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Joseph de Sousa Somerville College
What are the distinctive features of parliamentary and presidential systems of government?
"As more of the world's nations turn to democracy, interest in alternative constitutional forms and arrangements has extended well beyond academic circles" (Linz, quoted in Lijphart, 1992, p.118) with the debate assuming practical importance with the construction of new states, and intensified by the tragic individual and economic costs of government failure. One only needs to consider the examples of Sierra Leone and Somalia, both of which have suffered stalled development and consequent deprivation due to the lack of a functioning state. The question regarding the features characteristic of parliamentary and presidential systems of government asks for not only a recognition of individual features, such as the direct election of the head of government in a presidency in comparison to the selection of a prime minister by intra-party election, inter-party bargaining or presidential appointment, but appraisal of their relative merits and failings in order to determine whether either system of government, by which we mean the manner in which the state is organized in order to assert its will over the population, attains a greater degree of success in the form of stability or legitimacy. Presidentalism, while virtuous on the basis that the chief executve is directly elected by the population and, given the correct voting system, according to the majoritarian principle, is characterised by irresolvable executive-legislature deadlock, damaging temporal rigidity and divisive "winner-takes-all" government with the consequences these major issues entail. By contrast, parliamentary systems of government, while by no means identical or infallible, offer "the flexible and adaptable institutional context for the establishment and consolidation of democracy" (Linz, quoted in Lijphart, 1992, p.126). It is important to note that there are not merely two discrete forms of government, purely presidential and purely parliamentary. As Elgie discusses, this notion is too simplistic and instead a pluralistic approach should be taken, with systems of government determined by the power of different political actors (Elgie, 1997). However, there are several key differences which one must acknowledge before serious discussion of the benefits or failings of a primarily presidential, primarily parliamentary or semi-presidential system can take place. Firstly, given we have defined a system of government as the form in which the state is organised to exercise power over the population, it is necessary to observe that in parliamentary governments, the head of the government is dependent upon the confidence of the legislature, while in presidential forms, the head of the government is elected for a fixed term and cannot be forced to resign by the legislature, bar exceptional circumstances such as impeachment. Second, presidential systems feature monocratic, non-collegial executives in contrast to the collective executives of parliamentary forms, in which a prime minister can vary in power between pre-eminence and equality with other ministers but the cabinet as a whole remains accountable to the legislature. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Westminster system, whereby the Cabinet is collectively responsible to Parliament with individual ministers additionally responsible for their department. Finally, the means of election should be considered. Presidents are popularly elected, usually directly, while prime ministers are selected by a variety of methods, as noted above (Lijphart, 1992, p.2). These key differences serve to distinguish between the definitions of presidential and parliamentary forms of government and as such provide a framework in which to analyse and evaluate the consequential benefits and failings of each.
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Parliamentary And Presidential Systems Of Government
Throughout history there has been progression on how the government has been organized and, alternatively, its position, and role in the public sphere. Two dominant, different government systems have emerged in North American politics, the presidential and parliamentary systems, in America and Canada respectively. These neighbouring systems have components, which are different but also share some commonalities; these key characteristics propose several strengths and weaknesses among them.
Even though the presidential system provides stability of position during the president’s ruling term, the inability to pass laws swiftly in the legislature postpones any active political change, thus the parliamentary system of Canada is a more balanced and reliable system of government in regards to passing bills and making a significant change. However, in terms of power, the president has more control over the vast majority of the country. The prime minister, although still powerful, is restricted by the vote of non-confidence, and is vulnerable to losing his position at any time. A recent event that occurred in America from October 1st to 16th 2013, involved the US federal government temporarily shutting down, after congress failed to enact legislation appropriating funds for 2014. This indicates the potential unpredictability and instability of the American system. In justification to this, differences and similarities amongst both systems will be accounted for, as well as the strengths and flaws that follow in order to evaluate which system offers a better balance overall.
Part I: Features of the Parliamentary and Presidential Systems of Government
Role of the Head of State and Government:
The parliamentary system of government dates back to 18th century Great Britain, in which many countries including Canada, have adopted key characteristics from. One of the features of this system is that it functions with a separate head of state and head of government. For instance, the Queen functions as the head of the entire system, as she is symbolically above all other government officials and may even act as the ‘guardian’ of the entire constitution (even though there is a head of government who actually directs the work of the executive.) The strength of having a head of state is that they act as a referee and keep the system and keeping the head of government in check. Despite this, a criticism of the parliamentary system is that the people cannot directly elect the head of government. In contrast to this, the presidential or congressional system of government in the United States has one official, in this case the president, which fulfills both of these positions. In the USA there is no one above the president that can make authoritative decisions. The president is both the head of state and head of government and derives much authority from this dual status. This is beneficial; in that all the power remains within one person who...
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