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 – the 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.