Presidential vs Parliamentary System


The struggle for sustaining democracy has lead emerging democracies, and also democratic countries, to practice different ways of managing democracy. What kind of institutions is the best way to manage democracy still has no a clear answer and debatable. The option, however, can be narrowed down into two forms of political constitutional institution: presidential and parliamentary system, with a wide variation between the two. A broad research has been carried out by scholars about the relationship between the executive and the legislative in each system. Two of distinguished works that will be the focus of this review are from Lijphart (1992) and Linz (1990).

Lijphart revisit the debate about advantages and disadvantage of presidential and parliamentary governments in a neutral and descriptive way. Both presidential and parliamentary systems, according to Lijphart, have its own advantages and disadvantages. Presidential system has three important advantages namely executive stability, more limited government, and greater democracy. Presidential, however, suffers three disadvantages of executive-legislative deadlock, temporal rigidity, and ‘winner-take-all’ government. On the other hand, the advantages of presidential system are the disadvantages of parliamentary system and vice versa (Lijphart 1992, p. 11-21).

Summarized from Lijphart, the main reason of the executive stability advantage in presidential system is the fix term in office. The parliamentary defenders, however, argue that ‘votes of no confidence’ offers a mechanism for a parliamentary to deal with executive-legislative deadlock and the flexibility to change the executive. The second advantage of presidential system is that separation of power limits the power of government. This offers an effective mechanism in protecting individual rights from being deprived by the government. Parliamentary system, it is argued by its supporters, also has that kind of protection over individual liberty which reflected in the forms of opposition, independent court, and the mutual suspicious within multi-party coalition cabinet. Lastly, presidential system can be considered to be more democratic than the parliamentary system. Two arguments are put forward in Lijphart’s article. First, a president is directly elected by voters, whereas indirect elections of a prime minister in parliamentary is based on the compromise among politicians. The other argument is that integrated executive and legislative power in parliamentary system sometime can be incompatible which leads to executive dominance over parliament. As stated in Lijphart’s article, these arguments get serious counter-arguments from parliamentary opponents by two reasons: First, separation of power between the executive and legislative engenders a sort of confusion among the voters to address their preferences for public policies and, therefore, it undermines democratic accountability. Second, personification of executive power in the hand of individual president can be considered as inherently undemocratic. The debates whether or not presidential system more democratic than parliamentary system will be the central issue in this critical review.

On the other hand, Linz (1990) heavily criticizes presidential system and his critics seem to agree to what Lijphart (1992) describes as disadvantages of presidential system. Lack of dissolution principle in presidential system can lead to executive-legislative deadlock and it may put the regime, not cabinet, stability into risk. Moreover, rigidity and fix term in office might engender discontinuity in government, particularly if there is sudden mid-term succession. Lastly, ‘winner-take-all’ government can lead to polarization in electorate and the fixed term in office could intensify the tension of the polarization.

Noting the advantages and disadvantages between presidential system and parliamentary system summarized above, Lijphart merely demonstrates the debate surrounding the two systems without going further into the controversy which one offers a more democratic institution. Offering two convincing but contradicting arguments in terms of advantages and disadvantages leads to a confusing conclusion. On the one hand, argument that presidential is more democratic than parliamentary in terms of popular election is quite compelling. On the other hand, it is also a strong counter-argument to say that separation of power between the executive and legislative undermines democratic accountability. These two arguments are not comparable as they are talking about different features of democracy. In this case, the former is likely to view democracy from legitimacy dimension (referring to popular vote) while the latter refers to accountability. Therefore, only describing the advantages and disadvantages of presidential and parliamentary system could be misleading. Moreover, offering only two arguments about ‘popular election’ in presidential system and ‘executive domination’ in parliamentary system seems to be oversimplified to say that presidential system is more democratic than parliamentary system. As we will discuss later, democracy has many features and direct election is only one of them. In this regard, this review will systematically respond as well as expand the ‘democratic’ arguments offered by Lijphart since these arguments are the substantial reasons of why an institution is stated as a democratic one. This review will also respond on some critics from Linz (i.e. deadlock and rigidity in presidential system) which some of them are considered as by-product, not substantive or by design of a democratic institution.

Before that, we need to know the key features of democracy to be used in examining the democratic characteristics of these two institutions. Schmitter and Karl (1991) explain about ‘what democracy is’ by using several characteristics: public realm, citizen’s rights, competition, legitimacy, accountability, cooperation, and representatives. Since the formers three mainly refer to the process that take place at the outside of presidential or parliamentary institution, these characteristics will not be used in reviewing of how democratic are these institutions[1].  The remaining features, i.e. legitimacy, accountability, cooperation, and representatives, are highly relevant since most the contemporary debate about presidential and parliamentary is actually dealing somehow with these characteristics of democracy. Riggs (1997), for instance, argues that legitimacy and representation are the necessary and sufficient condition to compare the presidential and parliamentary. Using principal-agent theory, which is also use in this review, Muller et al. (2003) investigates the problem of delegation (representations) and democratic accountability in parliamentary system. Although writers do not specifically label it as ‘cooperation’, it is actually the central debate in presidential and parliamentary regarding the relationship, or cooperation, between executive and legislative.

It is also important to understand the fundamental differences between presidential and parliamentary system. Lijphart’s three definitional criteria in distinguishing between presidential and parliamentary government are remarkably clear and simple. He describes that presidential system has one person executive, not dependent on the legislatives confidence, and directly elected executive. Meanwhile, parliamentary system has collegial executive, dependent on the legislatives confidence, and indirectly selected executive. Apart from that, it is also important to bear in mind that presidential systems adopt the separation of power principle between executive and legislative, while parliamentary is based on fusion of power where executive and legislative are integrated in one institution called parliament. Putting these basic criteria into principal-agent framework, we will have the structure as depict in Figure 1 (based on Muller et al. 2003). This review then analyses this structure by using those key features of democracy that we have discussed above (legitimacy, representatives, accountability, and cooperation).

Presidential Parliamentary

If we consider voters as the basic source of legitimacy (Riggs, 1997), it seems that both systems of government are highly legitimate since they are the agent of the ultimate principal – the voters (see the figure). Legislative branch in both government systems is popularly elected by voters. The difference, however, is in the executive branch of government. In a presidential system, the president is directly elected while in a parliamentary system the prime minister is indirectly selected by the legislatures. If that is the case, it is reasonable to say that a popularly elected president is more legitimate than a prime minister. Lijphart and Linz acknowledge this as a notable democratic value of presidential system. Moreover, since a president directly elected, only the voters, not legislature, can remove a president. This means that a president is fixed in his/her office until the next election. So, Linz’s critic about rigidity in presidential system can be considered as a by-product rather than substantive of a democratic institutional problem. In the other words, by design presidential is highly democratic institution but by-product it produces a rigid mechanism.

In terms of representatives and accountability, principal-agent approach would be a sound way in understanding the representatives and accountability problem in both presidential and parliamentary government (Muller et al., 2003). From the two democratic structures above, we can draw two things. First, it is the inherent problem of principal-agent mechanism that the longer the chains of delegation the more is likely the bias to be present. For example, the policy action taken by bureaucracy might be distorted from the cabinet’s policies and significantly difference from citizen’s preferences. The structure in the figure shows that a parliamentary has longer chains of delegation than a presidential. This suggests that parliamentary probably would suffer higher distortion in its chains delegation or representations. This kind of problems often occurs in selecting a prime minister and it is apparently recognized by Linz (1990) when he says ‘…leaving that decision (of selecting a prime minister) to the backstage manoeuvring of the politicians’ (p. 124). Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that delegation in the presidential system is relatively more representatives than in the parliamentary system.

Second, a simple principal-agent relationship where one principal delegate to one agent and one agent is accountable to one principal is likely to occur only in the parliamentary system. The separation of power in presidential design has caused the voters (the principal) to put their vote in two different institutions (executive and legislatives), and making one agent (bureaucracy for instance) accountable to two different principals (the president and the congress). This kind of situation makes the presidential system more complicated and confusing than a simple delegation and accountability in the parliamentary system. However, this does not mean that a parliamentary have more accountable design than presidential. In the other words, complexity can be considered as a derivative, not substantive, problem of a more democratic presidential institution. This explanation, therefore, rejects the argument stated in Lijphart’s article that separation of power undermines democratic accountability.

In terms of cooperation, the possibility to have a solid cooperation is much higher in parliamentary. Integrated power in one place makes parliamentary more conducive for coalition and joint effort between the executive and legislative. As Cheibub and Limongi (2002) point out, parliamentary regimes are supposed to have incentive to foster cooperation (p. 157). While separation of power, and also the office, makes cooperation less possible in presidential. This is actually the central critics of presidential system by most writers mentioned in this paper. Deadlock between the executive and the legislative in presidential is the tremendous consequence of relatively poor cooperation between the two and it is exacerbate with the absent of escape mechanism from this situation. In contrast, parliamentary get use to form coalition among them and it has the ‘vote of no-confidence’ mechanism if there is a failure in corporation or in reaching an agreement. For this reason Linz’s critic about executive-legislative deadlock is reasonably accepted. The deadlock problem in presidential system can be considered as a result of a less democratic institution design.

In short, the review above demonstrates that by design the presidential government is relatively more democratic than its alternative in terms of legitimacy, representatives and accountability. In terms of cooperation, however, presidential government by design suffers a poor cooperation attitude than its rival system.  This review seems to agree with Lijphart’s democratic argument, but in different and expanded way, that the presidential system, in some features, has more democratic design than the parliamentary system.

Linz’s argument about rigidity is not a substantial democratic argument. It is an inevitable consequence of a democratic design that only voters can remove a president from power. However, Linz’s argument about executive-legislative deadlock can be considered as a result from a less democratic design of the presidential system. Separation of power by design makes presidential system less conducive for cooperation.


[1] ‘Public realm’ is about ‘the making of collective norm and choices that are binding on the society’. ‘Citizen’s rights’ refers to political rights to elect and to be elected while ‘competition’ equates with the election.

Note: This article was written as assignment while studying in Australian National University

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