Ramesh Thakur

Parliamentary regimes place a higher premium on the political skills of bargaining and consensus building.

Reacting to an earlier article in which I had praised the transparently greater democratic participation of U.S. citizens in choosing their party’s presidential standard-bearers compared to India’s parliamentary government practices, some readers mistook my intent to be to praise the superiority of the U.S. over the Indian system in general.

Still, the persistent weakness of prime ministerial leadership in India does beg the question: would we 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 the 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 double frustration: with the lack of authority and stability in New Delhi and the weakening of the Central government under challenge from the States. The long drawn out, protracted and debilitating struggle over the India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation deal is a perfect metaphor for supporters and opponents of the deal alike. To its critics, 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 development.

The Indian Constitution was designed for political leaders with probity; too many of 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 demoralised administration. The cabinet is incapacitated because it is subject to a multitude of pressures from contrary directions. The presidential government would be more stable — or so it is argued. The American President is more effective because power vests in one person. The executive, being independent of the legislature, can be more single-minded in its pursuit of the national interest free of the debilitating distractions of vested interests.

There are three problems with this analysis. First, such a picture of the U.S. President is too idealised. 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 American Constitution was not to create an expansive and powerful government, but to limit it. Worries about paralysis of government were subordinate to fears of tyrannical government.

Secondly, the U.S. is not the only country with a presidential form of government. Analysts risk conflating the virtues of American civic community with its system of government. It is worth situating the presidential system within the broader community of nations operating it, in particular developing countries. 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 the more ineffectual Prime Ministers in India.

Thirdly and finally, the obverse is also true. Too many critics confuse the ills of Indian politics — the ‘uncivic’ elements of its political community — with the failings of the parliamentary system. A better comparator for judging the efficiency and effectiveness of parliamentary government against the U.S. benchmark is the U.K. It is worth remembering too that across Western Europe, parliamentary governments are the norm and presidential governments the exception. Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada — four countries in which I have spent almost four decades — are also paragons of effective parliamentary governments with enviable standards of living.

The bane of Indian politics has been revolving-door defections of lawmakers from parties and coalitions. An executive President is assured of an uninterrupted tenure for the full term (although still subject to such other vagaries as death, assassination or impeachment). A directly elected President also commands popular authority. This has not always been the case with some individuals who have ended up being Prime Ministers of India.

In fact the U.S. fractures the powers of government among the three branches of 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, a decisive and politically skilled head of government has fewer checks on authority in a parliamentary than a presidential system. Conversely, cabinet governments are more likely to have legislative majorities to implement policy programmes.

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, it is parliamentary systems which 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 play the role of representing the entire nation and standing 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 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 which 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 more adequately 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 — just ask Manmohan Singh. 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 Al Gore out of active politics. In a parliamentary system, he would have been in the legislature as opposition leader, and his considerable knowledge and skills in environmental diplomacy would not have been lost in the crucial debates on and since the Kyoto Protocol on climate change that the Bush administration has disowned. (On the other hand, he would have been unlikely to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, so perhaps there is some justice in the world after all.)

The Prime Minister is first among equals; the President has no equal. Parliamentary systems are a better protection than presidential ones against bad and incompetent heads of government. Many more Americans are likely to agree with this assessment today than seven years ago.

(Ramesh Thakur is Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.)