Classically, systems of executive-legislative relations are classified as either presidential or parliamentary. Curiously, both systems are modeled on the government of Great Britain, but at different points in its evolution: the parliamentary system reflects the Britain of the 19th and 20th centuries, after the monarch had lost his powers, the presidential system the Britain of the early and middle 18th century, when the king had surrendered some powers to the parliament but still retained a specific complex of powers: control of the bureaucracy and military, appointment of judges and ambassadors, the right to assent or not to legislation--the powers familiar to us as presidential.
That particular 18th-century allocation of powers was rationalized by Montesquieu into the norm of separation of powers, which in the form he gave it has become a sacred cow of constitutional propriety in the United States. In fact, liberty is served less by the division of powers between "executive" and legislature than by judicial independence, a free press, regular elections, and opposition parties.
Today the pure presidential model is generally preferred in the Third World because it makes authoritarian government simpler to administer and also because as formal head of state the effective head of government gets a higher protocolary ranking and more lavish ceremonial attention on international occasions. It is also simpler for the general public to understand and has long been the traditional system in the countries whose original constitutions were modeled on that of the United States, as in Latin America. For this reason, despite the efforts of distinguished academics, it has proved impossible to switch to the parliamentary system in these countries for any length of time; presidential government was preferred to the parliamentary in a referendum in Brazil only four years ago.
The problem with presidential government as practiced in the United States is that the division of powers creates so many "choke points" at which things can be held up. This has several implications: masters of such choke points, such as congressional committee chairmen, are able to hold legislation to ransom and extort special deals for the constituencies, special interest, or well-connected individuals they represent; it is difficult to devise and implement any rational and public-interested measure for dealing straightforwardly with social problems; and various forms of disguised bribery flourish, meaning that the system works best for the rich and unscrupulous. These features are aggravated by the effectiveness of public relations in molding public opinion and by the weakness of political parties that is fostered by the division-of-powers system.
The logic of the parliamentary system is of course quite different. Ideally, the voters determine the majority party in the parliament, which determines who shall be prime minister. With their legislative majority, the prime minister and cabinet then proceed to enact the program on which the party was elected, supervising the bureaucracy that implements it. A certain amount of nonsense is still written about a supposed balance of power between "cabinet" and "legislature" in a parliamentary system, with the prime minister and cabinet able to dissolve the legislature and the legislature to overthrow the cabinet, but this is all quite mythical. The actual balance of power in a parliamentary system is not between cabinet and legislature, but between government party and opposition, and the balance lies not in the constitutional powers they wield but in their access to public opinion and in the fact that the voters will decide between them in the next election. The independence of the judiciary is guaranteed in both systems, although in fact in the classic British parliamentary system, as in other countries, there is a certain amount of illicit behind-the-scenes political influence on judicial decisions.
A particular feature of the parliamentary system worth noting is the very heavy burden placed on the individual cabinet member, who has not only to run an executive department, but also must appear and speak in parliament, attends meetings of the cabinet and cabinet committees, and is supposed also to represent his constituency. Perhaps half of the cabinet ministers in Britain ever get any kind of handle on their departments; the rest simply take whatever the senior civil servants give them and defend the departmental position to the outside world.
A dangerous development worth special attention which has picked up considerable support since the adoption of the constitution of the French Fifth Republic in 1958 is the attempt to combine presidential and parliamentary systems, with a president, usually popularly elected, who wields the classic set of presidential powers, together with a prime minister and cabinet responsible to (that is, who can be overthrown by) the legislature. This is the same formula that contributed to the breakdown of the Weimar Republic, and which, in a curious chapter in intellectual history, actually had the same origins (in the teachings of a professor at the University of Strasbourg) as the 1958 French constitution.
This formulation, legitimized by the Gaullist constitution in France, has become popular in the newly established democracies in central and eastern Europe, since it apparently provides a compromise solution to the problem of giving representation to different factions and social forces. The obvious danger is that the president and the legislature will represent different partisan majorities, and will not be able to agree on the political character of the cabinet. This sets the stage for deadlock and presidential coup, and is especially unfortunate in the circumstances of central and eastern Europe, where the lack of institutionalization of the political parties, severe economic difficulties, and the unscrupulousness of so many of the leading political figures, make the establishment of authoritarian populist regimes the most probable outcome.
Why has the system not led to political breakdown and presidential dictatorship in France? Under the Fifth Republic, the legislative majority has normally represented the same partisan configuration as the president, and an incoming president typically dissolves a legislature not to his liking and is given a majority by the voters. However, on two occasions the voters subsequently gave President Mitterrand a conservative majority; he accepted the result, agreed to live with a prime minister not of his own party, and limited his own role. This has generally been thought by political scientists to demonstrate that the hybrid presidential-parliamentary system is viable, but it is quite unlikely that the "cohabitation" model will invariably be followed when similar circumstances arise elsewhere.
The key to making cohabitation work was that Mitterrand was a man of the left, tempermentally and ideologically committed to democracy, even though a presidential coup and rule by decree is perfectly legal under article 16 of the constitution of the Fifth Republic, which was indeed employed by de Gaulle. More importantly, the forces necessary to stage such a coup and operate an authoritarian presidential regime, the bureaucracy, the military, and the judiciary, can hardly be expected to sympathize with a president of the left ruling against a right- wing legislature. The probabilities are reversed, however, when the presiden comes from the right and is confronted with a leftist legislative majority. Not only would the state institutions more willingly do his bidding, but all the forces of the international economic system would back him in "responsibly" refusing to go along with the budget-unbalancing, investor confidenct-destroying policies and cabinet demanded by a left- wing legislative majority. This is the prescription that in one form or another I'm afraid we're going to see filled in central and eastern Europe.
The furnishing of the president with emergency powers that he can exercise purely on his own authority legitimizes what might likely happen anyhow. When emergency powers are given, it is common sense to attempt to erect safeguards against their abuse, such as the provision in the Costa Rican constitution that the presidential declaration of a state of siege is automatically a call for the legislative assembly to meet within 48 hours and vote either to confirm the state of seige or to end it. The German Federal Republic has a very nice provision that the chancellor may legislate without the Bundestag in an emergency, but the federal president must confirm the existence of the emergency and the Budesrat, the federal council, must approve the emergency decrees.
The problem of exceptional emergency situations leads us to formulate another question: In a parliamentary system where the prime minister is head of government, what residual powers are held by the head of state, whether president or monarch? In cases of crisis and breakdown especially, purely formal powers, such as nominal command of the armed forces, may become substantive, as in the case of the magnificent performance of King Juan Carlos in blocking the attempted military revolt in Spain in February, 1981. Where the head of state has formal power of appointment of the prime minister, as seems invariably to be the case, situations arise from time to time which allow a certain latitude in the choice to be made. The carefully drafted provisions of the German Basic Law, again, are of particular interest. The question of the latitude enjoyed by heads of state even in purely parliamentary systems is one that has not been systematically researched, but could well bear examination.
Juan Linz and Arturo Valenzuela, eds., The Failure of Presidential Democracy, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Graham Allen, Reinventing Democracy, London: Features Unlimited, 1995.
Richard Rose and Ezra N. Suleiman, eds., Presidents and Prime Ministers, Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1980.
Martin C. Needler, Identity, Interest, and Ideology: An Introduction to Politics, New York: Praeger, 1996, pp. 116-129.
Martin C. Needler (A.B. magna cum laude, Harvard, 1954; Ph.D., ibid, 1960) is Dean of the School of International Studies at the University of the Pacific. He has held teaching positions at Dartmouth, the University of Michigan, and the University of New Mexico, and research appointments at Harvard and St. Antony's College, Oxford. His best-known books are "Political Development in Latin America," "Understanding Foreign Policy," and "Politics and Society in Mexico"; most recently he has published "The Concepts of Comparative Politics" (1991) "Mexican Politics" (3rd ed., 1995) and "Identity, Interest, and Ideology: An Introduction to Politics" (1996), all with Praeger Publishers.
See linked pages:  context || legislatures || elections/parties || bureaucracy