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  • Parliaments Over Presidents?
  • Matthew Soberg Shugart (bio)
The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Edited by Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 436 pp. Paper, 2 vols. Vol. 1, 169 pp. Vol. 2, 358 pp.

This book is the long-awaited product of a symposium on the relative merits of presidential and parliamentary forms of government held at Georgetown University in 1989. Anchoring the collection is a masterfully revised version of the now famous paper that Juan Linz presented at that conference, a summary of which appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of the Journal of Democracy. Linz’s essay alone is reason enough to purchase the book, which is available in two paperback volumes (Linz’s chapter appears in both) as well as in a single hardcover volume (to which page numbers in this review refer). Other leading scholars have also made important contributions. This collection is “must reading” for anyone interested in the relationship between political institutions and democratization.

Most of the contributions echo the thesis presented by Linz—namely, that presidentialism is inherently inferior to parliamentarism. Alfred Stepan and Cindy Skach provide empirical support for Linz’s argument, demonstrating that few presidential systems have maintained stable democracy. Building on his previous work on the contrast between majoritarian and consensus models of governance, Arend Lijphart argues that even Westminster-style parliamentarism—in which single-party cabinets prevail—can be considered less majoritarian than presidentialism, for the simple reason that a prime minister can be ousted by his or her colleagues in the party on strictly political grounds. [End Page 168] Giovanni Sartori shares the other contributors’ skepticism about the efficacy of U.S.-style presidentialism, but is just as critical of parliamentary systems that are based on coalition cabinets. He notes that direct election of the president “counters ‘proportional politics’” (p. 115), although he favors a French-style system, in which the cabinet depends on the confidence of parliament rather than that of the president. In an excellent chapter on the case of France, Ezra N. Suleiman shows that the initiation of presidential elections in 1965 profoundly transformed the party system; at the same time, he argues that because the prime minister and cabinet are dependent for their political survival on the parliamentary majority, the constitutional powers of the presidency have been much less important to the functioning of the regime than is generally assumed. (The French system is therefore not the “pure presidentialism” seen in the United States and Latin America.)

The remaining chapters, which make up the second paperback volume, cover specific Latin American cases: Chile (Arturo Valenzuela), Uruguay (Luis Eduardo González and Charles Guy Gillespie), Brazil (Bolívar Lamounier), Colombia (Jonathan Hartlyn), Ecuador (Catherine M. Conaghan), Peru (Cynthia McClintock), and Venezuela (Michael Coppedge). These historical surveys of governmental performance are certainly useful, yet rarely does the reader gain a good feel for how policy is actually made. In general, the authors pay insufficient attention to relations among different branches of government in the process of setting national priorities, passing budgets, and so forth.

The focus of the book is political stability, which Linz says is endangered by the so-called dual democratic legitimacy of presidential systems. In a parliamentary system, the head of government is selected by the legislature and can be dismissed by a legislative vote of no confidence. There is no equivalent means of breaking an executive-legislative impasse in a presidential system, in which the head of government emerges out of a separate electoral process. Thus parliamentarism is “flexible”; presidentialism, “rigid.” Linz and his fellow contributors argue that this rigidity may tempt the military to assume the role of “moderating power.”

The implication that the risk of coups could be eliminated by switching to parliamentarism goes too far, however. Looking beyond Latin America, we find a number of parliamentary systems with records of military intervention, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, and Turkey. And this brings us to the biggest shortcoming of this collection—which could almost as easily have been entitled The Failure of Latin American Democracy. The problem is the following: Given the concentration of presidential democracies in one part of the world (namely, Latin America), how...