CONSTITUTIONAL CHOICES: THE MODERN DILEMMA
by Fred W. Riggs
Prepared for use at the workshop on institutional choice in
Taipei, August 1997.
August 13 1997
Some Basic Choices. Although often dismissed as an unimportant
distinction, the choice between presidentialism and parliamentarism does,
I believe, raise fundamental issues for modern representative governance.
However, the question presupposes answers to several prior questions, first
the choice between traditional forms of monarchic or imperial rule and
the modern idea of representative governance; and secondly, whether there
are viable alternatives to representative governance for countries that
have already rejected the traditional forms.
Although a few countries, like Saudi Arabia, Bhutan, and Brunei retain
monarchic absolutism, it is safe to say that modernity has closed the door
on governance based on legitimacy from above, derived from Heaven or supernatural
powers. But if so, what is to replace it? One answer, the one
espoused by Lenin and Sun Yat Sen, accepted the ultimate validity of democratic
self-government, but called for a transitional stage based on the "dictatorship
of the proletariat," or the "tutelage of a benevolent party."
Unfortunately, such transitional stages have often degenerated into one-party
dictatorships or military authoritarianism. It would be fascinating
to take up questions about how the transition from traditional monarchic
rule to modern representative government can best be made, but that is
not what I was asked to do -- nor do I feel that I have any good answers.
Rather, on the premise that, somehow, a country has made this perilous
journey, there remains the question, which form of representative government
is likely to work best? If all existing forms have grave difficulties,
as they surely have, then can we think of a better solution? Do the miracles
of modern technology, including the INTERNET and instantaneous communication
at long distances, offer opportunities for better political formulas?
As the world has become increasingly interlocked, may we not also be entering
a phase in which the very idea of a "sovereign state" has become
an anachronism and we need to look for new ways to harmonize administrative
self-government at local levels with global integration and responsible
Historical Background. All these are fascinating questions,
but let me focus my attention on the narrower issue: if we assume that
representative government in a sovereign state is both necessary and preferable
to other options, then how should that government be organized? Before
taking up the substantive arguments, let me inject a bit of historical
narrative. The forces of modernity may be dated from the Peace of
Westphalia in the middle of the 17th century when the notion of state sovereignty
was legitimized in Western Europe by contrast with older imperial notions,
shared by Europe, China, the Muslim world, ancient Rome and many other
empires. The post-Westphalian states claimed sovereignty, the authority
to govern all the people living within their boundaries. Efforts
to consolidate these boundaries, to annex weak states and create stronger
ones, preoccupied the kings who ruled these domains, forcing them to look
for more resources to pay for a long sequence of wars.
They discovered that a rising class of merchants, the "bourgeoisie,"
based on port towns (called "burghs"), had accumulated enough
wealth to support the more ambitious kings -- but only in exchange for
privileges which continued to increase until, eventually, the burghers
began to challenge the kings whose greed for power and wealth had no limits.
Eventually, the bourgeoisie, as represented in elected assemblies (parliaments)
were able to strike bargains which forced the kings to respect their rights
and the rule of law. Ultimately, during the nineteenth century, the
European kings lost control over their states, and they were either superceded
by elected presidents in the republics that replaced some of the monarchies,
or they retained the right to "reign" as titular heads of state
while surrendering the power to rule to governments formed by the parliaments,
using the familiar form of a cabinet headed by a prime minister.
This form of government --which now prevails in all the industrialized
democracies except the United States -- is called "parliamentary."
Constitutional monarchs remain in some of them, as in the UK, the Low Countries,
and Scandinavia, whereas republics, headed by a titular president, have
been established in others.
The remarkable American exception has created the contemporary puzzle
which I will now discuss. Historically, this exception was created
in 1789, more than 200 years ago, while the transition from monarchic rule
to parliamentary governance was still under way. In England, which
provided the context for the American founding fathers, the struggle between
king and parliament had yet to be resolved. Various compromises were
struck and civil wars were waged, but when the American colonies revolted
and demanded their independence, the king was still able to rule but only
with the advice and consent of parliament. Although this pattern
often led to serious crises between the ruler and the assembly, it was
viewed as normal by the American revolutionaries. They simply had
the idea of replacing the king with an elected president, and they tried
to regulate the relations between the Executive and Legislative branches
of governance by establishing a complex set of "checks and balances,"
calling upon a Supreme Court to serve as umpire.
They could not imagine how rule by an elected assembly could be institutionalized
without leading to the kind of disaster and terror that rule by an elected
Convention brought about in the first French Republic. They saw purely
representative government as a recipe for disaster, as a way to deprive
minorities of their rights and lead to the "tyranny of the majority."
Moreover, prior to the Industrial Revolution, they expected the
functions of governance to be minimal, they thought the largely rural population
could manage their own affairs through local councils and town meetings,
and they expected an intervening layer of sovereign "states"
to take responsibility for most of the essential functions of governance.
In their minds, therefore, the risks of tyranny were greater than those
of political indecisiveness and they were content to establish a federal
system of government based on the "separation-of-powers."
Although we typically call this system "presidential," the term
is misleading because it may include all republics (many of which are parliamentary)
or, at the other extreme, it may refer to rule by "presidents"
able to dominate their legislatures.
The ambiguities caused by these usages which identify "presidentialism"
with both weak and strong presidents lead me to mention the "separation-of-powers"
or use "presidentialist" to designate a system in which presidents
share power with an elected assembly (the Congress). Because of the subsequent
expansion, growth and power of the United States, its constitutional system
has been emulated in some 30 countries, mainly in Latin America, but also
to some extent in Asia (think of the Philippines, South Korea and South
Vietnam) and also a few African states. In many of these cases, external
factors, including American influence, led to the choice of a presidentialist
constitutional system. In all of them, except for the U.S., the constitution
has at times been suspended, congress has been dissolved, and dictatorial
rule has followed. Since, eventually, dictators die and cannot easily
be replaced, or pressures for responsible government mount, representative
government is restored. However -- without exception, I believe --
governments that were presidential in form before they broke down have,
when they were restored, re-established the separation-of-powers principle.
When presidential regimes are compared with parliamentary ones in the
new states created by the collapse of the industrial empires during the
past 50 years, it is apparent that parliamentary regimes have a greater
chance of surviving than presidentialist ones. A recently published
statistical analysis by Przeworski et al (1996) reports that "...parliamentary
systems in the poorest countries, while still very fragile, are almost
twice as likely to survive as presidential democracies, and four times
as likely when they grow economically" (p.49). Statistically
speaking, "...democracy's life expectancy under presidentialism is
less than 20 years, while under parliamentarism it is 71 years" (p.45).
This reinforces my own finding based on a more simple minded survey conducted
several years earlier (citations). How can we explain this striking
Institutional Factors. My first line of inquiry is structural:
how can a representative form of government be governed most effectively?
The main answer seems to be that when governmental authority is fused in
the hands of a cabinet whose members are accountable to an elected assembly,
the regime's ability to make decisions and to manage a bureaucracy powerful
enough to administer public policies effectively is enhanced. Such
governments are more likely to last than when political responsibility
is divided between separate branches. Persons preoccupied with the
protection of civil liberties and human rights often protest that the separation
of powers offers more protection against tyranny than does parliamentarism.
That argument may be valid -- but it presupposes the ability of representative
governments to survive. When democratic governments collapse and
are replaced by dictatorships, does it matter how good their principles
As societies have become more complex because of the industrial revolution,
the need for decisiveness and effective administration has vastly increased
and ineffective governments provoke popular outrage and revolts. No doubt
parliamentary regimes are not all equally viable. For example, those that
have too many political parties are compelled to work through fragile coalition
governments which give small minorities the power to disrupt government
and cause cabinet crises when their special interests are not well served.
Moreover, as the American exception illustrates, presidentialism can be
made to work even though, in general, it is a formula for disaster.
As far as citizen preferences are concerned, I suspect that most people
would prefer a responsible government that can govern effectively and survive
to one that is ineffectual and likely to collapse, leading to brutal authoritarianism.
Even if presidentialist regimes could protect civil rights more effectively
than parliamentary systems, would one willingly pay the price of risking
their collapse? Attempts to answer such questions lead to a second line
of inquiry that is functional: it looks at the main problems faced by all
modern societies and asks how well they can be handled by different forms
of government. I shall focus on three such problems and, in each
case, my conclusion is that parliamentarism offers greater chances of success
than separation-of-powers presidentialism. These problems involve: (1)
representativeness and human rights, (2) industrialization and the complexity
of modern society; and (3) legitimacy and the basis for state sovereignty.
Representativeness and Human Rights. It is easy to confuse
human with civil rights, and governments that respect one are also likely
to honor the other -- but not necessarily so. The American founders
were preoccupied with civil rights, essentially those of individuals who
owned property. Arbitrary governments are able to confiscate property,
imprison individuals, and violate laws intended to protect individuals.
Constitutional rules anchored in respect for legal safeguards and the authority
of judges were built into the American constitution, especially through
the first amendments (the "Bill of Rights). Similar safeguards
can, of course, be included in any Constitution, parliamentary as well
as presidentialist. I fail to see that the presidential/parliamentary
distinction is very relevant to the fate of individuals and their civil
rights. Consider also that individual civil rights are most valued
by property owners and corporations. These are the people who pay
more taxes and are most able to organize politically to defend their interests.
Different questions arise, however, when we think about human rights,
taking into account not only ethnic (or "racial") minorities,
but also poor people (usually a majority) by comparison with the rich,
women by comparison with men, or the very young, the very old, and the
handicapped as contrasted with those more able to defend themselves.
How can representative institutions be established in such a way as to
enhance the likelihood that their special needs will be taken into account?
They are the least likely to organize politically and to have much property
In all systems of representative government, the main political organ
entrusted with this responsibility is an elected assembly. When they
are chosen in single-member districts, members of the dominant groups in
each district are usually elected and various minorities are left voiceless.
To overcome this problem, electoral systems based on proportional representation
(PR) in multi-member electoral districts have been designed and they are
widely used. They permit some minority groups in each district to
gain a voice in the elected assembly and thereby enhance the likelihood
that their interests will be taken into account by the government.
There is a large literature on the various ways PR systems can be organized
and assessments of their various advantages and disadvantages. I cannot
discuss them here, but let me make two points. Because minorities
have a better chance of gaining representation through PR systems than
through single-member districts, they also have a stronger incentive to
vote. That means that more people will vote and the assemblies will,
therefore, be more representative. By contrast, in single-member
districts, many citizens feel that their special interests will never be
represented by those who speak for dominant majorities -- disillusioned,
they may even refuse to vote. In general, when more citizens vote
and secure representation in an assembly, they are more likely to accept
the legitimacy of the regime and voluntarily accept its policies.
Although there is widespread acknowlegement of this fact, members of
dominant communities who are mainly concerned about the government's ability
to govern support single member districts because they are more likely
to produce a cohesive majority in the assembly that can reach consensus
on major public policies. Since parties representing smaller minorities
are unlikely to win, pressures arise in such systems to form pre-electoral
political coalitions so that one of them can win decisive power in the
assembly. Sometimes minority groups join such coalitions in exchange for
promises that their needs will be accommodated. Whenever such a coalition
is able to remain in power for a long time, it becomes hegemonic, even
though opposition parties are permitted. Because their members do
not worry a lot about electoral defeat, they often become complacent and
abuse their power. The point is that although single-member districts
may lead to party systems that provide stable government, this is often
at the expense of minorities who cannot secure representation, and even
the general public because of increasing corruption and mismanagement.
The costs and benefits of single-member electoral districts apply equally
to presidentialist and parliamentary systems. However, the ability
of parliamentary regimes to adopt PR and multi-member districts as a remedy
is much greater than that of presidentialist polities. No doubt there
are always risks in PR systems, especially if the number of parties winning
assembly seats multiplies unreasonably. However, by setting a minimum
for representation in the assembly, it is possible to avoid extreme polarization
The important point, I think, is that when used with discretion, PR
is compatible with parliamentarism but it is destructive of presidentialist
regimes. Many actual cases, especially in Latin America, demonstrate
this point empirically. Without taking up any such cases, let me
offer a suggestion about why it must be true. Under cabinet government,
parliamentary minorities have a chance to participate in ruling coalitions
through which their special needs can be accommodated. Their members
in parliament also find that their chances of being invited to join a Cabinet
are enhanced by cooperative behavior on many issues that are marginal to
their main concerns.
By contrast, under the separation-of-powers principle, minority parties
in congress can never be represented in a government ruled by an elected
chief executive. Such presidents normally select cabinet members
who are not members of the elected assembly and typically represent interests
quite different from those of any small congressional group. To gain
support for their legislative proposals, these cabinet members must reflect
the concerns of powerful forces in the legislature, not usually those of
any minority parties. Since they cannot win power or support for
their causes by cooperative behavior, minority representatives in a presidentialist
congress have every reason to use obstructionist tactics that will appeal
to their constituents even though they will never win legislative support.
However, such tactics may also block the formation of a majority for many
legislative proposals. Thus the tendency of PR in presidentialist (separation-of-powers)
regimes is to fail in securing support for the human rights of important
minorities while hampering the ability of the system to work. My
conclusion is that the electoral rules which can secure effective political
representation for minority groups in a parliamentary regime are likely
to fail in any presidentialist system.
This is only a hypothesis that needs further research, but if my guess
is right, then it follows that many different minorities, for diverse reasons,
will become seriously disillusioned with presidentialist regimes -- although
they may not combine to overthrow them, they will scarcely be inclined
to defend them when they come under serious attack. By contrast,
more such minorities will feel disposed to support parliamentary governments.
Cumulatively, minorities can add up to a majority during severe crises.
I believe this is an important reason why, during such emergencies, presidentialist
regimes are more likely to collapse than parliamentary regimes.
Industrialization. To understand the links between industrialization
and governance, whether presidentialist or parliamentary in structure,
we need to remember that in all pre-industrial societies, social structures
and the economy were largely self-sustaining -- the functions of governance
were limited and auxiliary but not fundamental. Industrialization changed
that in two fundamental ways: first, by rewarding productive investments
and profit making, it strengthened secularism and rationalism, undermining
the sacred authority of kings. It made it seem reasonable to rely
more on rational human choices and political processes than on supernatural
forces to promote society's health, wealth and safety. By contrast,
in pre-industrial societies, natural forces were seen as more decisive
of human welfare and most subjects expected little by way of concrete help
Second, industrialization and the increasingly important role of governance
made bureaucratic performance of administrative tasks more necessary.
It also gave powerful new tools to appointed officials, especially to military
officers. During a time of severe crisis, they could use their control
over the weapons of violence to subdue opposition and establish themselves
as rulers. In the past, victims of misrule sought to replace kings
and emperors with better men, with persons who could indeed invoke a "mandate
from Heaven." Industrialization made human decisions more important,
and appeared to justify the direct seizure of power by officials who made
no supernatural claims to authority.
Consider also that with industrialization, the economic basis for public
service was transformed. Instead of depending heavily on gifts from
their clients, civil servants came to rely on salaries paid by governments
whose rulers found them to be excellent levers of power to motivate and
control officials. Moreover, because industrialization increased
national production, tax revenues grew enough to cover these higher payroll
costs. Industrialization created increasingly complex problems that
called for more public works, social services and regulations --
as a result, having experienced and dependable civil servants become increasingly
necessary, even in very poor countries.
The economic changes that made government services more necessary also
expanded the income base available to pay for them. The same processes
which made increased bureaucratic power necessary also required governments
to exercise greater control over public officials -- elected politicians
had to replace hereditary monarchs, and the way they were organized to
perform this task became increasingly important.
Reciprocal relations between officials and rulers are always problematical.
Even rulers who might distrust the loyalty of their staff have no choice
but to employ them. As the bureaucracies of industrialized countries expanded
and their services became more necessary, their capacity to revolt and
seize power also increased. Although such revolts are led by military
officers, civil servants experience the same pressures and many of them
support a coup and work for the new regime. Moreover, since military
rulers need the help of experienced civil servants, they also have to rely
on their support.
Regime failures, during crises, increase popular discontents and generate
support for anyone able to dislodge current political elites. This
includes revolutionary movements that want to replace bureaucrats as well
as the ruling elites. When incumbents recognize this threat, they
often join military groups seeking to preempt a revolution by means of
a coup. No doubt authoritarian regimes are as vulnerable to coups
as democracies but I shall not discuss their problems. Rather, let
me focus on how democracies can best survive and handle the problems and
opportunities caused by industrialization, including the prevention of
military coups that might overthrow them.
Major Problems to be Solved. Both constitutional and bureaucratic
design affect the viability of democracy in any industrializing society.
I shall focus on the constitutional aspect, but also say something about
the administrative system because the two aspects are closely linked.
As noted above, the empirical evidence shows that presidentialist regimes
are more likely than parliamentarist ones to experience coups. The
explanation that I propose depends not only on structural arguments about
the way these systems are organized, but also on their ability to solve
fundamental problems, especially those caused by the massive economic transformations
of our times. Consider the following three propositions:
1. Industrializing societies require high levels of administrative
competence that can only be achieved by powerful bureaucrats, i.e. officials
with long experience, high qualifications, and dedication to the public
2. The maintenance of democracy requires institutions of representative
government able to control bureaucracy effectively.
3. Parliamentary regimes are able to maintain control over more
powerful bureaucracies than presidentialist regimes.
The main reason seems apparent: the fused (cabinet) power of parliamentary
regimes enables them to maintain more effective political control over
their bureaucracies than the disjointed power of ruling elites in a separation-of-powers
(presidentialist) system. This bold proposition can be evaluated
both empirically and theoretically, by looking at historical cases and
by thinking about the structural differences.
Consider, first, the contrast between the Japanese and German experience,
and that of the Philippines, South Vietnam and South Korea. The most
spectacular success stories for contemporary industrialization are those
of Germany and Japan. In both of them, despite their utter
devastation after military defeat in World War II, spectacular industrial
growth has occurred. In both cases, and despite the influence of
American military government -- which would, presumably, have promoted
presidentialist solutions, as it did in South Korea and South Vietnam --
parliamentarist regimes were installed and they have successfully managed
rapid industrial growth.
In both Korea and Vietnam, the areas under U.S. military control adopted
presidentialist constitutions and both inherited mandarin traditions, first
from China and, later, from Japan and France. In both cases, military coups
terminated these regimes. Rapid economic growth was, subsequently,
promoted by military regimes in Korea that were able, for a while, to control
a mandarin type bureaucracy. Eventually, the rising Korean bourgeoisie
and the bureaucracy led movements that have restored a semi-presidentialist
regime in South Korea. My guess is that this country, which already
has a "prime minister," might evolve in a parliamentarist direction
-- for more details see Riggs, (1996b).
The failure of American support for South Vietnam's highly corrupt military
regime was followed by the triumph of single-party rule -- it remains to
be seen whether in that country, as in China, free enterprise and communism
can co-exist, leading to rapid industrialization. In the Philippines,
under extended American tutelage, a presidentialist constitution was adopted
when independence came in 1946, but it led to the Marcos dictatorship in
1972. Although he proclaimed a nominally parliamentary constitutional regime,
it was in fact a personal autocracy that lasted until 1986. There
is a strong political movement in the Philippines to replace presidentialism
with parliamentarism, but it faces stiff resistance -- in fact, I do not
know of any presidentialist regime that has successfully transformed itself
into a parliamentary system, but both the Philippine and South Korean cases
might become the exceptions.
At the theoretical level, I think the most important difference involves
the capacity of a unified cabinet system of government to provide a coherent
focus for the integration and management of a complex and powerful bureaucracy.
Such a bureaucracy can be organized on the mandarin model, as adapted from
the Chinese prototype which all readers of this paper know about.
It is inherently better qualified and motivated to administer highly interdependent
and technologically advanced public policies than a non-mandarin bureaucracy,
i.e. one composed either of patronage appointees or functionists as found
in the American case. To explain this point, I must now say something about
why, unlike other presidentialist regimes, the U.S. has been able to manage
a relatively strong and well qualified bureaucracy.
The U.S. Exception. For historical reasons that I have
explained elsewhere (Riggs 1997, UNESCO) it became possible for the U.S.
to adopt a non-mandarin career civil service oriented to specific positions
and functions rather than the generalist roles of a humanist mandarinate.
It gradually replaced patronage appointees in most lower- level posts.
I call these officials functionists because of their long- term preoccupation
with particular professional and administrative functions - - they became
specialists and were not allowed to occupy top level posts which continued
to be filled by patronage. The result was a bureaucracy inherently
incapable of organizing its members to seize power, but much better
able than the patronage appointees it replaced to do a reasonably good
job of managing the complex policies needed in a highly industrialized
By contrast, in all the other presidentialist regimes established before
the 20th century, patronage appointees who were normally able to retain
their positions for extended periods of time occupied most bureaucratic
positions. Their fear of losing their jobs led them, eventually,
to organize informally to protect their interests, first by resisting reforms
that would produce career bureaucracies and, ultimately, to seize power
in a coup d'etat. The social cost of this situation is evident in
the obstacles to effective industrialization experienced in all presidentialist
regimes except the United States.
Much more can be said about the details of both the political and administrative
structures found in presidentialist and parliamentarist regimes as they
affect and are affected by industrialization, but perhaps enough has been
said to make the point that, in general -- with the notable exception of
the U.S. -- presidentialism poses serious obstacles to successful industrialization
whereas parliamentarism facilitates its management and makes it possible.
Legitimacy and the Basis for State Sovereignty. A third
fundamental difference between presidentialist and parliamentarist democracies
involves the basis for achieving legitimacy. All public policies
work better when citizens accept the right of the government to make and
implement them: by contrast, the more the legitimacy of a regime is challenged,
the more it has to resort to coercion and other sanctions to secure compliance
with its policies, thereby raising the costs of governance and rendering
it less efficient. High levels of resistance generate violent responses:
the police power and even armed enforcement typically create a vicious
circle that further increases the costs and ineffectiveness of governance.
It is inherently easier, I believe, for parliamentarist regimes to achieve
legitimacy in governance than for presidentialist regimes, enabling the
former to solve the major problems of modernity more successfully.
We should remember that the legitimacy of traditional monarchies rested
on supernatural premises, the ability of the regime to use rituals and
sacrifices to influence the spirit world so as to enhance the health, wealth
and security of all its subjects. As secularization spread, however,
the sacred premises of monarchic authority were eroded, leading kings to
rely increasingly on coercion by their expanding police forces -- the costs
of wars designed to expand their domains was mentioned above. These
costs led them to tax their subjects more heavily, a trend that reinforced
the vicious circle of declining legitimacy and reliance on threats of violence.
Increasing coercion and rising costs contributed to the political pressures
for shifting the basis of governmental sovereignty and authority from monarchs
to the people, through their representatives. However, when popular
sovereignty emerged as an alternative foundation for governmental authority,
it created fundamental questions about how design public policies and win
the support of citizens. Questions about how sovereignty should be
organized became critically important. Several factors that complicated
the transition from royal to democratic sovereignty may now be mentioned.
The role of a Head. First, and quite naturally, attention
focussed on the role of head of state. Increasingly, as secularization
undermined traditional religious beliefs, kings came to be viewed in the
West as mere symbols of authority rather than as vehicles for the exercise
of divine powers. As this transformation occurred, it seemed increasingly
reasonable to replace bad kings with better kings and, finally, to elect
presidents as their surrogates. This was almost all that happened when
presidentialism as a proto-modern system was invented in the United States:
the contentious relation between the chief executive and the elected assembly
that had evolved in England was perpetuated in the American republic.
At first, as during the presidency of George Washington in the U.S.,
the ceremonial functions of head of state and unifier of thirteen fractious
colonies seemed more important than the functions Washington also exercised
as head of government -- he had a tiny federal bureaucracy and minimal
administrative duties. Since most governmental functions, under the
federalist constitution, remained with the states, and the industrial revolution
had scarcely begun, it seemed reasonable to assume that a popularly elected
head of state could replace the king as a basis for legitimizing the regime.
Increasingly, however, all presidents in presidentialist systems, must
take stands, as head of government on controversial issues which, cumulatively,
multiply the number of their opponents. In late-modern times the
presidential agenda has become so monumental that superhuman energy, intelligence
and patience would be required for success, leaving little time for the
less urgent tasks performed by a head of state. So long as the same
person must handle both roles, the ceremonial functions of a reigning figurehead
are bound to suffer.
Moreover, the electoral competition used to select a president produces
harsh enemies so that incumbents typically had many opponents who challenged
their capacity to speak for the "nation." Since its early
days, quite ordinary men have often won the elections to the U.S. presidency,
men who were scarcely able to make controversial decisions and perform
their ceremonial functions with equanimity and grace. It should be
clear that the role of president could not really replace that of a king
as the focus of legitimacy for a sovereign state. A more potent basis
for legitimizing a secularized democracy was needed.
The Role of a Parliament. Such a foundation for public authority
emerged in Europe during the nineteenth century as kings increasingly devolved
their ruling powers to parliaments. Concurrently, the focus of legitimacy
also moved from the throne to the elected assembly -- instead of the supernatural
powers of a king, regimes rested their authority on the idea that citizens
could make collective choices as a basis for governing themselves.
Ideally, as in the ancient city states, they could reach consensus
by means of direct democracy, but with the increased size of all modern
states, a substitute was found by electing representatives to act for the
people in assemblies. The authentic surrogate for royal sovereignty,
therefore, would be the voice of the people, as expressed through representative
bodies, rather than any performances by a chief of state.
Parliamentarism decisively moved the legitimacy of state power from
kings to parliaments -- sovereignty was transferred from the monarchy to
the people as represented in elected assemblies. Significantly, parliaments
are not just legislative bodies capable of making laws, but they are also
constituent bodies with the authority to write and revise constitutions.
Frequently, a distinction is made in parliamentary regimes between the
simple parliamentary majority required to approve an ordinary law, and
the special majority needed for making a constitutional reform. This
may include numerical majorities of significantly more than 50% of the
members, and/or endorsement of a constitutional change at two or more sessions.
By contrast, the congress in presidentialist regimes lacks such authority
-- it may propose amendments but they need to be ratified by the citizenry,
or by state governments. Thus, the constitutional authority of any
Congress is significantly less than that of a Parliament.
The most conspicuous difference between a Parliament and a Congress,
however, lies in its ability to discharge the government (its own executive
committee, created by the assembly itself, without without claiming the
authority granted to a popularly elected president). This structural
relationship makes the executive function in parliamentary regimes continuously
subject to public accountability. By contrast, although presidentialist
regimes usually give Congress the right to impeach a president (because
of malfeasance in office), presidents normally retain their offices until
the end of a fixed term, even when they have lost the support of the people's
representatives in Congress.
I mention these differences to emphasize the point that Parliament is
a genuine focus of legitimacy and accountability for any democracy whereas
a Congress is not. Moreover, this basic distinction is reinforced by some
other considerations which typically make Parliament a more effective legitimizer
of governance and focus of sovereignty than any Congress can ever be.
First, consider the fact that there is no structural difference between
the Legislative and Executive branches of government under parliamentary
rules. The government is, actually, a component of Parliament --
something we often forget. Since a Cabinet can stay in office only
so long as it retains the support of a parliamentary majority, and because
it must resign after losing a vote of confidence, parliamentary governments
are able to secure popular support for their policies in a way that is
not assured for Presidents in their adversarial relations with Congress.
Since parliamentary governments can usually dissolve the assembly and call
for new elections after losing a vote of confidence. Even members of the
majority parties who may not personally approve a government bill are strongly
motivated to support it in order to avoid the costs of new elections. Parliamentarism,
therefore, enhances the ability of democratic governance to reach decisions,
whereas presidentialism encourages dissent and prolonged controversy.
Second, a paradoxical consequence of party discipline arises from the
freedom it offers members of parliament who are outside the government
to speak freely about their views: "back benchers" who belong
to majority parties but are not cabinet members -- they are often among
the government's most vocal critics. Because basic policy decisions
are made in cabinet, with the advice of senior civil servants, the parliamentary
agenda is lighter than that of a congress. This means that although the
effective day-to-day political influence of MPs is less than that of members
of Congress, their ability to speak openly and forcefully on major philosophical
and policy issues is much greater. The net effect is that Parliament offers
better "political theater" than Congress -- it not only supports
lively and much publicized debates on major issues, but all government
policies must be announced in Parliament, rather than by media releases
or press conferences. Taken together, these practices make parliaments
the authentic focus of legitimacy in a way that no congress can achieve
-- nor, I believe, can any elected president.
Third, because of the separation of powers, there is no institutional
focus for political legitimacy in a presidentialist regime. The congress
is merely one of the branches of government and, in that role, as vulnerable
to criticism as the president or the judiciary. Consequently, no
branch can act effectively as a center of legitimacy for building popular
loyalty to a regime. Instead, therefore, the archaic trunk from which
all three branches sprang is just a document, a written Charter which,
somehow, is supposed to represent the long-term popular consensus on which
the regime rests. It may even be expected to resolve such modern
dilemmas such as whether a dying man should be able to get a doctor's help
in committing suicide or how the principle of free speech can be reconciled
with the new opportunities given to INTERNET users. Such issues could
not have been imagined by constitution writers in the 18th century.
In parliamentarist regimes such issues are viewed as public policy questions
to be decided, ultimately, by parliamentary votes in the light of changing
conditions. Written charters cannot speak. Instead of a representative
institution as the living organ of popular sovereignty, therefore, presidentialist
regimes must depend on the courts to decide how their "founders"
would have decided contemporary moral dilemmas: appointed judges, in the
seclusion of their chambers, become the ultimate arbiters of what is or
is not legitimate public policy. How ironic for a polity based, ostensibly,
on the polyarchic principles of representative governance! Because
of the unprecedented new problems generated by modernity, we face the paradox
that the older the constitution, the more legitimacy it possesses and the
more anachronistic it becomes. New presidentialist constitutions
may be more relevant to contemporary issues, but their very newness limits
their authority as a basis for the legitimacy of highly troubled regimes.
Since the American Constitution is now more than 200 years old, it has
acquired a sacred character that appeals to all parties in most controversies,
and gives the Supreme Court a kind of ultimate authority that rests, not
on their wisdom as elder statesmen, but rather on their claimed ability
to make final determinations of what the Constitution "really means"
or its authors had in mind. Nevertheless, this charter is held in such
high respect by Americans in all walks of life that it helps explain the
viability of the system in the U.S. In most presidentialist regimes,
by contrast, frequent constitutional revisions, especially after catastrophic
authoritarian interludes, generate cynicism about whatever Charter happens
to be the latest version.
Conclusion. To reassert the logic of these two forms of
democratic government, recall the following points:
1. The transition from hierarchic authority under monarchies to
representative government based on the will of the people flows logically
from the throne to the parliament and makes parliamentary regimes more
stable than those caught in a transitional phase of power sharing between
the ruler and a representative body, i.e. in separation-of-powers presidentialism.
2. As modern states become increasingly complex, and fundamental
differences between many kinds of minorities arise, the ability to rely
on multi-member electoral districts enables proportional representation
to be used to strengthen popular participation and to empower minorities
that otherwise are regularly neglected. However, this important electoral
technique is workable only in parliamentary regimes -- it is more likely
to disrupt and destroy presidentialist systems.
3. Overwhelmingly, the industrial revolution has created a host
of new problems that require far more complex governmental policies and
institutions than were ever needed in pre-industrial societies. The
ability to manage the kind of powerful and experienced bureaucracy needed
to deal with such problems is far more likely to arise in parliamentary
regimes than in presidentialist ones.
Remember that these are broad generalizations, and there are exceptions
-- the U.S. presidentialist system has worked pretty well, and some parliamentary
regimes are disasters. The differences, therefore, are statistical and
are easily affected by additional variables. It is also very difficult
to transform regimes -- especially presidentialist systems create strongly
entrenched interests that stoutly resist fundamental changes, making it
almost impossible to shift to parliamentarism after the original choice
has been made. Countries already committed to presidentialism, therefore,
need to think about the kinds of measures that will enable their type of
democracy to survive -- the American experience can provide some useful
lessons about what will and will not work for presidentialist regimes --
but that is another question that cannot be discussed here. Moreover,
it is assuredly a secondary issue -- the most important point is for us
to have a clear understanding of some of the fundamental differences between
the two main forms of democratic governance.
See linked pages:  Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism || Coping with Modernity