What is the Presidential system and how does it differ from the Parliamentary model?

There are two basic models of democratic government, Parliamentary and Presidential. Each has the same three branches of government—legislative (to make laws), executive (to enforce laws) and judiciary (to review and adjudicate laws)—but their balancing of powers is very different. The Parliamentary model grants both executive and legislative powers to the Prime Minister, appointed by the legislature. But the Presidential system assigns only executive power to the President, elected by the people, and leaves lawmaking to the legislature, called Congress. This separation of executive and legislative powers is the most distinctive feature of the Presidential system.

The other major difference between the two is in the way provinces or States are united. The Presidential model creates a federation, with elected state governments that are independent of the Centre, albeit under the national constitution and laws. The Parliamentary system makes the central Parliament supreme and places regional legislatures under its ultimate control.

The Presidential system was invented in 1787 by the founders of the United States of America as an alternative to monarchical or parliamentary governments. After gaining independence from England, the American leaders rejected the chief feature of the British parliamentary model, the fusion of all powers in the chief executive’s office, and created a new system.

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Is the Presidential system authoritarian? Can a President become a dictator?

There is a common misconception that the Presidential system promotes autocratic tendencies. The U.S. system hasn’t produced an autocratic president in its entire 234-year history, because the whole system was devised to avoid a concentration of powers. Independent state governments, federal and state courts, and the legislature, all are empowered with constitutional checks and balances to ensure that the country cannot be entirely under one party’s or one person’s control.

As a recent example, President Trump was not only restrained from acting autocratically by the U.S. system’s federalism and separation of powers, but he was placed under numerous Congressional investigations, even while still in office.

The erroneous impression that the Presidential system can lead to a dictatorship is largely due to the fact that most dictators call themselves “President,” even though their country’s government bears no resemblance to the U.S. system. Usually in those nations the state governments, legislature, and judiciary are not independent, and the office of the President is all powerful.

The fallacy that the Presidential system means one-man rule persists because many analysts wrongly equate a U.S. President’s powers with those of a Prime Minister. A President has far fewer powers than a typical Prime Minister. For example, a President cannot make laws, vote in the legislature, control state governments, fund the military, or even appoint his own cabinet without approval from the legislature.

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Which creates a stronger union, the Presidential or Parliamentary System?

The U.S. Presidential system creates a stronger union and a stronger central government than the British Parliamentary model, because it creates a federation of willing States. The States unite out of choice by ratifying and adopting the union constitution, which expressly requires them to delegate certain powers to the federal government. The Parliamentary model works in reverse: the central government delegates powers to the States while keeping the residuary powers with mother Parliament. This begins a never-ending tussle for more control between the Centre and States, leading at times to demands for secession, such as in Ireland and Scotland in the U.K.

Some Presidential system critics argue that because the States have their own constitutions, the system encourages fissiparous tendencies. But the State constitutions are only for internal affairs, and can in fact be utilized for legally binding the State government to national laws.

State governments under the Presidential system are independent and autonomous, but not sovereign. They are independent in the sense that all state officials are appointed directly by the people of the state, and there’s no federal authority that can dismiss them. But the States don’t have the right of self-determination or secession. This was the argument that President Abraham Lincoln used against the southern states in the U.S. Civil War, which broke out in the 1860s between the north and south over the issue of slavery.

Is the Presidential system suitable for a diverse nation?

The Presidential system is more suitable for a large and diverse nation than the Parliamentary model because it’s decentralized and it shuns simple majority-rule.

State and local governments under the Presidential system are elected directly by the local citizens and thus have a high degree of autonomy in their internal functioning. This gives local communities more freedom to express their culture and practice their ethnicity. In Parliamentary systems regional governments have less autonomy because their officials and laws are under the control of mother Parliament and the central government.

The Presidential system is also more suitable for a diverse nation because it avoids majoritarianism, by dividing powers in more ways than the Parliamentary model. The latter fuses executive and legislative powers in the office of Prime Minister, thus giving his majority in Parliament carte blanche. The Presidential system was designed to avoid such “tyranny of the majority.” It does so in many ways: by dividing powers between national and state governments; separating executive and legislative branches; giving the judiciary the Power of Review, and giving both Houses of the legislature equal powers.

In addition, the Presidential system offers minorities several ways to deny or delay government action, such as the presidential veto, and the senatorial filibuster, which gives 40% of Senators the power to deny legislation.

Can the Presidential system work with multiple political parties and coalitions, or does it require two parties?

The U.S. Presidential system can have many political parties or no parties at all because it doesn’t require parties to function. Unlike parliamentary governments, a presidential government is not “formed” by the party or coalition with a majority in parliament. Instead, it is composed of the President and two Houses of Congress, each of which can be held by different parties since each is appointed directly by the people. When these institutions are held by different parties, the government is called “divided,” a notion alien to the parliamentary world.

America’s two-party polity is not a prerequisite of the Presidential system, but an outcome. The country’s process of holding direct elections, especially the Presidential election under the Electoral College, has over time produced two dominant political parties—Democratic and Republican—because it makes it very hard for an independent or third-party candidate to win. But America is a multi-party democracy. It has more than 200 registered parties at the state level, such as the Reform, Libertarian, Socialist, Natural Law and Green parties.

Coalitions under the Presidential system, unlike arrangements among parliamentary parties for coming to power, are groupings of legislators or voters in support of an issue. Lawmakers or voting blocks of different political persuasions are brought together on an ad hoc basis by a Congressman or President. For example, the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021 was proposed by a group of five Democratic and five Republican Senators. Similarly, President Joe Biden came to power by appealing to a coalition of Blacks, women, and suburban voters who were fed up with President Trump’s style and policies.

Which nations have the Presidential system?

Very few nations can be classified as functioning under a true U.S. type Presidential system.  

When four university scholars compared the world’s 31 leading democracies,[1] they discovered that only six matched the U.S. institutional configuration: Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. But Korea doesn’t have a bicameral legislature, and Chile and Columbia don’t have American type federal structures. So only four nations—the U.S., Argentina, Brazil and Mexico—can be classified as Presidential. But even they differ significantly from the American original. In Brazil, for example, the President can appoint cabinet members without the Senate’s approval.

Many nations call their systems “Presidential” or “Semi-Presidential,” but they’re far from it. In most cases, the office of President dominates the legislative branch. Turkey, for example, is a classic authoritarian regime.

[1] “A Different Democracy” by Steven Taylor, Matthew Shugart, Arend Lijphart, Bernard Grofman; Yale University Press; 2014