Presidential v. Parliamentary System

A longstanding debate on which system of governance is better continues to exist. This article aims at discussing the pros and cons of two such well-known systems of governance across the globe which are the Parliamentary and Presidential systems through a comparison of two countries, India and the United States of America, who embody these two forms of government. The article also specifies how each of these systems are well suited for the countries they exist in. The article analyses the Constitutional provisions of both countries, through which the features of both the form becomes evident.

The main focus lies on Articles 74 and 75 of the Indian Constitution and Articles 1, 2 and 3 of the American Constitution which define the structure of the system. The Parliamentary system is deep-rooted and has evolved into its present form in the course of a few centuries while Presidential system is a more modern system of government.

This article proceeds to discuss the genesis and progression of both the system and enlists the characteristic features. A comparative analysis of benefits and detriments of both the systems has been made in the article and also the reason behind India choosing Parliamentary system over Presidential system has been described in an easily comprehensible manner.

Introduction

Every country has a constitution through which its foundation is laid. A constitution spells out the key principles, government bodies, institutions etc. upon which a country shall function. Precisely, a constitution covers the entire political system of a country. In a democratic country, there are two forms of government that can be adopted, which are Parliamentary or Presidential systems. Democracy has clearly become the most widely recognized form of government with 123 out of the 192 countries following opting to be a democracy. In a Parliamentary system, a party which gets the majority of seats in the Parliament forms the government and elects one among them to be the Prime Minister who will be the de facto head. Conversely, in a Presidential system, President is the chief executive and is directly elected by the people or by an electoral college.

A renowned English scholar, Prof. Stephen Leacock compared both the systems through his single definition which says: “In a parliamentary government the tenure of office of the virtual executive is dependent on the will of the Legislature; in a Presidential government the tenure of office of the executive is independent of the will of the Legislature.”[1]This makes it certain that the basis of every form of government lies in the relationship between the Legislature and the executive. As citizens of a democratic country, it is imperative to look into and differentiate between the two distinct forms of government as well as develop a thorough understanding of the same.  

1. Genesis and Progression

Parliamentary system is an old form of government which dates back to the 12th century while Presidential system is relatively a new concept. Rudimentary form of Parliament can be traced back in 1188 Spain during the reign of King Alfonso IX, the King of Leon. Early examples of Parliament can be seen in Netherlands and Belgium during the Dutch revolt of 1581. A modern form of Parliament took birth in the Kingdom of Great Britain and Sweden in the 18th century. In England, Simon de Montfort is reminisced as one of the prime movers of representative government for convening two famous parliaments.It was the Parliament of England in the 17th century which led the way for some of the ideas and systems of liberal democracy culminating in the Glorious Revolution and legitimisation of the Bill of Rights 1689. [2]

Gradually, other countries began adopting the ‘Westminster model’ with an executive answerable to the Parliament and exercising the powers normally vested in the head of the state. These countries include Japan, India, Canada, etc.

The Presidential system was not in existence until 1789 when United States of America formed and adopted such a form of government. The system is quite dominant in Americas with 19 out of 22 sovereign states following this system. It is also being followed in Central and West Africa (as in Nigeria, Kenya etc.) and in Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan etc.

2. Comparison of Parliamentary and Presidential System

2.1 Parliamentary System in India

Ivor Jennings called the parliamentary system as ‘cabinet system’ since cabinet is the nucleus of power in a parliamentary system.[3] Political philosopher Garner defines the Parliamentary system as, “a Cabinet is that system in which the real executive – the Cabinet – is immediately and legally responsible to the legislature, for its political policies and acts, and immediately or ultimately responsible to the electorate; while the titular or nominal executive – the chief of the state – occupies a position of irresponsibility.”  The prime minister was called ‘primus inter parus’ meaning first among equals by the British constitutional and political pundits. The Indian Constitution provides for Parliamentary system in the Centre through Articles 74 & 75 and in the state through Articles 163 & 164.

Characteristics of Parliamentary System:

  1. Dual Executives: There exists a nominal executive and a real executive in a parliamentary system. The Prime Minister is the de facto/ real executive while the President serves as a de jure/ nominal/titular executive. Article 74 mandates a council of ministers led by the Prime Minister to aid and advice the President. The advice proffered is irrevocable by the President.
  2. Political Homogeneity: The ministers who form the government are drawn from the same party or made out of a coalition of members gaining majority in the Parliament and have a similar ideology and also follow a single policy.
  3. Majority Party Rule: The political party which secures majority seats in the Lok Sabha forms the government. The leader of that party is appointed as the Prime Minister by the President; other ministers are appointed by the President on the advice of the prime minister. However, when no single party gets the majority, coalition of parties may be invited by the President to form the government.[4]
  4. Collective Responsibility: The council of ministers is collectively responsible to the Parliament in general and to Lok Sabha specifically (Article 75). The principle also implies that the ministry which comprises of Prime Minister and his council of ministers, can topple down if a vote of no confidence is passed against them in the Lok Sabha.
  5. Captaincy of the Prime Minister: Prime Minister has the most vital role to play in a Parliamentary system since he is the leading light of the Parliament, the council of ministers and the ruling party.
  6. Confidentiality of Procedure: The ministers take an oath to maintain the secrecy of procedure which is administered by the President before taking charge of their offices [Article 75(4)]. They are bound to maintain the confidentiality of procedure and cannot disclose official decisions and strategies.
  7. Twin Membership: The ministers are both members of legislature and executive which means no individual can be a minister without being a member of the Parliament. Article 75(5) of the Indian Constitution reads that: “A Minister who for any period of six consecutive months is not a member of either House of Parliament shall at the expiration of that period ceases to be a Minister.”
  8. Dissolution of Lower House: The executive is empowered to dissolve the Legislature in a Parliamentary system. The President can dissolve the Lok Sabha on the recommendation of the Prime Minister before the actual expiry of the term.
  9. No clear classification of powers:  The powers and institutions of a Parliamentary form of government are not well defined. The political executive which comprises of the council of ministers headed by the Prime Minister is technically a part of the Parliament. This shows the absence of clear demarcation of positions and institutions.

2.3 Presidential System in USA

In a Presidential system, the executive is constitutionally independent of the legislature in the duration of its tenure and is not responsible with regards to their policies. Sections 3, 8, 9 of Article 1 of the American Constitution deal with the Senate, Powers of Congress and Limits of Congress respectively. Article 2 lays down the structure of the executive branch. Section 1 of Article 2 reads: “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four years, and, together with the Vice-President chosen for the same term…”.[5] Section 2 of Article 2 lays down the powers of the President while Article 3 establishes separation of powers. 

Characteristics of Presidential system:

  1. Single Executive: The American President is both the head of the state as well as head of the government. He is the head of the executive organ of the country. He occupies a ceremonial position as the head of the state.
  2. Clear differentiation of powers: This doctrine is the foundation stone of American Presidential System. The executive is not a creation of the Legislature. It does not require the confidence of legislature to hold office. Hence, they have distinct powers and responsibilities.
  3. Direct Election: People directly vote for choosing the electoral college who will in turn vote for the post of President.
  4. Fixed term of office: The President’s office goes by the calendar and he cannot be removed except by impeachment on serious grounds.
  5. Accountability to the Legislature: The American President and his secretaries are not accountable to the functioning of the Congress. They do not possess the membership neither do they attend the sessions of the Congress.
  6. Indissoluble Lower House: The President is not empowered to dissolve the Lower House of Congress or the House of representatives.

3. Analysis of Qualities

Basis          Parliamentary System                                                 Presidential System
Harmony between Two organsParliamentary system ensures cooperation harmonious relationship between the Legislature and the executive. The two organs are dependent upon each other. There is less scope for disputes.                                                                          The Legislature and the executive are two different entities and there are conflicts between the two.              
Responsibility of GovernmentThe ministers are responsible for every commission and omission. The Parliament keeps a check on the activities through various methods like the question hour, adjournment motion, no                                                  confidence motion, debate-discussions etc.                                           The system has wide separation of powers and both the organs are elected differently which makes it irresponsible.
RepresentationIt becomes to represent all regions and all Sections since the ministers are chosen by the Prime Minister in a way that adequate representation is ensured.                                                                                          There is narrow representation as ultimate authority vested with the President.                                                      
Degree of Despotism             The executive authority lies in the hands of a group of people and not a single person which acts as a way of checking dictatorial                                                 tendencies of the executive.                                                                           .                                                                                          The Head may turn authoritative as he may relegate his rival factions and marginalise the influence of other parties.                                                                                              
Stability of Government         No government has a guaranteed survival in the Office. No confidence motion, defection or                                                 political evils of coalition make the government unstable. The best example can be seen in the Janata government of 1977 in India.                                   The President is elected for a fixed term of 4 years during which he cannot be removed except by impeachment                                                                                                                                  in serious issues    
Continuity of Policies             The uncertainty of tenure of the government makes formulation and implementation of long- term policies impossible. A new government comes with new policies of its own. Policies of Janata Government was done away with when Congress party came into power in 1980.                                                  Since the President has security of his tenure the set policies can be accomplished without any obstacles.  
Expertise in Governance        Government is made by amateur ministers who are not experts in their respective fields. Prime Minister has a limited choice since the selection has to be made within the members Parliament alone.                                                                                                      Government is formed by experts since the President is free to choose the Senators or form his Kitchen Cabinet’ with people who he deems fit.      

4. India’s preference of Parliamentary system

Reason 1: 

India had been under the British colonial regime for close to two centuries who introduced the concept of Parliamentary system here and thus India was familiar with the process and procedures of Parliamentary system.

K.M. Munshi had specified in the Constituent Assembly while expressing the familiarity that: “We must not forget a very important fact that during the last one hundred years Indian public life has largely drawn upon the traditions of the British Constitutional Law. Most of us and during the last several generations before us, public men in India, have looked up to the British model as the best…. some kind of responsibility has been introduced in the governance of this country. Our constitutional traditions have become Parliamentary and we have now all our Provinces functioning more or less on the British model. As a matter of fact, today, the Dominion Government of India is functioning as a full-fledged Parliamentary government.”[6]

The Constitution of India rejected the Presidential system as in the U.S.A. on the grounds that under such a system, “the Executive and the Legislatures are separate from and independent of each other, which is likely to cause conflicts between them, which our infant democracy could ill-afford to risk”[7] as mentioned by Durga Das Basu in ‘Introduction to the Constitution of India’.   

Reason 2:

Stability and Responsibility were the two conditions that have to be satisfied by a democratic executive as mentioned by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly. The American System gives more stability but less responsibility. Hence, the Drafting Committee decided on adopting a system that is more responsible than stable.

Reason 3:

The Constitution makers believed that perpetual conflicts between the Legislature and the executive which are bound to occur in a Presidential system would not be healthy for an infant democracy. They wanted to have a government which shall work in harmony and be conducive to the future developments in the country.

Reason 4:

Nature of Indian Society is the factor for consideration of such a system as India is one of the most heterogenous societies in the world. Thus, they makers adopted the Parliamentary system which would be more representative and capable of addressing the issues of every community.

The issue of continuing with the Parliamentary system or switching over to Presidential system gained momentum in the 1970s.  The matter was considered by the Swaran Singh Committee appointed by the Congress government in 1975. The committee came to a conclusion that Parliamentary has been doing well in the country and is suited to nature of the country and there is no need of replacement.

Conclusion

Every system of government is designed or adopted keeping in mind the contemporary requirements of a country. India adopted the Parliamentary system with a view of giving more responsibility than power so as to serve as a catalyst in the progress of the country and also keeping in mind the nature of Indian society to give representation to every part of the country. Presidential system was opted by the United States so that it can have a more stable government and improved the quality of legislations through separate powers, checks and balances and much deliberation and also achieve protection of individual rights especially rights of minority . Thus, the systems that exist in these countries are carefully constructed bearing in mind the present as well as future prospects of a country and demands of the citizens. The system may have positives and negatives which needs to be checked from time to time and steps should be taken to correct them as far as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Who was the first president of America after the Constitution was adopted?

The first president of America after the adoption of Presidential System through the Constitution was George Washington who held the office from April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797.

2. How many countries follow the Parliamentary and Presidential System?

There are at least 73 countries that follow the Parliamentary system of Government and at least 50 countries that follow the Presidential system of government

3. Is President elected differently in India and USA?

Yes, President is elected by a different procedure in India than in USA. Articles 54 and 55 of the Indian Constitution deal with the election of President and its manner respectively. As per Article 54, The President is indirectly elected by the members of an electoral college consisting of (a) the elected members of both Houses of Parliament; and (b) the elected members of the Legislative Assemblies of the States. Section 1 of Article 2 of the American Constitution deals with the election of its President. The people registered to vote in any of the sates vote for the electoral college who will again vote to decide who will become the President. The President is finally elected by an Electoral college in USA.

4. Has India adopted any feature of governance from USA?

India has adopted the concept of impeachment of President, President being the supreme commander of Armed forces and also functions of President and Vice-President. Other than these, India has also adopted the concepts of Preamble, Fundamental Rights, Electoral College, Independent Judiciary, Judicial Review and removal of Supreme Court and High Court Judges.

5. In which system is the executive more accountable?

Parliamentary system is more accountable. The Legislature is the basis of executive’s power since they are indirectly elected and hence executive is more accountable in Parliamentary system. On the other hand, the President has complete control of powers in a Presidential system and is not accountable.

Assessment Questions

  1. What is the key difference between Parliamentary and Presidential Systems?
  2. What is the Westminster Model?
  3. Which article lays down the structure of the executive in the American Constitution?
  4. What is the alternate name for Parliamentary system?
  5. Which committee reviewed the need for switching over to Presidential system in India?

[1] Ankita, Difference: Parliamentary and presidential forms of government, Preserve Articles (July 1, 2020, 05:51 PM), https://www.preservearticles.com/difference/difference-parliamentary-and-presidential-forms-of-government/6988.

[2] Wikipedia, Parliamentary system, Wikipedia (July 2, 2020, 06:37 PM), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliamentary_system.

[3] M. Laxmikant, Indian Polity 248-257 (5 ed. McGraw Hill Education (India) Private Limited 2017).

[4] Ibid.

[5] U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 1.

[6] C.P.Barthwal, Coalition Governments in India, 73 The Indian Journal of Political Science 9, 11 (2012).

[7] Rooha Khurshid, Is Parliamentary form of Government good enough for India? Need for a Change, Lawctopus (July 2, 2020, 03:00 PM), https://www.lawctopus.com/academike/is-parliamentary-form-of-government-good-enough-for-india-need-for-a-change/#_edn7.

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