leadership during the election period.