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3.10: Presidential and Parliamentary Government

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    Figure 3.10.1: Systems of government vary.

    At this point in our discussion of governments, it should be clear that there is not one right way of organizing a governmental system. Each has its own individual advantages and disadvantages. The same holds true of the two basic forms of democratic republics--presidential and parliamentary.

    Presidential Systems

    Many of the world’s governments are modeled to some degree on the United States and its presidential system of government. This system is distinguished from others because it has a chief executive (the president) who is chosen by the people to serve a limited term in office with a distinct separation of powers (the executive branch) as well as specific limitations on exactly what he/she can do while in office.

    The president serves not only as head of state but he or she is also in charge of the executive branch of government. He or she has the power to appoint members of his/her executive cabinet to oversee major bureaucratic departments within the government, serves as the civilian head of the armed forces, and is responsible for setting foreign policy as well as determining and influencing domestic policy and legislation.

    A major advantage of presidential systems of government is that the powers of a president are balanced by a legislature, which is not only popularly elected but also acts independently of the president. Since the president must share his powers with this independent body of elected legislators, it requires the president and the legislature to work together through a process of conflict and compromise. While in many cases the president may be from a different party than the majority of one or both houses of Congress; the only way the president can get his/her policy agenda made into law is by cooperating and compromising with Congress and vice-versa.

    This same scenario of divided government is also a major drawback to the presidential system. If the president and members of Congress hold different viewpoints and cannot reach a compromise, the government can come to a grinding halt. This is often referred to as policy gridlock, and it has been very evident in the past few presidential administrations where, at least for a portion of a president’s term, there has been a great division between Congress and the president.

    Figure 3.10.2

    Parliamentary Systems

    Most democracies in the world are patterned after Great Britain’s parliamentary system. In this system, the executive and legislative branches of government are combined and the political head of state is chosen from within the legislature. This political head of state is usually called a prime minister, and he or she is chosen by the majority party in Parliament to serve as the head of the majority party. The prime minister also acts as an advisor to the figurative head of state who is often a monarch (such as the Queen of England). Of course, not all parliamentary systems have a monarchy, so the prime minister can be both the political AND the figurative head of state in many countries, which is closer to the role our president plays in a presidential system.

    The combining of executive and legislative branches can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Some scholars and observers would argue that it is easier to pass laws in a parliamentary system as the head of state is always chosen from the majority party, so a divided government is generally not an issue. Others would take issue with the fact that prime ministers are neither directly elected by the people, nor able to take a popular stand against the majority of Parliament (because they would be simply removed through a no-confidence vote if they were to lose the support of their party).

    Key Differences Between Parliamentary and Presidential Forms of Government

    1. Social scientists have studied power in communities and have found some contradictory evidence. Several have found a relatively small and stable group of top policymakers, many of whom are local businesspeople. Others have concluded that while some people have a great deal of local influence, most others had little. This points to the conclusion that there is no permanent "power class," in local politics.

    2. The parliamentary system of government is where the legislative and executive branch work cooperatively. The judicial branch works independently. In a presidential government, the three branches of the government work independently.

    3. In a parliamentary form of government, the executive is divided into two parts, i.e. the head of the state (president) and the head of the government (prime minister). The president is the chief executive of the presidential government.

    4. In the parliamentary form of government, the executive body, i.e. the Council of Ministers is accountable to Parliament for its acts. The executive is not accountable in a presidential government.

    5. A combination of powers is key to a parliamentary system. The powers are divided in a presidential system.

    6. In parliamentary form, ministers are appointed from the executive body. In presidential form, one does not need to be a member.

    7. In parliamentary government, the prime minister has the power to dissolve the lower house before the completion of its term. The president cannot dissolve the lower house. The members will serve their term.

    8. The term of the executive is not set in a parliamentary government. If a no-confidence motion is passed, the Council of Ministers is removed. In a presidential government, the executive has a set term.

    Figure 3.10.3

    Study/Discussion Questions

    1. List two advantages and two disadvantages of a parliamentary government system.

    2. List two advantages and two disadvantages of a presidential government system.

    3. Compare and contrast the parliamentary and presidential government systems by making a Venn Diagram. Find five differences and three similarities.

    "Democratic presidential republic."   Wikipedia  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    "Introduction to Sociology/Politics."   
    Wikibooks  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    "theocracy."   Wiktionary  CC BY-SA 3.0
    "oligarchy."   Wiktionary  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    Source: Boundless. "The U.S. Political System." Boundless Sociology. Boundless 02 Jul 2014. 
    Retrieved 23 Dec 2014 from
    Source: Key Differences. "Difference Between Parliamentary and Presidential Forms of 
    Government." Key Differences. 07 Dec. 2017. Retrieved 08 June 2018. from

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