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  • Presidents vs. ParliamentsThe Centrality of Political Culture
  • Seymour Martin Lipset (bio)

Juan Linz and Donald Horowitz are to be commended for reviving the discussion of the relationship between constitutional systems—presidential or parliamentary—and the conditions that make for stable democracy. Linz, basing himself largely on the Latin American experience, notes that most presidential systems have repeatedly broken down. Horowitz, a student of Asia and Africa, emphasizes that most parliamentary systems, particularly those attempted in almost all African countries and some of the new nations of postwar Asia, have also failed. He could also have pointed to the interwar collapse of democratic parliamentarism in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany, and most of Eastern Europe. Conversely, in addition to the successful parliamentary regimes of northern Europe and the industrialized parts of the British Commonwealth, countries such as France under the Fifth Republic, pre-Allende Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay (for most of this century) offer examples of stable and democratic presidentialism

Clearly, it is not obvious that constitutional variations in type of executive are closely linked to democratic or authoritarian outcomes. As Linz emphasizes, parliamentary government (especially where there are several parties but none with a clear majority) gives different constituencies more access to the decision-making process than they would enjoy in presidential systems, and presumably helps bind these constituencies to the polity. Under presidential government, those opposed to the president's party may regard themselves as marginalized, and thus may seek to undermine presidential legitimacy. Because presidential [End Page 80] government entrusts authority and ultimate responsibility to a single person, some scholars regard it as inherently unstable; failures can lead to a rejection of the symbol of authority. Power seems more diversified in parliamentary regimes.

The reality is more complicated. Given the division of authority between presidents and legislatures, prime ministers and their cabinets are more powerful and may pay less attention to the importunings of specific groups. A prime minister with a majority of parliament behind him has much more authority than an American president. Basically, such parliaments vote to support the budgets, bills, and policies that the government presents. Government members must vote this way, or the cabinet falls and an election is called. Unlike members of a legislative branch, opposition parliamentarians, though free to debate, criticize, or vote against the policies set by the executive, rarely can affect them.

The situation is quite different in a presidential system. The terms of the president and cabinet are not affected by votes in the legislature. As a result, party discipline is much weaker in, say, the U.S. Congress than it is in the British Parliament. In the United States and other presidential systems, the representation of diverse interests and value groups in different parties leads to cross-party alliances on various issues. Local interests are better represented in Congress, since a representative will look for constituency support to get reelected and can vote against his president or party. An MP, however, must go with his prime minister and his party, even if doing so means alienating constituency support.

The fact that presidencies make for weak parties and weak executives, while parliaments tend to have the reverse effect, certainly affects the nature of and possibly the conditions for democracy. But much of the literature wrongly assumes the opposite: that a president is inherently stronger than a prime minister, and that power is more concentrated in the former. I should emphasize that a condition for a strong cabinet government is the need to call a new election when a cabinet loses a parliamentary vote. Where parliament continues and a new cabinet is formed from a coalition of parties, no one of which has a majority, parliamentary cabinets may be weak, as in the Weimar Republic, the Third and Fourth French Republics, or contemporary Israel and India.

In my recent book Continental Divide, which compares the institutions and values of the United States and Canada, I note that the difference between presidential and parliamentary systems in comparable continent-spanning, federal polities results in two weak parties in the United States and multiple strong ones in Canada. The U.S. system appears to be the more stable of the...