The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy

05-Jul-1999

10 Short Position Papers - VII

Filed under: Cabinet/Executive Papers — admin @ 1:45 pm

VII - Refuting Arguments Against Presidential Government
Professor Paul Eidelberg

Various arguments are made against presidential vis-a-vis parliamentary government. Some political scientists contend that, given the president’s fixed term of office, the political process becomes broken into discontinuous, rigidly determined periods without the possibility of continuous readjustments as political, social, and economic events may require. No evidence, however, is offered to substantiate this academic contention. One may equally argue that most governments under parliamentary systems run their allotted tenure of four years and are equally discontinuous.

Alternatively, it could be argued that presidentialism reduces the uncertainties and unpredictability inherent in parliamentarism. Parliamentary systems usually involve a large number of parties whose leaders and their rank-and-file legislators often undergo changing loyalties and realignments and can therefore, at any time between elections, make basic policy changes and even change the head of the executive, i.e., the prime minister. A country like Israel, surrounded by hostile dictatorships, requires strong and predictable executive power, hence presidential government.

Presidentialism also provides accountabilty and identifiability. The voter knows who he or she is voting for and who will govern should this candidate win. This may also be true in parliamentary regimes consisting of only a few parties with highly visible leaders. But it is certainly not true in a multiparty system (like Israel’s) in which no party can expect to gain an absolute majority, in which case the voter does not even know which parties will form a governing coalition.

It may also be said that unlike parliamentary systems, which often have a well-known shadow government, a president-elect starts naming a cabinet only after the election. Again this argument does not apply to Israel, where cabinets consisting of several parties are the rule. On the other hand, presidential government, after three of four elections, will tend to produce a two-party system on the national level, and this may in turn lead to the phenomenon of a shadow government.

Critics of presidentialism also refer to the phenomenon of “grid-lock,” when the legislature is dominated by a party other than that of the president. Studies indicate, however, that, in the USA, “grid-lock” is very much a myth. Politicians of both major parties know that the public’s business must be done if they are to remain in office, so that compromise between president and congress is the rule.

Some argue that the concentration of power in a president has prompted various countries to limit the presidency to two terms, which results in a second-term “lame-duck” president. The solution is simple: eliminate the two-term limitation, which is but to give the people the choice of retaining or changing their president. Besides, a prime minister, with a solid parliamentary majority, can yield more power than a president and remain in office for more than two terms. Israel needs a presidential system of government, which, by the way, is more consistent with Jewish concepts. (See Sanhedrin 8a.)

Finally, critics of presidential government point to the poor record of such systems in South America. But the political culture of South American countries is not very promising to parliamentary systems—as John Quincy Adams predicted 175 years ago!