Presidential and Parliamentary Systems

Rishi wants to know how I can claim that the Presidential System underdelivers change, and Ritwik angrily objects to my claim that in the Parliamentary System, the Prime Minister can handpick legislators. Both of them have missed an important qualifier: popular.

Change is rare in any mature democracy. This is as it should be. Obviously, I prefer change in the direction of less government and limited powers and others may prefer otherwise, but whatever the direction of your preferred change, I think that we should be wary of a system where a Chief Executive can, on the basis of just one election, bring about fundamental and drastic change in the structure of the polity.

Now, the Parliamentary System is susceptible to two opposite problems:

1) When you have weak leaders, the parliament becomes too powerful and it becomes impossible to govern at all.

2) When you have strong leaders, the parliament becomes essentially irrelevant because all the legislators are handpicked by the leader and their careers depend on him.

Now, Ritwik, being a young man, will not remember a time when the second case was true. But India has had the era of coalitions only since 1989. Before that, it had Nehru. And Indira Gandhi. and Rajiv Gandhi. Even now, at the state level, we have Narendra Modi, who has bent not only the state administration but also the state’s BJP legislature party to his will. Whether you are an admirer of Modi or not, you should still be concerned about the fact that a system can give essentially unchecked powers to a leader.

Many people associate a Presidential System with dictatorship. This concern is based on the fact that in modern times, a wannabe dictator will style himself as “President” rather than as “Prime Minister”. But to understand which system is more susceptible to a dictatorship, we must look at instances where a functioning democracy devolved into a dictatorship. I believe that Parliamentary System is more vulnerable to the problem, because of case numbered 2. I can think of three instances where such devolution occurred from functioning Parliamentary democracies:
1) Nazi Germany
2) Indira Gandhi’s India (during emergency)
3) Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (originally a Parliamentary System, now Wikipedia describes it as a “Semi-Presidential System”)
Coming back to the issue of Change in mature democracies, it is indeed true that during a time of weak leaders, it is difficult to push through change in a parliamentary system. But when you are a weak leader, this fact is true even in a Presidential System. It would have been easier for a camel to go through a needle than for Bush to push through any change in 2007. We need to look at how easy it is for a popular Chief Executive to push through change in the right circumstances, and in this context, we must point out that Roosevelt, a really popular President presiding over the worst economic crisis that the US ever faced, was defeated by his own party in his second term when he tried to pack the Supreme Court. Indira Gandhi, on the other hand, ended up progressively emasculating her own party.

Having said this, I must admit that holding up India as an exemplar of the Parliamentary System is flawed, just as holding up the American system as an exemplar of the Presidential System is. Neither is typical.

The Indian System is confounded by a feudal culture. This requires support to be an all-or-nothing affair. Either the party supports the current government, in which case they support all legislation that the government proposes, or they are in opposition, in which they oppose every single legislation. Worsening the problem is the parliamentary convention (inherited from the British System) where a defeat of a money bill means that the government has to resign. It is a convention to move a “cut motion” proposing a token 1-rupee cut in the budget bill, as a substitute for a no-confidence motion. It is a fairly ridiculous convention because a vote over a budget provision becomes like an argument with your wife. Instead of debating¬† the subject, you end up arguing over whether you still love her.

Then the Indian Constitution specifically grants the executive more powers to take action without getting the approval of the legislature Рthe most prominent example being that the government can sign treaties without getting them ratified by Parliament. (Remember the Nuclear deal?)  In any case, the Constitution is extremely long and extremely malleable. It says so many things that what it says about a particular case is essentially what a judge wants it to say.

Compared to this, the United States has other constraints that ensure rigidity. The constitution is difficult to change. Supreme Court Judges don’t have a retirment age, and it is difficult for any single President to get a Supreme Court of his choice. The Federal Government has only an indirect control over state governments.

All of these make it difficult to separate the effect that I talked of – direct elections vs. indirect elections. But I think the general point that when you have separate branches of government that exist independent of each other, you end up with a gridlock, remains.

10 thoughts on “Presidential and Parliamentary Systems

  1. Gaurav

    Reading this post I get the feeling that as you grow older you are making a shift from Lockean (and possibly Rosseau) world view to that of Edmund Burke . May be you will become Hindutva Fascist in good time.

    Reg. the discussion on merits of Parliamentary vs. Presidential, it is very enlightening to read Federalist papers.

  2. Ravikiran Rao Post author

    I’ve had this view about the presidential system for as long as I’ve been thinking about it, which is since I was 14 years old. If you believe that with this post, I have seen the value of conservatism, then you’re mistaken. I’ve appreciated the value of conservatism for long. In fact, I used to be a Hindutva supporter when I used to read Arun Shourie during his campaign against Rajiv Gandhi in the late 80s. I cheered the Babri Masjid demolition. Between 91 and approx 2003 or so when I saw the video of Bangaru Laxman accepting money was a period of slow disillusionment.

    In any case, my support for limits on government powers and for checks and balances has more to do with libertarianism than with conservatism. You can call it conservatism if you like, but the logic for this is “Giving a government too many powers is dangerous” rather than “Do not pull down a fence till you know the purpose for which it was built.”

  3. Gaurav

    I was alluding to was your skepticism of drastic changes (and not to limited government ). American Conservatism (which is inspired among many by Edmund Burke ) was cautious about putting too much faith in revolutions, it is cognizant of human fallibility and values epistemological modesty.

  4. Gaurav

    Also what has Bangaru Laxman accepting bribes got to do with Hindutva* as such, the two are completely unrelated. In fact one can make a plausible argument that recent meltdown is a valid ground for questioning free market principles, in fact Chetan (who I believe has man crush on one of you, most probably Desi John Galt) made this kind of argument.

    * Just to be clear if we are talking about Hindutva as envisioned by Savarkar, I neither support nor oppose it, not having read his works.

  5. rishi

    Firstly, thanks for replying to my comment in the last post.

    It is true that a parliamentary system will sometimes morph into a quasi-presidential system. However, it is beside the point. Change (beneficial or otherwise) is far easier in a presidential system than in a parliamentary system. This is for the simple reason that in the presidential system, only one person needs to accept the change and he can push it down. While in a parliamentary system, a large number of people need to accept the change and it needs to move by vote or consensus.

    If you compare specifically the Indian and American systems, still the American system produces faster change. This is because in India, decisions are taken by consensus. Even if a small (but vocal) minority is against the change, it will not take place or be delayed. e.g. Singur. In America, such decisions are taken by vote and once taken are accepted by all.

  6. Arby K

    It has more to do with the psyche of the people. With a Parliamentary system, countries tend to slip into coalitions, indecision and complete state collapse while with a Presidential system they tend to slip into autocracy and dictatorship. If corrections are done at the right time, neither extreme situations would happen. Which is why I’ve been trying to advocate a Presidential system for India on my blog, which will essentially align the fractured plural system.

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