Presidential Systems

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Presidential Systems

Presidential systems represent one model for organizing the national executive. Although national executives are a relatively recent concept, every nation has an executive or government, at least in the strictest sense of the term. They are the primary organs of modern political leadership. The most common forms of executives are either presidential or parliamentary. Presidential systems are also referred to as systems, whereas parliamentary schemes may also be called cabinet models or consensus governments. Wide variations exist within each of these broad categories.

basic characteristics

Some basic characteristics can be used to distinguish between the two systems. The relationship between the executive and legislative branches is one of the defining features. In a presidential system, the president is popularly elected, either directly or indirectly, and holds office for a fixed term. The legislature cannot remove the president from office, except by impeachment . Conversely, in a parliamentary system, the executive is named by the legislature, on which he or she depends for continuance in office. The national executive encompasses the dual roles of head of state and head of government. In a presidential system, these two roles—the first a ceremonial one representing the nation and the second the administrator of the government—are joined in a single person. In a parliamentary system the two are separated, with one person, sometimes a monarch, serving as head of state.

In many parliamentary democracies the head of state is indirectly elected, usually through some kind of special electoral college . The head of government, whose title may include chancellor, prime minister, premier, or minister president, among others, is responsible to the legislative body whose confidence it must hold and by whom it can be dismissed through a vote of no confidence or censure. In parliamentary systems, the cabinet is collectively responsible for the policies of the government and makes policy decisions jointly. On the other hand, in a presidential system the president names a cabinet that serves only as his or her advisors; the president alone has the authority to make decisions and may ignore the positions championed by cabinet members. Therefore, presidential systems are known as one-person, noncollegial executives, whereas parliamentary systems have collective or collegial executives.

Separation of powers in presidential systems normally prevents any person from serving in both the legislature and the executive, so that the two are usually totally independent one from the other. The reverse is true in parliamentary systems. In some cases, such as in the United Kingdom, one must hold a position in parliament to serve in the executive. In Italy, on the other hand, cabinet members may also be elected members of parliament but are not required to be. Parliamentary systems see the legislative and executive branches as fused organs that are mutually interdependent. To preserve the separation of powers in presidential systems, the president is not able to dissolve the legislature or call for new elections. However, in parliamentary systems, the executive does have that authority, although formally he or she may have to propose dissolution to the head of state.

variations within presidential systems

Although a basic profile can be drawn of presidential systems, wide variations exist in the real world of politics. The United States introduced presidentialism and best represents the model in its pure form. However, presidentialism can be found in various forms in both democratic and nondemocratic states. The role of political parties often accounts for the adaptation of a presidential system in nondemocratic nations, in which a party becomes a façade and decision making rests in the hands of a leader, his or her entourage, and the bureaucracy . Therefore, a number of one-party governments, particularly in post-World War II (post-1945) communist regimes or those found in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Asia, are presidential in form and are identified by a "strongman" leader. In democratic presidential systems, like that of the United States, political parties are more peripheral because the president has acquired legitimacy through popular election, not through the party.

The French Republic's presidential system manages to combine elements of a parliamentary system with those of a presidential one. The 1958 French constitution provided for both a president and a prime minister, but the president, who served as head of state, was not a mere figurehead . The primacy of the president was cemented in 1962 when the constitution was altered to make the president directly elected by the people and thereby bestowed the greatest political legitimacy on that office. The president also has a long list of powers but bears no political responsibility. The president appoints the prime minister, who may or may not be the leader of the majority party in the lower house of parliament. Indeed, the president, not the prime minister, presides over the cabinet, appoints significant government officials, serves as the commander-in-chief of the military, and heads the diplomatic corps. The French president can

call for referendums, dissolve parliament and call for new elections, and even rule as a form of "legal dictator" in times of war or emergency.

This combination of powers has tamed political parties in parliament, which has reinforced the president's power. Because the president has no political responsibility, the prime minister receives the majority of the blame when policies go awry. The president may choose to leave large policy areas to the prime minister and cabinet or may decide to become involved in whichever ones have an appeal. In the event that there is a parliamentary majority of a party different from the president, the president is compelled to appoint a prime minister from that party and must defer to the prime minister in appointments to the cabinet. The president also loses significant power over policy areas outside of foreign affairs. However, the French president serves an unusually long term of seven years and may be reelected. The French variation on the presidential model has been called semi-presidentialism.

Another prominent variation on presidentialism can be found in Israel, where the prime minister actually serves as a president. Notably, however, there is also a president who is head of state. The Israeli political system was clearly a parliamentary one until a reform in 1996 authorized direct election of the prime minister. Direct election is a hallmark of presidentialism because it gives the elected leader legitimacy and a popular mandate . Also, the Israeli prime minister does not serve at the pleasure of parliament but rather for a fixed four-year term.

Another interesting variation in Israel's system is the rule of mutual dismissal, which happens when the prime minister dissolves parliament and parliament gives a vote of no confidence to the prime minister. In that event, both parliament and the prime minister face elections. How much the new Israeli system ultimately is parliamentary or presidential depends largely on how often mutual dismissal occurs. If it is frequent, then the system functions more like a parliamentary one; if it is rare, then the system is clearly presidential.

A few other nations have popularly elected presidents, but their powers are weak and the systems function like a parliamentary system. This is true of Ireland, Austria, and Finland. Portugal had a presidential system until 1982, when the powers of the popularly elected president were severely reduced.

Some observers argue that of the countries with a pure presidential system only the United States can claim to have been totally successful. A number of Latin American nations have tried presidential systems but without great success. Some Latin American presidents found restrictions on their powers too cumbersome and either provoked coups or moved toward authoritarianism , usually under the guise of emergency powers.

Early in the twenty-first century Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (b. 1954) attempted to enlarge the scope of his powers and was met with popular resistance, which he attempted to stop with the military. The presidential system of Mexico was not viewed as a success for most of Mexico's history since independence because of the dominance of a single party in the presidency and in congress. The rotation in power that began with the election of Vicente Fox (b. 1942) in 2000 signaled that presidentialism in that country may become more legitimate and viable.

A presidential system does not necessarily determine a particular type of legislative–executive relationship. Legislative gridlock has occurred in the United States when congress is dominated by one party and the presidency is held by another. A balance of power is the best description, except in a few eras when one party held the presidency and had significant majorities in both houses of congress. A balance of power relationship between the legislature and executive has also been typical of Costa Rica.

types of presidential powers

Presidents typically have two kinds of powers—those authorized in the constitution and extra-constitutional ones. Constitutional powers typically include ways that the president can react, as in the power to veto legislation, and can initiate action, as in proposing legislation. In a number of countries, presidents have the power to issue decree laws, which enables them to make laws directly, usually depending on the ability of the legislature to validate the decree. In the United States, the same phenomenon occurs when executive orders are made. The presidential act is valid until or unless congress overrides it. In Russia, Peru, Colombia and Chile, presidential decrees become law immediately and are permanent law in lieu of legislative action. In Ecuador and France, decree laws are not immediately effective, but they do become permanent laws if the legislative body does not act to counter. Each of the constitutions of these countries have restrictions on the fields of law into which presidential decrees may reach.

Extra-constitutional powers are those that come from leading the political party and from direct possible election. Serving as party leader becomes a significant power if the president's party holds a majority in the legislature. If the opposition party dominates the legislative branch, the president's power is significantly diminished and stalemate can follow. Having a popular mandate through direct popular elections can also enhance a president's power, but a minimal margin of victory lessens the ability of a president to claim a mandate. The constitutional powers of a president are more stable than the political ones. Because an effective president must rely on both constitutional and political powers, parliamentary systems have proven more appropriate than presidential ones for nations attempting to consolidate democracy.

See also: France; Israel; Mexico; Parliamentary Systems; United States; Venezuela.


Blondel, Jean. Comparative Government: An Introduction. London: Prentice-Hall, 1995.

Carey, John M., and Matthew Soberg Shugart, eds. Executive Decree Authority. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Lijphart, Arend. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Meny, Yves, and Andrew Knapp. Government and Politics in Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Rothstein, Bo. "Political Institutions: An Overview." In A New Handbook of Political Science, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Hans-Dieter Klingemann. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Mary L. Volcansek

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Presidential Systems

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