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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 7/22/19

Presidential and Parliamentary Democracies and the Road to Autocracy

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Message Mick Jackson

This essay attempts to analyze leadership differences between parliamentary and presidential democracies, especially how democracy may trend towards autocracy. T1his essay presumes a continuum of political systems from the most democratic to the most autocratic. About three months after the 2016 November presidential election, I posed a question to our rather liberal New York Times group at the National Louis Lifelong Learning Institute. Most of our group were very upset about the outcome of the election. I prefaced my question with some facts about presidential and parliamentary systems. My question was "Given a fantasy world where with a wish you could convert the US presidential democracy into a parliamentary democracy would you do it?" There were ten people in our class, and not one hand was raised. In late February 2018 China announced a proposed change to the Chinese constitution removing the presidential two-term limit (each term is five years). The rubber-stamp Chinese legislature passed this proposal and Xi Jinping will be President for a long time. Similarly after President Sisi's 97% victory in the Egyptian presidential election in March 2018, there have been indications that the constitutional presidential term limits will be raised. Power grabs which concentrate power in the president have recently been made in the following countries which have presidential systems: the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, and Egypt. In recent years, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey have had a substantial history of democracy. Less recently, Russia and Venezuela had democratic governments; and Egypt was a democracy for a brief period. In recent years, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey have had a substantial history of democracy. In May 2018, the president of Burundi tried to extend his term by a constitutional change. In fairness, I will point out that in Hungary the current Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is moving towards authoritarianism. Also, in the USA, the current president clearly thinks he is above the law, He has demonstrated this in many statements and decisions as well as in his condemnation of the judiciary, the press, the FBI, and other institutions. But Trump is not the first; Bush and Cheney subscribed to the concept of the "the imperial presidency" and Nixon, much earlier, clearly had such inclinations. The constitutional separation of powers restrained the others and, fortunately, has so far been a restraining force on Trump. But my concern here is to consider why this movement from democracy along the continuum towards autocracy or, at least, authoritarianism, occurs mainly under presidential systems. Let us consider how parliamentary and presidential systems differ in their leadership roles. There are three major differences that I want to consider. This essay does not concern itself with other contrasts in presidential and parliamentary democracies e.g. voting systems, difficulties of voter registration, coalition forming, or the dysfunctionality between separate branches of power. First, in all parliamentary systems, e.g. Canada, the UK, Israel, Germany, Norway, Australia, the leader, prime minister or chancellor (in Germany) sits in parliament. In presidential systems, the president does not sit in the legislature but may (rarely) address the legislature. In presidential systems, the president appoints the cabinet and these appointees are not members of the legislature (France is an exception here, being mixed presidential and parliamentary, with ministers appointed by parliament.) In parliamentary systems, the prime minister appoints his cabinet from members of his own (or coalition) parties and all these cabinet appointees are members of the legislature. In America, the president heads the executive branch which is distinct from the legislative branch (separation of powers in American nomenclature). In parliamentary democracies, the executive (i.e. the prime minister and the cabinet members) is embedded within the legislature and can be questioned and challenged by the opposition under the rules of parliamentary immunity. In presidential systems, this does not occur. The nature of presidential systems creates an oppositional relationship between the executive and the legislature. There have been, and always will be, tendencies among some presidents to arrogate more power to the presidential role while they occupy that position. It is fascinating that President Erdogan of Turkey was originally prime minister, then became president, and subsequently held a referendum to change the Turkish constitution to allocate more powers to the presidency and to extend the term of the president, i.e. of himself. This separation of the president from the legislature means that the international trend towards demagoguery i.e. the us versus them rabid form of political speech is much easier for presidents than prime ministers. The second difference is that in parliamentary democracies the party leader rises through the party ranks and can be evaluated by the party, its members, and its supporters. In contrast, presidential candidates can attain the top position very quickly, for example, Obama or spectacularly fast, as with Trump and Macron. This means that presidential candidates will be more varied in quality than prime ministerial candidates. Depending on the quality of the candidates, this, obviously, can be for the better (Obama, Macron) or for the worse (Trump). For parliamentary leaders, the vetting and selection process is longer (usually many years). This process helps to weed out bad and unsuitable candidates for the parliamentary party leader. I do not think a Trump-like leader could ever have become a Prime Minister in any stable parliamentary democracy. The third difference is that in presidential democracies the president is the head of state as well as being the head of government. In most countries, these positions are held by different people. Some presidential systems such as Russia, France, and Turkey (until June 2018) have a prime minister but in presidential systems, the prime minister strictly plays the second fiddle. Many parliamentary systems do have a president as head of state but the president nearly always has a ceremonial role with very limited powers, for example, Austria, Germany, and Israel. Parliamentary constitutional monarchies e.g. the UK, Netherlands, Spain, Norway have a politically powerless monarch as head of state and as a result dispense with the presidential role entirely. The British Commonwealth parliamentary democracies of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have a governor as head of state who is appointed by the British queen on the advice of the country's prime minister but these Commonwealth governors have little effective power. Note that many presidents, unlike prime ministers, retain the power of granting pardons. Some countries which allow the president to do this are: Chile, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Poland, South Africa, Spain (king), and Turkey. In parliamentary democracies (where the president has little political power) this power is not of great significance but in presidential democracies some presidential pardons have been very controversial e.g. those granted by Ford, Clinton, Bush, and Trump. As if to exemplify what this essay discusses, the recent elections in Turkey, which took place as this essay approached publication, instantiated the constitutional changes approved in last year's referendum which change Turkey to a presidential system. These changes include abolishing the position of Prime Minister, allowing the President to appoint ministers (secretaries), allowing the president to appoint judges, and giving the president veto powers over legislation. These four Turkish changes are already embedded in our Constitution and in other presidential systems. Turkey has indeed moved from a parliamentary system to a presidential one but has concomitantly moved from an unsteady parliamentary democracy into a tougher presidential autocracy. Having discussed these presidential/parliamentary differences, I would like to consider stable democracies. There are 22 countries that have been stable democracies since 1950. Most of these countries are Western European, but there are quite a few non-European countries in this category. These 22 countries are, alphabetically: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (India, currently the world's largest democracy, is excluded from this list since it suffered military rule for 18 months under the prime-ministership of Indira Gandhi, although today it is a parliamentary, not a presidential, democracy.) This list is taken from Professor Robert Dahl's "How Democratic is the American Constitution?" Only two of these 22 countries have a powerful president, namely, France and the United States. France also has a powerful prime minister leading the French parliament. In this presidential/parliamentary dichotomy, the United States is an outlier among its democratic peers. The theoretical question arises "Should the US become a parliamentary democracy?" This is essentially impossible given the "iron cage" of Article V of the Constitution which deals with the process of amending the Constitution. To see how difficult and undemocratic this is, consider that 3â"4 of states need to ratify a new amendment after it has been passed by a â"" majority in both Houses of Congress. This means that only 13 states are needed to block a proposed amendment. The 13 smallest states have 7% of the US population. Thus an amendment approved by states with 93% of the US population can be stopped by states representing 7% of the population. This is hardly very democratic. We citizens do, however, need to recognize two points: one, that the United States is a democratic outlier among stable democracies and, two, that presidential systems may lead to problematic outcomes in weakening the democratic foundations of a country.

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Mick is an immigrant working in the computer industry living in the US heartland. He immigrated from Great Britain about 30 years ago and became a citizen. He likes biking and hiking. He is married with three kids.
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