Presidentialism/Presidential Systems

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Presidentialism/Presidential Systems

The preponderance of presidential systems is one of the distinctive political features of the Latin American region. After independence from Spain and Portugal in the nineteenth century, most of the new republics that emerged in South and Central America and Mexico adopted political institutions modeled on the 1787 Constitution of the United States. Parliamentary constitutions based on the British model are found almost exclusively in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Because Latin American presidential systems have tended to be unstable, a major controversy has focused on the link between types of constitutions and regime durability.

A constitution is presidential if the executive and legislative branches of government are elected separately for fixed terms. In parliamentary systems, the executive (typically led by a prime minister) is selected from among the members of the legislature and may be removed through a vote of no confidence. The difference between these types of democratic constitutions hinges, therefore, on two distinctions. First, in a presidential system, candidates compete for seats in the legislature or for executive office by running in separate elections. In a parliamentary system, candidates run for seats in the legislature, and then form a government based on the ability of a party or coalition to win the confidence of a majority of the members of parliament. Second, presidential systems follow fixed electoral calendars. Once elected, the president and the congress typically hold office for a specified term. In parliamentary systems, the government's term can be brought to an end at any time by a vote of no confidence or an act of dissolution.

Not all constitutions can be neatly classified into purely presidential or parliamentary categories. Mixed constitutions combine features of both. In the French semipresidential system, for example, the president is directly elected for a fixed term, but executive power is shared with a head of government responsible to the legislature. In Bolivia the president is chosen by congress if no presidential candidate wins an absolute majority of the popular vote. Within presidential systems there is considerable variation in presidential veto powers, legislative prerogatives, decree authority, powers of dissolution, and influence over budgetary processes. Nevertheless, most of the world's democracies can be classified as presidential, parliamentary, or mixed, and nearly all Latin American states, in contrast to the English-speaking Caribbean, fall unambiguously into the presidential category. Each pure system shares traits sufficiently distinctive to make it possible for them to be differentiated and compared.

Indeed, one of the most robust generalizations in comparative politics is that presidential systems are more prone to breakdown than parliamentary systems. This finding was first published by Alfred Stepan and Cindy Skach in their 1993 essay "Constitutional Frameworks and Democratic Consolidation: Parliamentarism versus Presidentialism." Although there has been no subsequent disagreement over the validity of this finding, sharply different explanations have been advanced and the ensuing debate has divided scholars into two main camps. One traces the instability of presidentialism to problems inherent in constitutional design, while the other attributes it to serendipity. Presidentialism, in the latter view, has been adopted in places such as Latin America where political systems are unstable for other reasons.

In "Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does It Make a Difference?" Juan J. Linz famously argued that presidentialism creates a problem of "dual legitimacy" (6-8). Directly elected presidents can make a claim to democratic legitimacy separate from that of legislators, and they hold executive power regardless of the composition of the legislature. Prime ministerial survival depends on the confidence of the legislature; in parliamentary systems the executive has no separate claim to legitimacy. The plebiscitary tendencies inherent in all mass democracies—the risk that politicians with neither legislative experience nor party attachments will gain executive office and seek to bypass the legislature or govern at the margins of the constitution—are exacerbated by presidentialism.

Linz also argued that fixed terms introduce rigidity into presidential constitutions. In parliamentary systems elections can be called after a vote of no confidence or an act of dissolution; in a presidential system the executive and members of congress are normally elected for a period of time that cannot easily be adjusted. Fixed electoral calendars allow presidents and members of congress to refuse to cooperate without consequently having to face an election. Although minority and coalition governments are possible in both systems, parliamentarism has a built-in mechanism for changing a government that no longer enjoys the confidence of a legislative majority.

Skeptics argue that the brittleness of presidentialism is best explained by its popularity among states that are unstable for reasons other than the intrinsic features of their constitutions. In Latin America, presidential institutions were grafted onto countries with social and political conditions different from those in the model state, the United States. The brittleness of constitutional order in Latin American is due to long-standing patterns of inequality and social exclusion, weak states, an uneven rule of law, and the propensity of the military to intervene in politics. In this view, the adoption of presidentialism by Latin American states makes this type of constitution appear to be more prone to instability than it really is.

As a result of the decline of regime instability caused by direct military interference in politics since the transitions to democracy in the 1980s, the debate on presidentialism has shifted to the system's more subtle effects on the quality of democratic governance. Although coup attempts have been rare since the 1980s (examples include Venezuela in 1992 and 2002), there have been serious constitutional crises in Peru (1992, 2000), Guatemala (1993), Paraguay (1996, 1999), Ecuador (2000, 2005), Bolivia (2003), Nicaragua (2005), and Venezuela (1999–2000; 2002–2004). A key lesson from these crises is that democratically elected leaders may use conflicts—occasionally arising from dual legitimacies—as a pretext to unconstitutionally interrupt the tenure in office of other elected officials, to arbitrarily or illegally appoint or remove members of the judiciary or electoral bodies, or to aid and abet in the interference by the military in the jurisdiction of elected officials.

Presidentialism alone is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for democratic instability. Presidential constitutions, because they are designed to create checks and balances by pitting one branch of government against another, may set in motion characteristic patterns of political struggle involving sharp disputes over the powers of the president, the legislature, and the courts when other forces trigger a crisis. How much presidentialism itself contributes to instability relative to broader social and political conditions or mechanisms, and whether it is more or less conducive to settling political differences within the framework of the rule of law and constitutional government, remain matters for continuing scholarly debate.

See alsoDemocracy .


Cheibub, José Antonio. Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Linz, Juan J. "Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does It Make a Difference?" In The Failure of Presidential Democracy: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Shugart, Matthew Soberg, and John M. Carey. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Stepan, Alfred, and Cindy Skach. "Constitutional Frameworks and Democratic Consolidation: Parliamentarism versus Presidentialism." World Politics 46:1 (1993), 1-22.

Valenzuela, Arturo. "Latin American Presidencies Interrupted." Journal of Democracy 15:4 (2004), 5-19.

                                 Maxwell A. Cameron