A presidential system, or single executive system, is a form of government in which a head of government (president) leads an executive branch that is separate from the legislative branch in systems that use separation of powers. This head of government is in most cases also the head of state.
In presidential countries, the head of government is elected and is not responsible to the legislature, which cannot (usually) in normal circumstances dismiss the president. Such dismissal is possible, however, in uncommon cases, often through impeachment.
The title "president" has persisted from a time when such a person personally presided over the governing body, as with the President of the Continental Congress in the early United States, prior to the executive function being split into a separate branch of government.
A presidential system contrasts with a parliamentary system, where the head of government comes to power by gaining the confidence of an elected legislature. There are also hybrid systems such as the semi-presidential system, used in the former Weimar Republic, France, and Poland.
Countries that feature a presidential or semi-presidential system of government are not the exclusive users of the title of president. Heads of state of parliamentary republics, largely ceremonial in most cases, are called presidents. Dictators or leaders of one-party states, whether popularly elected or not, are also often called presidents.
Presidentialism is the dominant form of government in the mainland Americas, with 19 of its 22 sovereign states being presidential republics, the exceptions being Canada, Belize, and Suriname. It is also prevalent in Central and southern West Africa and in Central Asia. By contrast, there are very few presidential republics in Europe, with Belarus and Cyprus being the only examples. Oceania is the only continent that has no presidential republics.
In a full-fledged presidential system, a politician is chosen directly by the public or indirectly by the winning party to be the head of government. Except for Belarus and Kazakhstan, this head of government is also the head of state, and is therefore called president. The post of prime minister (also called premier) may also exist in a presidential system, but unlike in semi-presidential or parliamentary systems, the prime minister answers to the president and not to the legislature.
The following characteristics apply generally for the numerous presidential governments across the world:
Subnational governments, usually states, may be structured as presidential systems. All of the state governments in the United States use the presidential system, even though this is not constitutionally required. On a local level, many cities use council-manager government, which is equivalent to a parliamentary system, although the post of a city manager is normally a non-political position. Some countries without a presidential system at the national level use a form of this system at a subnational or local level. One example is Japan, where the national government uses the parliamentary system, but the prefectural and municipal governments have governors and mayors elected independently from local assemblies and councils.
Supporters generally claim four basic advantages for presidential systems:
In most presidential systems, the president is elected by popular vote, although some such as the United States use an electoral college or some other method. By this method, the president receives a personal mandate to lead the country, whereas in a parliamentary system a candidate might only receive a personal mandate to represent a constituency. That means a president can only be elected independently of the legislative branch.
A presidential system's separation of the executive from the legislature is sometimes held up as an advantage, in that each branch may scrutinize the actions of the other. In a parliamentary system, the executive is drawn from the legislature, making criticism of one by the other considerably less likely. A formal condemnation of the executive by the legislature is often considered a vote of no confidence. According to supporters of the presidential system, the lack of checks and balances means that misconduct by a prime minister may never be discovered. Writing about Watergate, Woodrow Wyatt, a former MP in the UK, said "don't think a Watergate couldn't happen here, you just wouldn't hear about it." (ibid)
Critics respond that if a presidential system's legislature is controlled by the president's party, the same situation exists. Proponents such as political scientists note that even in such a situation a legislator from the president's party is in a better position to criticize the president or his policies should he deem it necessary, since the immediate security of the president's position is less dependent on legislative support. In parliamentary systems, party discipline is much more strictly enforced. If a parliamentary backbencher publicly criticizes the executive or its policies to any significant extent then he/she faces a much higher prospect of losing his/her party's nomination, or even outright expulsion from the party. Even mild criticism from a backbencher could carry consequences serious enough (in particular, removal from consideration for a cabinet post) to effectively muzzle a legislator with any serious political ambitions.
Despite the existence of the no confidence vote, in practice it is extremely difficult to stop a prime minister or cabinet that has made its decision. In a parliamentary system, if important legislation proposed by the incumbent prime minister and his cabinet is "voted down" by a majority of the members of parliament then it is considered a vote of no confidence. To emphasize that particular point, a prime minister will often declare a particular legislative vote to be a matter of confidence at the first sign of reluctance on the part of legislators from his or her own party. If a government loses a parliamentary vote of confidence, then the incumbent government must then either resign or call elections to be held, a consequence few backbenchers are willing to endure. Hence, a no confidence vote in some parliamentary countries, like Britain, only occurs a few times in a century. In 1931, David Lloyd George told a select committee: "Parliament has really no control over the executive; it is a pure fiction." (Schlesinger 1982)
By contrast, if a presidential legislative initiative fails to pass a legislature controlled by the president's party (e.g. the Clinton health care plan of 1993 in the United States), it may damage the president's political standing and that of his party, but generally has no immediate effect on whether or not the president completes his term.
It is believed that presidential systems can respond more rapidly to emerging situations than parliamentary ones. A prime minister, when taking action, needs to retain the support of the legislature, but a president is often less constrained. In Why England Slept, future U.S. president John F. Kennedy argued that British prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were constrained by the need to maintain the confidence of the Commons.
Other supporters of presidential systems sometimes argue in the exact opposite direction, however, saying that presidential systems can slow decision-making to beneficial ends. Divided government, where the presidency and the legislature are controlled by different parties, is said to restrain the excesses of both the coalition and opposition, and guarantee cross-partisan input into legislation. In the United States, Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel wrote in 1995:
"There are some of us who think gridlock is the best thing since indoor plumbing. Gridlock is the natural gift the Framers of the Constitution gave us so that the country would not be subjected to policy swings resulting from the whimsy of the public. And the competition--whether multi-branch, multi-level, or multi-house--is important to those checks and balances and to our ongoing kind of centrist government. Thank heaven we do not have a government that nationalizes one year and privatizes next year, and so on ad infinitum". (Checks and Balances, 8)
Although most parliamentary governments go long periods of time without a no confidence vote, Italy, Israel, and the French Fourth Republic have all experienced difficulties maintaining stability. When parliamentary systems have multiple parties, and governments are forced to rely on coalitions, as they often do in nations that use a system of proportional representation, extremist parties can theoretically use the threat of leaving a coalition to further their agendas.
Many people consider presidential systems more able to survive emergencies. A country under enormous stress may, supporters argue, be better off being led by a president with a fixed term than rotating premierships. France during the Algerian controversy switched to a semi-presidential system as did Sri Lanka during its civil war, while Israel experimented with a directly elected prime minister in 1992. In France and Sri Lanka, the results are widely considered to have been positive. However, in the case of Israel, an unprecedented proliferation of smaller parties occurred, leading to the restoration of the previous system of selecting a prime minister.
The fact that elections are fixed in a presidential system is considered by supporters a welcome "check" on the powers of the executive, contrasting parliamentary systems, which may allow the prime minister to call elections whenever they see fit or orchestrate their own vote of no confidence to trigger an election when they cannot get a legislative item passed. The presidential model is said to discourage this sort of opportunism, and instead forces the executive to operate within the confines of a term they cannot alter to suit their own needs.
Proponents of the presidential system also argue that stability extends to the cabinets chosen under the system, compared to a parliamentary system where cabinets must be drawn from within the legislative branch. Under the presidential system, cabinet members can be selected from a much larger pool of potential candidates. This allows presidents the ability to select cabinet members based as much or more on their ability and competency to lead a particular department as on their loyalty to the president, as opposed to parliamentary cabinets, which might be filled by legislators chosen for no better reason than their perceived loyalty to the prime minister. Supporters of the presidential system note that parliamentary systems are prone to disruptive "cabinet shuffles" where legislators are moved between portfolios, whereas in presidential system cabinets (such as the United States Cabinet), cabinet shuffles are unusual.
This section possibly contains original research. (January 2012)
Critics generally claim three basic disadvantages for presidential systems:
A fourth criticism applies specifically to nations with a proportionally elected legislature and a presidency. Where the voters are virtually all represented by their votes in the proportional outcome, the presidency is elected on a winner-take-all basis. Two different electoral systems are therefore in play, potentially leading to conflicts that are based on the natural differences of the systems.
Yale political scientist Juan Linz argues that:
The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president's fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate ... losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization.
Some political scientists say that presidential systems are not constitutionally stable and have difficulty sustaining democratic practices, noting that presidentialism has slipped into authoritarianism in many of the countries in which it has been implemented. According to political scientist Fred Riggs, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in nearly every country it has been attempted. The list of the world's 22 older democracies includes only two countries (Costa Rica and the United States) with presidential systems.
Dana D. Nelson, in her 2008 book Bad for Democracy, sees the office of the President of the United States as essentially undemocratic and characterizes presidentialism as worship of the president by citizens, which she believes undermines civic participation.
Some political scientists speak of the "failure of presidentialism" because the separation of powers of a presidential system often creates undesirable long-term political gridlock and instability whenever the president and the legislative majority are from different parties. This is common because the electorate often expects more rapid results than are possible from new policies and switches to a different party at the next election. Critics such as Juan Linz, argue that this inherent political instability can cause democracies to fail, as seen in such cases as Brazil and Chile.
In such cases of gridlock, presidential systems are said by critics not to offer voters the kind of accountability seen in parliamentary systems. It is easy for either the president or the legislature to escape blame by shifting it to the other. Describing the United States, former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon said "the president blames Congress, the Congress blames the president, and the public remains confused and disgusted with government in Washington". Years before becoming president, Woodrow Wilson (at the time, a fierce critic of the U.S. system of government) famously wrote "how is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping?"
Another alleged problem of presidentialism is that it is often difficult to remove a president from office early. Even if a president is "proved to be inefficient, even if he becomes unpopular, even if his policy is unacceptable to the majority of his countrymen, he and his methods must be endured until the moment comes for a new election".
Since prime ministers in parliamentary systems must always retain the confidence of the legislature, in cases where a prime minister suddenly leaves office there is little point in anyone without a reasonable prospect of gaining that legislative confidence attempting to assume the premiership. This ensures that whenever a premiership becomes vacant (or is about to become vacant), legislators from the premier's party will always play a key role in determining the leader's permanent successor. In theory this could be interpreted to support an argument that a parliamentary party ought to have the power to elect their party leader directly, and indeed, at least historically, parliamentary system parties' leadership electoral procedures usually called for the party's legislative caucus to fill a leadership vacancy by electing a new leader directly by and from amongst themselves, and for the whole succession process to be completed within as short a time frame as practical. Today, however, such a system is not commonly practiced and most parliamentary system parties' rules provide for a leadership election in which the general membership of the party is permitted to vote at some point in the process (either directly for the new leader or for delegates who then elect the new leader in a convention), though in many cases the party's legislators are allowed to exercise a disproportionate influence in the final vote.
Walter Bagehot criticized presidentialism because it does not allow a transfer in power in the event of an emergency.
Under a cabinet constitution at a sudden emergency the people can choose a ruler for the occasion. It is quite possible and even likely that he would not be ruler before the occasion. The great qualities, the imperious will, the rapid energy, the eager nature fit for a great crisis are not required--are impediments--in common times. A Lord Liverpool is better in everyday politics than a Chatham--a Louis Philippe far better than a Napoleon. By the structure of the world we want, at the sudden occurrence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman--to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm. But under a presidential government you can do nothing of the kind. The American government calls itself a government of the supreme people; but at a quick crisis, the time when a sovereign power is most needed, you cannot find the supreme people. You have got a congress elected for one fixed period, going out perhaps by fixed installments, which cannot be accelerated or retarded--you have a president chosen for a fixed period, and immovable during that period: ... there is no elastic element ... you have bespoken your government in advance, and whether it is what you want or not, by law you must keep it ...
However, supporters of the presidential system question the validity of the point. They argue that if presidents were not able to command some considerable level of security in their tenures, their direct mandates would be worthless. They further counter that republics such as the United States have successfully endured war and other crises without the need to change heads of state. Supporters argue that presidents elected in a time of peace and prosperity have proven themselves perfectly capable of responding effectively to a serious crisis, largely due to their ability to make the necessary appointments to the cabinet and elsewhere in government or by creating new positions to deal with new challenges. One prominent, recent example would be the appointment of a Secretary of Homeland Security following the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Some supporters of the presidential system counter that impediments to a leadership change, being that they are little more than an unavoidable consequence of the direct mandate afforded to a president, are thus a strength instead of a weakness in times of crisis. In such times, a prime minister might hesitate due to the need to keep parliament's support, whereas a president can act without fear of removal from office by those who might disapprove of his actions. Furthermore, even if a prime minister does manage to successfully resolve a crisis (or multiple crises), it does not guarantee that he or she will possess the political capital needed to remain in office for a similar, future crisis. Unlike what would be possible in a presidential system, a perceived crisis in the parliamentary system might give disgruntled backbenchers or rivals an opportunity to launch a vexing challenge for a prime minister's leadership.
Finally, many political analysts have criticized presidential systems for their alleged slowness to respond to their citizens' needs. Often, the checks and balances make action difficult. Walter Bagehot said of the American system, "the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others [and not itself] will suffer the effects".
Defenders of presidential systems argue that a parliamentary system operating in a jurisdiction with strong ethnic or sectarian tensions will tend to ignore the interests of minorities or even treat them with contempt - the first half century of government in Northern Ireland is often cited as an example - whereas presidential systems ensure that minority rights cannot be disregarded, thus preventing a "tyranny of the majority" and vice versa protecting the rights of the majority from abuse by a legislature or an executive that holds a contrary viewpoint, especially when there are frequent scheduled elections.
British-Irish philosopher and MP Edmund Burke stated that an official should be elected based on "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience", and therefore should reflect on the arguments for and against certain policies and then do what he believes is best for his constituents and country as a whole, even if it means short-term backlash. Thus defenders of presidential systems hold that sometimes what is wisest may not always be the most popular decision and vice versa.
A number of key theoretical differences exist between a presidential and a parliamentary system:
In practice, elements of both systems overlap. Though a president in a presidential system does not have to choose a government under the legislature, the legislature may have the right to scrutinize his or her appointments to high governmental office, with the right, on some occasions, to block an appointment. In the United States, many appointments must be confirmed by the Senate, although once confirmed an appointee can only be removed against the president's will through impeachment. By contrast, though answerable to parliament, a parliamentary system's cabinet may be able to make use of the parliamentary 'whip', an obligation on party members in parliament to vote with their party, to control and dominate parliament, reducing the parliament's ability to control the government.
Italics indicate states with limited recognition.
The following countries have presidential systems where a post of prime minister (official title may vary) exists alongside that of the president. Differently, from other systems, however, the president is still both the head of state and government and the prime minister's roles are mostly to assist the president. Belarus, Gabon and Kazakhstan, where the prime minister is effectively the head of government and the president the head of state, are exceptions.
Dependencies of United States
Special administrative regions of China