On the Comparison of Presidential and Parliamentary Governments

By Kaminsky, Elijah Ben-Zion | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

On the Comparison of Presidential and Parliamentary Governments


Kaminsky, Elijah Ben-Zion, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Comparison of the French and American presidencies has been made more difficult than it needs to be by confusion over the essential differences between presidential and parliamentary government. Classic textbook definitions, such as the aphorism that in parliamentary government the executive must be supported by a parliamentary majority while presidents are chosen through national election, confuse rather than clarify Franco-American comparisons. Even worse are definitions based on the language of constitutional provisions; any workable distinction must be based on actual behavior rather than legal prescriptions.

However misused, the terms "parliamentary government" and "presidential government" are unavoidable. What is the truly fundamental difference between them? Parliamentary government is a democratic regime in which the executive and the legislature ultimately must agree on policy. The two branches are synchronized, so to speak, like two gears that mesh. If the two branches are out of "synch," something will be done to compel policy agreement between them. How this harmonization is brought about, which branch tends to dominate the other, and the composition and designation of the executive branch will vary from country to country. Temporary failure to agree leads to a short-term crisis; prolonged and continuous failure to agree indicates that the system no longer works properly and is due for reform or replacement. This is a behavioral, not a constitutional or structural definition. It is how the political actors behave, rather than their constitutional, partisan, or parliamentary environment that sets the definition of parliamentary government. Those environmental elements are, of course, crucial in producing parliamentary government and determining whether and how it works, but no particular aspect, such as the written constitution, parliamentary procedure, or party organization in itself defines or identifies parliamentary government.(1)

Behavior of political actors in presidential government is very different. The executive and legislative branches are free to disagree with each other; any prolonged domination of one branch by the other, normal in parliamentary regimes, is exceptional and abnormal. Prolonged preponderance of one branch by another signifies evolution toward democratic parliamentary government, or more ominously, presidential authoritarianism. Not only do many important policies require agreement between the branches, but that agreement results from voluntary cooperation rather than forced synchronization. While failure to reach agreement could mean failure to accomplish policy goals, failure does not produce a governmental crisis. Indeed, both sides may find it politically expedient to agree to disagree. It is true that some measures, budgets for example, must be enacted to keep the system going. But even then the chief executive is hardly likely to micromanage budget items as executives are able to do in many parliamentary regimes. The tenure of the executive does not depend on support from the legislature; by the same token, the legislature is not required to conform to executive directives in order to keep the system in operation.

For presidential government to operate, three institutional patterns are indispensable. The first is that the chief executive be designated through an effectively democratic national election (not necessarily a direct popular election). Neither a hereditary monarch nor a president selected without participation of the people would possess the necessary legitimacy for authentic presidential government.(2) Except for impeachment under extraordinary circumstances or removal for disability, the chief executive can remain in office for a fixed term unless removed earlier by a national electoral process such as recall by popular vote. Electing the chief executive is a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement for presidential government.

A second indispensable pattern for presidential government is that the chief executive work with shifting majorities in the parliamentary bodies. …

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