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Decoding the Systems: Understanding Parliamentary and Presidential Democracies

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The distinction between the presidential and the parliamentary regimes is one of the fundamental dichotomies of comparative politics. In liberal democracy, there is often a parliamentary or a presidential system in place. These systems present two alternative ways of running a central government. Since parliamentary democracies emerged from the dissolution of monarchies , there is a separation between the Head of State and the Head of Government. The makers of the United States were opposed to hereditary privilege, and thus the elected president plays the role of both Head of State and Head of Government in the US. This article presents its observations by relying on the parliamentary and presidential model of the regimes of the United Kingdom and the United States of America, respectively .

Presidential System:

Presidential democracy originated in the United States as a result of efforts to create a republican government. This model spread to Latin America, during the nineteenth century and in parts of Africa (Ghana, Zambia) in the twentieth century. The word president has been derived from the Latin word praesidens meaning ‘governor’. The presidential system traces its origin to the American system of governing and to the constitution of 1787 which created the office of President as the Head of State. In a Presidential system, the President is the chief executive and is mostly elected directly by the people. In this system, the assemblies and the executive are formally independent of one another and separately elected.

The presidential system is based on the strict application of the doctrine of separation of powers , associated with French political philosopher Montesquieu. The doctrine of separation of power advocates entrusting different functions of government ( making laws, implementing laws, and adjudication ) to different branches of government ( legislature, executive, judiciary). This doctrine intends to protect liberty and keep totalitarianism at bay. Its emphasis is on creating a network of checks and balances.

In countries like France and Finland, a semi-presidential system is in place, "where a separately elected president presides over a government drawn from and accountable to the parliament. “

(Heywood) . However, semi-presidential systems range from being balanced semi-presidential, where the parliament can exercise restraint over the presidency, to asymmetrical semi-presidential where the parliament lacks independence and is controlled by the President. It can even lead to a super-presidential system , where parliament operates as a mere rubber stamp.

Scott Manwaring and Matthew Shugart argue that presidentialism gives citizens the right to support different parties in legislative and presidential elections. It also gives legislators greater independence so that , even after being part of the ruling party, they can oppose the president's decisions without fearing the fall of the administration.

Parliamentary System:

The word parliament is derived from French word “parler” meaning to speak and parliament is above all , a debating chamber where policy is scrutinized and debated. Most parliamentary systems are based on the design of the United Kingdom's parliament. The origins of Westminster Parliament, often labeled as “the mother of all parliaments” can be traced back to the thirteenth century when "Knights and burgesses were incorporated in the king's court." (heywood) . In the fourteenth century separate chambers: the House of Lords and the House of Commons were created. However, it was not until the emergence of the democratic franchise in the nineteenth century that parliament’s capacity to demand accountability from the government was recognized.

A parliamentary government is a democratic regime in which the executive and legislature must agree on policy. The branch of government called executive is responsible for implementing the laws while the legislature has the responsibility to enact laws. Parliamentary systems are present in states like New Zealand, India, Australia, and Sweden.

In a parliamentary system, governments are formed as a result of elections, the personnel of the government are drawn from the assembly, the government rests on the assembly's confidence and the government can dissolve the assembly. Juan Linz argues that the parliamentary system is more conducive to stability in democratic regimes and presidential constitutions rather make the political process “rigid.”

The Comparison of Systems:

Parliamentary and Presidential systems can be studied in contrast. First, in a parliamentary form of government, there is a fusion of powers i.e. the executive and the legislature govern and work together. In a presidential system, there is the separation of powers i.e. executive and legislature are separate, but their interaction is balanced using a system of checks. Second, in a parliamentary government, the executive is fragmented, that is, a prime minister is assisted by a cabinet and the parliamentary system also has a presence of a Head of State ( a hereditary constitutional monarch as in the case of Britain or an indirectly elected President as in India). Thus, the executive is split. In the case of the presidential system, the executive is united and a separate category. The president serves as the head of Government and as the head of state. Thus, we can infer that in a parliamentary system it is the Head of State that appoints the Head of Government after elections.

Third, in a presidential system, the term of the president is fixed. In the parliamentary system, the government can be in office only as long as it commands a majority in the house. Fourth, in a presidential system, the head of government is directly elected by an electoral college system or by the people. While in a parliamentary system of government, the prime minister is elected by the members of the legislature. (members of the majority party or coalition members) . These are some of the main differences that exist in both these systems.

The Fault in the Systems:

Electoral system refers to any set of rules, through which votes of citizens determine the selection of executive or legislature. The Parliamentary government is associated with the problem of executive domination as strong party discipline and electoral systems like “First Past the Post” allow the government to control the parliament through a reliable majority in the house, like in the United Kingdom. The parliamentary system also produces political instability in the countries , where fractured party systems get combined with highly proportional electoral systems.

The Presidential system is often accused of being a recipe for institutional deadlock, especially in a situation , where Presidency and Congress are controlled by different parties. Juan Linz in his work with Arturo Valenzuela "The Failure of Presidential Democracy" argues that presidential systems are more prone to executive-legislative conflicts since the two branches are separate, and since the continuance in the office of either does not depend on the ability to cooperate or form majorities.


Does India need a presidential system? I would like to conclude this article, not probably by answering this question, but by presenting arguments on both sides by referring to this article. Raju Ramachandran argues that in a parliamentary system, the prime minister is first among equals, and in a diverse country like India, consensus-building can be best realized in a parliamentary system. Shashi Tharoor argues that by a parliamentary system, we have created a breed of legislators who have sought election only to wield executive power. Parliamentary system compels the government to focus less on policy and more on politics and managing coalitions. Voters are more focused on individuals they want, rather than the policies and parties that they want. Mr. Tharoor argues that in a presidential system, (if adopted) the person who desires to be the President in India will have to reach out to people across minorities and interest groups to win and accountability will be more direct. The Presidential System will allow leaders to focus on governance rather than on staying in power.

Upendra Baxi argues for thoroughly reforming the existing parliamentary system instead of opting for a new type of system . He argues for reforming electoral processes, placing limits on the expenditure of political parties and holding simultaneous elections, etc. Moreover, we must also recognize that a switchover to a presidential system is not available under the present scheme of the constitution . Since, the parliamentary system of government is part of the basic structure of the constitution. The debate is indeed interesting but for some changes to materialize, a thorough examination of merits and demerits of each system with a view on the needs and aspirations of Indian people , must be undertaken.


By Preet Sharma (Columnist)


Heywood, Andrew. 2013. Politics. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: New York.

Caramani, Daniele. 2017. Comparative Politics. Oxford University Press.

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