The defining characteristic of a presidential government is how the executive is elected, but nearly all presidential systems share the following features.
Countries with congressional and presidential systems include the United States, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, South Korea, and most countries in South America. The widespread use of presidentialism in the Americas has caused political scientists to dub the Americas as "the continent of presidentialism."
Types of Presidents
Many countries with a president as head of state do not operate under what is described as the presidential system. The most defining element of a presidential system being the degree in which the head of state participates in day-to-day governance.
Presidential governments make no distinction between the positions of Head of state and Head of government, both of which are held by the president. Most parliamentary governments have a symbolic Head of State in the form of a president or monarch. That person is responsible for the formalities of state functions as the figurehead while the constitutional prerogatives as Head of Government are generally exercised by the Prime Minister. Such figurehead presidents tend to be elected in a much less direct manner than active, presidential system presidents, for example by a vote of the legislature.
There are also a few countries - the Czech Republic and South Africa being examples - which have powerful presidents who are elected by the legislature. These presidents are chosen in the same way as a prime minister, yet are still heads of state and heads of government, and cannot be deposed early. This method of electing a president was a plank in Madison's Virginia Plan and was seriously considered by the Framers of the American Constitution.
Some political scientists consider the conflation of head of state and head of government duties to be a problem of presidentialism because criticism of the president cum head of state is criticism of the state itself.
Presidents in presidential systems are always active participants in the political process, though the extent of their relative power may be influenced by the political makeup of the legislature and whether their supporters or opponents have the dominant position therein. In some presidential systems such as South Korea or the Republic of China (on Taiwan), there is an office of the prime minister or premier, but unlike semi-presidential or parliamentary systems, the premier is responsible to the president rather than to the legislature.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Presidential Systems
One of the most common criticisms of presidentialism is its difficulty in sustaining democratic practices. With the exception of the United States, presidentialism has slipped into authoritarianism at least once in every nation where it has been attempted. These failures are due to political cultures unconducive to democracy, the prominent role of the military in most of these countries, but also to the design flaws of presidentialism itself.
In a presidential system, the legislature and the president have equally valid mandates from the public. There is no way to reconcile conflict between the branches of government. When president and legislature are at loggerheads and government is not working effectively, there is a powerful incentive to employ extra-constitutional maneuvres to break the dead lock.
For example, Ecuador has presented a tragi-comedy of democratic failures just since 1979. Presidents have ignored the legislature or bypassed it altogether. One president even had the National Assembly teargassed, another president was kidnapped by paratroopers until he agreed to certain congressional demands. In 1984, President Febres Cordero tried to physically bar new Congressionally-appointed supreme court appointees from taking their seats. "From 1979 through 1988, Ecuador staggered through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations that created a near permanent crisis atmosphere in the polity." Columbia has similarly presented the problems inherent in presidentialism in the last twenty years. Presidents have also gone around Congress to legislate and simply to govern. In Brazil, presidents accomplish their objectives by creating executive agencies over which Congress had no say (Checks and Balances, pp 34-35)
Aside from the tension between the legislative and executive branches, there are other reasons for the failure of presidential systems. Winning the presidency is a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize -- unlike a prime minister, who is likely to have to form a coalition, a president's party can rule without any allies for four to six years, a worrisome situation for many interest groups.
Constitutions that only require plurality support are especially prone to catastrophe. The ill-fated Salvador Allende had become president of Chile with less than 40% of the vote. In 1962 Peru experienced a coup two days after an election in which no candidate received more than one-third of the vote.
Parliamentary systems can also slip into authoritarianism, but have done so less commonly. Of forty one Third World countries that established parliamentary systems since World War II, twenty eight, or nearly two-thirds, have become healthy democracies. Where parliamentary systems slip into authoritarianism, Ghana for instance, the dictator will often change the constitution to a presidential one. Apparently, dictatorships are more easily sustained in a presidential system than a parliamentary.
Other than their tendency to slip into authoritarianism, presidential systems do not offer voters the kind of accountability seen in parliamentary systems. It is easy for either the president or Congress to escape blame by blaming 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." (Checks and Balances , 10)
Consider the example of the increase in the federal debt that occurred during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Arguably, the deficts were the product of a bargain between President Reagan and Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill: O'Neill agreed not to oppose Reagan's tax cuts if Reagan would sign the Democrats' budget. Each side could claim to be displeased with the debt, plausibly blame the other side for the deficit, and still tout their own success.
Another problem of presidentialism is that it is practically impossible to remove a president from office early. Even if a president is "proved to be inefficient, even if he becomes unpopular, even if is policy is unacceptable to the majority of his countrymen,, he and his methods must be endured till the moment comes for a new election." (Balfour, intro to the English Constitution) Consider John Tyler, who only became president because William Henry Harrison had died after thirty days. Tyler refused to sign Whig legislation, was loathed by his nominal party, but remained firmly in control of the executive branch. Since there is no legal way to remove an unpopular president, many presidential countries have experienced military coups to remove a leader who has lost his mandate, as in Salvador Allende. Presumably, in a parliamentary system, the unpopular leader could have been removed by a vote of no confidence, a device which is a "pressure release valve" for political tension.
Walter Bagehot also criticized presidentialism because it does not allow a transfer in power in the event of an emergency.
Finally, many have criticized presidential systems for their slowness in responding to their citizens' needs. Often, the checks and balances make action extremely 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." (ibid.)
Woodrow Wilson, the only president ever to earn a Ph.D., also criticized presidentialism and praised parliamentarianism. Wilson wrote
Yet, presidentialism does have many advantages in terms of democracy, process, and surviving emergencies.
A prime minister is chosen by a few individuals of the legislature, a president is chosen by the people. A popularly elected leadership is inherently more democratic than a leadership chosen by the elite.
Despite the existence of the no confidence vote, in practice, it is extremely difficult to stop a cabinet that has made its decision. To vote down the cabinet's legislation is to bring down a government and have new elections, a step few backbenchers are willing to take. 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." (Leave the Constitution Alone, Arthur M. Schlesinger, 1982)
The lack of checks and balances and congressional investigation of the executive means that misconduct by a prime minister may never be discovered. Writing about Watergate, Woodrow Wyatt, a former MP, said "don't think a Watergate couldn't happen here, you just wouldn't hear about it." (ibid) (note, if Congress is controlled by the president's party, a major scandal might never see the light of day in the USA either)
Also, even though presidential systems may have long periods of legislative inaction, when the public demands it, presidential systems can be just as quick moving as parliamentary ones. Checks and balances did not interfere significantly with the legislative programs of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, or Lyndon Johnson. "When the country is not sure what ought to be done, it may be that delay, debate, and further consideration are not a bad idea." (ibid) When Franklin Delano Roosevelt overstepped and tried to pack the Supreme Court, Congress was there to check him.
Divided government also restrains the excesses of both parties. In a divided government, bipartisan input into legislation is guaranteed. "There are some of us who think gridlock is the best thing since indoor plumbing," Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel wrote in 1995,
Although votes of no confidence tend to be rare in some parliamentary systems, they are over common in a few others. Italy, Israel, Weimar Germany, and the French Fourth Republic all have or had problems with governmental stability. When parliamentary systems have multiple parties and governments depend on coalitions, as they do with nations that vote by proportional representation, extremist parties can use the threat of leaving the coalition to blackmail the centrist parties who are leading.
Many people consider presidential systems to be superior in surviving emergencies. A presidential system has its flaws, but at least it is stable. A country under enormous stress may 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, Sri Lanka did likewise during its civil war, Israel experimented with a directly elected prime minister in the 1990's. In at least the first two cases, the results are widely considered to have been positive.
Finally, although more parliamentary regimes have survived in the Third World than presidential ones, the success of parliamentary regimes may depend more on the British-influence of those parliamentary countries than anything else. Britain, unlike most other colonial powers, let native peoples have some practice of governing. Britain's former colonies have been more successful in other regards as well.
Parliament versus Congress
Though presidential systems can theoretically operate with either a congress or a parliament the former is far more common. For this reason, the term congressional system is often used interchangeably with presidential system.
Differences from a Cabinet System
A number of key theoretical differences exist between a presidential and a cabinet system:
In reality, elements of both systems overlap. Though a president in a presidential system does not have to choose a government answerable to the legislature, the legislature may have the right to scrutinise 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. 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 its ability to control the government.
In the late nineteenth century, it was speculated that the United States Speaker of the House of Representatives would evolve into a quasi-prime minister, with the US system evolving into a form of parliamentarianism. However this did not happen. More recently, it has been suggested that the office of White House Chief of Staff, the President's chief aide, has become a de facto United States prime minister of sorts, with his dominance or weakness in the US governmental system depending on whether there is a "hands off" or "hands on" president. (Ronald Reagan was the former, Bill Clinton the latter). Reagan's Chiefs of Staff in many ways ran the day to day affairs of government, with the President standing back from intervention.
Some countries, such as France have similarly evolved to such a degree that they can no longer be accurately described as either presidential or parliamentary-style governments, and are instead grouped under the category of semi-presidential system.