The persistent weakness of prime ministerial leadership in India begs the question of whether it would be better off with presidential government. Does the latter offer a better solution to the chaotic spectrum of splinter parties, the debilitating hold of caste politics and the cancer of corruption? The answers are relevant and of interest to many other countries.
In a parliamentary system, the government is headed by a prime minister who is leader of the party or coalition commanding a majority in the legislature. A presidential system separates the executive from the legislature and places a directly elected president at the head of the executive branch.
The desire for presidential government among some Indians betrays a frustration with the lack of authority and stability in New Delhi and the weakening of the central government under challenge from states. Cabinet government produces policy drift and incoherence. A presidential government, proponents believe, would help to restore order to a troubled country, dilute the corruption of the political system and accelerate the pace of the country’s development.
The Indian Constitution was designed for political leaders with probity; the present crop of politicians lack quality, competence and character. Legislators regard parliamentary tenure as a financial investment and are wont to interfere in the day-to-day running of administration on whim or venality. Presidents would have the freedom to recruit people of talent to their administrations.
Collegial Cabinets have proven incapable of taking decisive action when faced with urgent demands. The result has been an inefficient, lax and demoralized administration. The Cabinet is incapacitated because it is subject to a multitude of pressures from contrary directions. Presidential government would be more stable — or so it is argued. The U.S. president is more effective because power vests in one person. Being independent of the legislature, the executive can be more single-minded in its pursuit of the national interest free of the debilitating distractions of vested interests.
Such a picture of the U.S. president is too idealized. Institutional arrangements are not self-sustaining: they cannot of themselves generate the necessary support for a democratic yet effective polity. The chief goal of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was not to create expansive and powerful government, but to limit it. Worries about paralysis of government were subordinate to fears of tyrannical government.
The bane of Indian politics has been revolving-door defections of lawmakers from parties and coalitions. An executive president is assured of uninterrupted tenure for the full term. A directly elected president also commands popular authority. This has not always been the case with some individuals who have ended up prime minister of India.
In fact, the U.S. fractures the powers of government among three branches: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The much-vaunted powers of the U.S. president place just as much a premium on the political skills of bargaining, persuasion and manipulation. If firmness of purpose and action is the key criterion, then there are less checks on the authority of a decisive and politically skilled head of government in a parliamentary than a presidential system. Conversely, Cabinet governments are more likely to have legislative majorities to implement policy programs.
The U.S. is exceptional among presidential systems in its constitutional continuity. Many Latin American presidential regimes have been less fortunate, while some presidents in the Philippines and Indonesia have not been notably more decisive and effective than India’s more ineffectual prime ministers.
In presidential systems, the president and the legislature can both invoke the mantle of democratic legitimacy. In the event of a clash between them, there is no democratic means of resolving differences of policy. This can be especially acute if the legislature is controlled by a different party. The president, claiming independent authority and popular mandate, has no reason to defer to the legislature, and indeed will be perceived as weak for doing so. He will be tempted to confuse executive-legislative clashes as a battle between the national interest of the president and the narrower interests of opposition legislators.
These are particularly striking contrasts to the parliamentary institutions of votes of confidence in the legislature and an official leader of the opposition. The only institution with a democratic legitimacy in Cabinet systems, Parliament is nominally supreme over the executive and the representatives of different interests have constitutional status in the system of government.
The fact that the change of an executive president is accompanied by a wholesale replacement of senior public officials can also be disruptive of the administrative process. From this point of view parliamentary systems provide greater continuity and stability.
Another reason for the stability of parliamentary regimes in many European countries lies in the separation of the executive (head of government) and ceremonial (head of state) functions: In the language of Walter Bagehot, the separation of the “dignified” and “efficient” functions of government. The president is the leader of a particular party and offers a partisan option in public policy. The ceremonial office requires the head of state to represent the entire nation and stand above the fray of party politics.
A fixed term makes presidential systems correspondingly more rigid. A president can be removed from office only by the uncertain, drastic and divisive process of impeachment: The protracted trials and tribulations of U.S. President Bill Clinton were no advertisement for that system. Parliamentary systems confer greater flexibility through the simpler expedient of votes of confidence on the floor of the house: Governments can be formed and re-formed to reflect changing political realities or alignments. Superficially, the constant changeover of governments might project an image of volatility and instability. In fact, such flexibility prevents the crisis of a particular government being converted into a crisis of regime: The ouster of a prime minister poses no threat to democracy itself.
Parliamentary democracy can be more stable, especially in societies riven by deep social and political cleavages. Parliamentary regimes have built-in mechanisms for power-sharing in such circumstances, for example through coalition governments. They place a higher premium on the political skills of bargaining and consensus building. Coalitions can offer effective and continuous representation to a variety of interests that would be excluded from the administration in a presidential regime. In contrast to a sort of individual presidential executive, the Cabinet executive with collective responsibility can better reflect social and political diversity.
Cabinet ministers have joint responsibility for all government decisions. Having independent power bases, they can be ignored by the prime minister only at political peril. A presidential Cabinet consists of appointees who are less likely to be independent-minded.
A presidential system takes a winner-take-all approach to political power for the entire term of office. Defeat in the U.S. presidential election took Vice President Al Gore out of active politics. In a parliamentary system, he would have been in the legislature as opposition leader, and his knowledge and skills in environmental diplomacy would not have been lost in the crucial debate on the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which the Bush administration has disowned.
The prime minister is first among equals; the president has no equal. Parliamentary systems are better protection than presidential ones against bad and incompetent heads of government.
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