Down with Presidentialism: Guest post by Mike Pepperday

This book included Linz's long essay about the perils of presidentialismPeople disappointed with democratic outcomes often call for better education of the citizenry. But the democracies began, and flourished, in the nineteenth century, when people were quite poorly educated. They proved resilient and backsliding only seems to occur where democracy is not properly established.

Nearly everywhere, a choice developed between two options called left and right, represented by two political teams. The international pervasiveness of this division reflects something in the nature of human sociality. Experience has been that, over time, the sides take turns at governing.

Voting essentially consists of choosing one of the two sides every few years. If it is useful to educate the voters, professors of philosophy, political science and economics must do it better. There is no such evidence and presumably on average fifty per cent of them vote for the wrong side every election.

Education of the voters seems irrelevant. Perhaps the problem is not that voters are too dumb but that leaders are too clever. That would mean political institutions should be designed to restrict leaders’ power. This, of course, is the very purpose of democracy.

Realisations of democracy (“rule by the people”) are imperfect so flaws are countered by ad hoc measures such as term limits and powerful courts. Such measures help but the problem goes deeper.

The worst flaw is the presidential system. This is where the people elect the chief executive who then chooses the cabinet ministers. It malfunctions everywhere. It is currently in disarray, or has failed outright, in the Philippines, South Korea, Brazil, Venezuela, and Turkey. Generally in Latin America it has an appalling record. Russia and the other post-soviet presidential countries have fallen to autocrats and brought democracy into disrepute. Indonesia will succumb, perhaps soon, as will East Timor.

Compare the stability of the parliamentary system where the prime minister and cabinet are chosen by parliament. Examples are Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australasia. Designs vary and performances vary but failure (e.g., India 1975) is rare and the post-soviet parliamentary countries are also managing. Parliamentary systems tend, long-term, toward fairer electoral rules, fairer legislatures and fairer laws.

Only one presidential democracy has endured and after two centuries, the first modern democracy is still working. But not very well. It is a violent society with intractable problems of gerrymandering, crime, poverty, healthcare, urban blight, drug addiction, gun ownership, and undocumented immigration. It is also prone to manic episodes such as speculation, depression, mass sterilisation of women, prohibition, McCarthyism, assassination, prisoner torture, and foreign adventurism, which are largely absent from parliamentary democracies. These episodes brought death and sorrow to millions.

The failings of presidential countries are not caused by voters’ poor education. We could blame the leaders—as we do, always hoping for a better one—but the real problem is the political structure which permits such leadership.

Compare a structure of non-leadership: Switzerland. Parliament elects the Swiss cabinet after the four-yearly national election and mostly re-elects the same people. The cabinet chair rotates annually through the ministers. There is no leader and ministers cannot be sacked. Except for ministers, members of parliament are part-time. Political personalities are little celebrated and no party or coalition ever wins a legislative majority or a cabinet majority.

Acts of cabinet and of federal parliament cannot be challenged in court. All laws are subject to referendum if 50,000 signatures are gathered within 100 days. 50,000 is not many, so the cabinet designs legislation more with an eye to its acceptance by parliament and public than with an eye to re-election.

A stock joke is that Switzerland does not have a government, only an administration. Swiss citizens elect representatives every four years but also vote at around ten national referendums every year. The referendum result is final. Twice, the populist vote—the deplorables—prevented the country joining the EU and the well-educated said direct democracy had failed. However, since the 2008 financial crisis few regret those outcomes.

All international treaties must be approved at referendum. Switzerland has the world’s most effective foreign policy: it has not been invaded for over two centuries and has not lost a soldier to war since 1847. Surrounded by war and fascism, it stayed peaceful and free. Next door Austria, with a similar highland German culture, was in the thick of both world wars and embraced Hitler enthusiastically.

The Swiss own guns like Americans but without the problems. Switzerland has poor soil, no natural resources, no import tariffs, and open borders. Its income per capita has been one of the world’s highest for decades.

Evidently, the less leadership the better. At a minimum, democracy should inhibit demagoguery and oligarchy—which the presidential system encourages. The parliamentary system mostly copes but best, apparently, is direct democracy whereby the citizens, educated or not, get to rule and do not merely decide every few years who will rule for them.

Powerful presidents usually do not want parliamentary democracy (though Finland made the shift during 1990-2012) and few politicians want direct democracy. So the outlook is for the disorder and injustice to continue: the stable parliamentary democracies will muddle on, the USA will have its manic bouts, and the presidential countries of Latin America, Asia, and eastern Europe will lurch from one president to the next, democracy sometimes starting but never getting properly established.

The political education of citizens may be worthy but the real need is for reform of political structures, in particular the transfer of power from presidents to legislatures.


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22 Responses to Down with Presidentialism: Guest post by Mike Pepperday

  1. Ravi Smith says:

    I have thought a lot about these issues. I’m still trying to figure it all out, but here is a basic outline of my thoughts.
    Think of the Swiss system as consisting of three principles:
    1. Free (and armed) citizens join together to form local communities with the power to tax and form their own rules.
    2. Local communities join together to form larger units.
    3. There is no hierarchical bureaucracy.

    The 1st objective is fulfilled by local direct democracy. #2 occurs through the principle of double majority (decisions require a majority of the population and a majority of the communal units). Since the lower units can enact legislation, this isn’t undemocratic. This allows diverse communities to join together (higher level units are drawn to maintain a balance between the various identities). #3 is accomplished through integrating all major political players into a collegial bureaucracy (the Swiss concordance system)

    The reason the US hasn’t become a dictatorship is because it doesn’t really have a Presidential system. If we exclude the Southern states, the US and Switzerland were both federal direct democracies with most decisions made in town meetings. In Switzerland, the Concordance system was instituted in 1891 and the initiative in 1892. The two main goals of the Progressive movement in the US were the initiative and independent agencies. Independent agencies operate differently (Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation with fixed, staggered terms), but serve roughly the same function as the concordance system. I&R spread to 24 states from 1898-1918. Woodrow Wilson almost got it passed at the federal level, but was thrown off by WWI and became a lame duck after the failure to ratify Versailles.

    Neither country can be said to have a sovereign (a person in charge). Passing legislation requires piecing together a double majority on each law in both countries. That is why US party discipline is so weak and legislation so difficult to pass. The US system isn’t broken so much as half-built. States with I&R work quite well (with incomes around the Swiss level and vastly lower homicide rates). America also has the task of integrating Southern whites and African-Americans. I predict that states will start conducting referendums on federal laws and then forcing their representatives in Congress to support the decisions. Transferring power to independent agencies is a good idea, and will continue somewhat, but is rather undemocratic w/o I&R.

    American society is certainly more prone to moral panics caused by competitive offense-taking and has been since the first Puritans arrived, but that is a whole new topic and this comment is already too long.

    • Alan says:

      Town meetings were restricted to the New England states and (on a rather less admirable basis) to the Southern states.

      The antebellum lynch mob actually had a rather established structure. Almost all Southern counties had a slave patrol, formally designated as the militia. The colonels who populate antebellum literature (and some post Civil War literature such as Gone with the Wind) tend to be head of the county militia/slave patrol and not officers in the US army.

      Antebellum lynch mobs were most often the county militia acting under the direction of the local colonel. Antebellum lunching victims were almost always whites accused of opposing slavery. Slaves in similar situations were subjected to summary execution.

      The militia would meet and elect a lynching committee of local notables, designated by titles like ‘Committee of the Respectable’ to conduct a trial that almost always ended in conviction and death for the defendant. Lynching committees would issue elaborate statements describing how the sovereign people had met in convention and elected them to try the defendant for treason against the South. So the South had its own variant of the town meeting which looks suspiciously like some of the wilder claims made by contemporary sovereign citizen movements.

      Paeans of joy to the glories of the Swiss constitution need to deal with one small problem:

      During his visit in January 2006, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, Doudou Diène, has observed that Switzerland suffers from racism, discrimination and xenophobia. After five days of meetings with government ministers, community groups and other parties, Diène said that racism was being ‘trivialised’, especially in political circles. Swiss political and public debate is marked by a strong preoccupation with the issue of foreigners, their treatment and definition, and policies relating to them, Diène observed. Racist and xenophobic platforms that in the past were the territory of extremist parties are now gradually and profoundly shaping the democratic political programme. “I noted the repeated and strong presence of xenophobia in certain institutions, such as the police,” he added. “I have gathered information about the high level of racially-motivated physical and verbal violence directed towards certain groups.”

      In many ways that sounds very much like a Southern state in the US. Direct democracy is simply not an unmixed blessing.

      Even parliamentarism with proportional representation and an entrenched bill of rights can still produce a Jacob Zuma. For that matter a certain Central European country in the 1930s had parliamentarism, direct democracy and an entrenched bill of rights and the combination did not automatically prevent the emergence of dictatorship.

      A better argument would be to discuss parliamentarism in terms of the extent of economic and political development. Comparing apples and oranges is unpersuasive.

      • Ravi Smith says:

        Town meeting government tended to spread along the New England Yankee migration route (Upstate NY, Michigan through Minnesota and out to Oregon & Northern California).

        I’m no expert on Southern history, but as I understood it, the South was a totalitarian society up until the 60s. The slave patrol was replaced by the lynch mob and then secret police organizations. It was closer to the USSR than Switzerland; not really direct democracy. Which also helps explain the low trust in police common to many African American communities.

        The Poor Whites of the South (Rednecks) generally have high levels of racial resentment. However, most of them were also excluded from voting during Jim Crow. They were enfranchised as poll taxes were removed after WWII. They are probably more similar in status to the Coloured population in South Africa than to the Southern Gentry. I thought this quote was interesting:

        In the United States the poor white were encouraged to hate the Negroes because they could then be used to help hold the Negroes in slavery. The Negroes were taught to show contempt for the poor white because this would increase the hatred between them and each side could be used by the master to control the other. The real interest of the poor whites and the Negroes were the same, that of resisting the oppression of the master class. But ignorance stood in the way. This race hatred was at first used to perpetuate white supremacy in politics in the South. The poor whites are almost injured by it as are the Negroes.

        – John T. Cambell (1906)

        I’ve been living in Switzerland for two years now. For what it’s worth, the UK and Switzerland actually seemed to be the European countries most comfortable interacting with different coloured people.

        Direct democracy certainly isn’t an unmixed blessing! It’s hard to beat the Westminster system in terms of deliberative qualities. The relevant opportunity cost for the US isn’t parliamentarism, but the status quo. James Bryce made the following observation 129 years ago, and I think it still holds true today:

        One argument only, an argument formerly used by Swiss opponents of the Initiative, is never heard in Western America. No one alleges that the people in judging of proposals laid before them by the Initiative lose the enlightenment that might have been derived from debates on it in the legislatures, for nobody, except as Mark Twain said, a person suffering from senile decay, reads those debates.

  2. Michael Maley says:

    I don’t think it’s correct to classify East Timor as having a presidential system: the executive there is determined by which party or coalition can command a majority in the Parliament. At most, their own description of their system as “semi-presidential” would be fitting.

  3. Alan says:

    The trouble is that you could write an identical argument, almost word for word, on the failures of parliamentarism if you limit your examples to developing economies. One would also have to address the experience of the US states which have chugged along quote happily with directly elected governors for some time.

    In 1900 the Westminster democracies comprised Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. In the next 50 years Britain and Ireland experienced a brutal civil war that led to Irish independence, governance in Newfoundland collapsed entirely in 1935 leading to the reimposition of direct rule by Britain and South Africa launched the apartheid regime which ultimately degenerated into a racist police state and civil war.

    A failure rate of over 50% is not exactly awe-inspiring when it comes to political stability.

    • Mike Pepperday says:

      Hi Alan.

      I was considering those countries that have a substantial democratic history.

      If I were considering developing parliamentary countries I don’t know that it would be an almost identical argument. I might note that Botswana works among all those failures and I’d expatiate on the parliamentary catastrophe that is the single chamber composed of single-member electoral districts. This unicameral single-member structure has an even more thorough record of failure than presidentialism. You can’t say that it ever gets established; it just doesn’t work at all.

      No, I don’t have to address US states. States and countries are different. For example, the unicameral single-member parliament can be made to work in Queensland and the Northern Territory. But it will never work in PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomons—any more than it did in Northern Ireland or New Zealand. States and countries are different.

      Your 50% failure rate for the Anglos needs qualification but is itself very significant. However here it is not material. Established parliamentary systems include up to two dozen more countries than the Anglos. Failures are relatively rare.

      Tell me: What has the alleged racism of Switzerland to do with its constitution or its direct democracy?

      • Alan says:

        The thing is that if you look at the handful of non-Westminster systems that existed in 1900 you don’t help your case much. Adding in Germany, Austria, France and Italy does not make the stats look any better. All suffered regime collapse and dictatorship. Beyond that you have the Netherlands and the Scandinavias.

        The Visegrad Group are showing signs of the same trajectory. All are either parliamentary or semipresidential.

        Switzerland gets mentioned as if its constitution guaranteed an ideal society when the reality simply does not match the vision. Switzerland, in any case is not parliamentary but assembly-independent. Although the parliament elects the government, the government is not responsible to the parliament.

        If you look at the 19 countries classified as full democracies by the Economist Intelligence Unit, you find that presidential Uruguay makes the cut, although the US does not.

        I do not think you can write off presidentialism as inherently prone to tyranny or describe parliamentarism as inherently immune to tyranny.

  4. paul frijters says:

    ah Mike,

    you are, as usual, refreshingly absolutist in your statements. But your story lacks a theory: why would a presidential system be more prone to capture and instability than a parliamentary one?

    When playing the game of ‘history teaches us…’ one is always glossing over a lot of variation to come up with categories like ‘presidential’ and ‘parliamentary’. And one is taking things as static which are in reality much more fluid. In Turkey, for instance, a parliamentary system has just turned Presidential. Also, taking things more widely, should I take the period in which the Kings of Brittain were more powerful than parliament (pre-Cromwell) as ‘presidential’? The Kings certainly appointed the ministers and ran the show, so using your characterisation above the period of Kings was indeed presidential. Despite being overthrown now and then, it worked for 600 years or so in Brittain, longer than any parliamentary system. Perhaps you’d quibble because these Kings were not elected, but judging by longevity, you’d then start to conclude that parliaments have less going for them than royalty. Indeed, by the letter of many of those European parliamentary constitutions, the Kings still appoint the ministers even today.

    So to be persuasive, you have to tell me about what characteristics you see being innate to a presidential system that you do not see in a parliamentary one, and then argue that (some of) those characteristics invite trouble.

    On the other matter, there is a reasonable argument that parliamentary systems produce stronger feelings of nationalism than presidential systems: in presidential systems, identification of a voter with one person is embedded. In a parliamentary system, identification of a voter is with some more abstract notion of ‘us’. For that greater abstraction to work, a bit more education is handy (abstraction is hard work), but with a stronger sense of ‘us’ you also get a clearer sense of ‘them. Indeed, by its nature, democracy is exclusionary: only ‘we’ get to vote for ‘our’ politicians.

  5. Mike Pepperday says:

    On reflection (and a little research), I think I agree with Michael Maley. East Timor looks pretty safe. France is semi-presidential and it recently moved to increase the president’s power by making the legislatures more likely to be in agreement with the president. France is a bit erratic and has adjusted its system a few times since WW2. Israel, too, recently introduced direct presidential election. Time will tell.

    In general I see no point the national election of a president. It sounds democratic but it has just got to fuel narcissism and demagoguery. And to elect a person with no power strikes me as ratty. The whole point is that we elect powerful officials, not powerless ones.

    To Ravi—I don’t know that I agree with much you have said. Your first two principles might sort-of apply to Swiss history but there is rather more to it. As for the third, I would judge Switzerland as very bureaucratic. Like the Austrians: more German than the Germans.

    Modern Switzerland began with the 1848 constitution which provided for initiative for total revision. The facultative referendum to decide the fate of a law was introduced in 1874. The only vote requiring a double majority is for constitutional change: a majority of votes in a majority of states—same as us. I think we got it from them.

    I would call the US extremely presidential—the epitome, indeed, in view of the total control over the cabinet. The US has no one in charge? George Bush went to war in Kuwait. George W Bush went to war in Iraq. In Switzerland there really is no leader; no one gets to appoint cabinet members; no one swans around getting photographed with “world leaders.”

    Decisions such as to go to war in 1812 and 1860, to build the transcontinental railway and the Panama Canal, and to abolish slavery and booze, can’t be made at town meetings. There is no double majority required for laws in either country—just the usual passing of both houses.

    I am not exactly sure what you call Concordance. The election of MPs of different parties to the cabinet? It seems like a stretch to equate that with independent agencies. Presumably Switzerland would have those as well.

    I see two significant differences comparing the US states’ initiatives with Switzerland’s. In the US the number of signatures required is often (mostly?) very high which tends to confine activism to the wealthy who can pay for professional signature collection. The other point is that the result of the referendum is usually (always?) not final.
    Where the result is not final, the voters know they are not actually making the decision so the referendum becomes a lobbying exercise, an ambit claim to be presented as evidence in court when the result is challenged.

    On occasion I have ruminated with friends on why the US, alone of presidential countries (actually you can make an argument for Costa Rica), has managed to stay democratic. I think we concluded it was due to its being a federation of jealous states where the president has a political base in one of them. Of course, that doesn’t apply to the present incumbent.

    And as to your final comment. Offence-taking is surely not Puritan. In the US it is a southern phenomenon. In general I think its roots lie not just in competition but where status is important and there is a lack of law and order, resulting in a felt need to take the law into one’s own hands.

    • Ravi Smith says:


      The federal popular initiative wasn’t established in Switzerland until 1891 ( Most major legislation is voted upon by directly and requires a double majority.

      Parliamentary and Semi-presidential systems are both ‘fusion of powers’ systems. In a parliamentary system, if the cabinet disagrees with a majority in parliament, then parliament dismisses it. In a semi-presidential system, if the president can’t get parliament to appoint his preferred cabinet, he dissolves it.

      The US system corresponds to neither scenario. Most federal policy is decided in Congress (where each member is independent and thus, party affiliation doesn’t count for much). The president can fire cabinet members at will, but he still needs a majority of the Senate to confirm any nomination. Foreign policy is one of the few areas where the President has significant autonomous powers. Even there, ⅔ of Congress can limit Presidential discretion ( More importantly, the US cabinet is mostly an administrative body (except in foreign affairs). For example, the Secretary of Education plays almost no role in setting educational policy. The SoE mostly administers the student loans program.

      I think you’re spot on in analyzing the differences between state initiatives and Swiss initiatives, although the more local you get in the US, the closer it is to the Swiss system. The expansion of judicial power ultimately just shifts the political battle to controlling appointments to the judicial branch.

      The Swiss system is certainly better than the US system, but they are both fundamentally different from other countries in the degree of powers that sub-national units have and the large number of veto players at the federal level. The number of veto players is one of the main reasons that special interests are so powerful. It took Obama more than a year to enact Obamacare, which had many giveaways to local/special interests. The Republicans haven’t repealed the bill even though they have a majority in both houses. For most legislation, it really does make more sense to think of adding together local interests across the nation.

  6. Mike Pepperday says:

    Hi Paul.

    A theory of why the presidential system is more prone to capture? I did give one: the direct vote of the populace leads to demagoguery. That is the “characteristic innate to a presidential system.” Why does this happen? Because men love power. Why do they love power? Darwin ordains it. For example, it is said that 6% of the population of between the Caspian Sea and eastern China carries the genes of a single man. We are a hierarchical animal; we love leading and we love submitting to leaders. The parliamentary system curbs this tendency.

    “one is always glossing over a lot of variation to come up with categories like ‘presidential’ and ‘parliamentary’ ”
    I disagree. It is in the nature of any theory to interrelate categories which are idealised. Economics does little else. It means the reality will show borderline cases. But the distinction between presidential and parliamentary (standard in political science) is pretty straightforward: either the chief executive is popularly elected or not. Either she chooses her cabinet or not. In the two dozen or so established democracies there are only two grey cases where despite directly elected presidents the legislatures have most of the power: France and Finland. Well, that is the very reason they are democracies.

    But we can double those empirical cases, not by the pre-Cromwell Kings of Britain (who were always going to war, which is what you get when power is concentrated) but by the permanent shambles which is Latin America. Those countries are far older than Australia and New Zealand and just as intrinsically rich. Why didn’t they turn into stable democracies in the late 19th century? Why can’t they get it together? Why are their people impoverished and hammering on America’s door begging for the privilege of working at the world’s most menial jobs? What are all those countries doing wrong?

    Turkey hasn’t just turned presidential. It was ten years ago. Says the CIA site: “a 2007 constitutional amendment changed the presidential electoral process to direct popular vote.” That was the moment Turkey signed its own death warrant. 10 years on it is a dictatorship. It will probably get worse, too.

    • paul frijters says:

      sigh. Refreshingly absolutist and selectively deaf are close concepts.

      You say France is a grey case, but Turkey after 2007 was not? Both in 2010 had a system of a Prime minister, chosen by the president, where the PM headed the government. Erdogan was PM before 2014, not President. Perhaps you need to consult more than just a headline on a CIA fact book?

      There have been many books written on Latin America and its political problems. I understand there were lots of experiments in its history with types of political systems in the 19th century and beyond, but that they slid into presidential systems. It is a bit hard to say presidential systems are inherently bad if the supposed good alternative is not stable of its own and can slide into the bad outcome. Then, clearly, somethings else supersedes both in terms of what makes a stable system. Also, despite its problems, Latin America is not doing that badly. They are middle income countries with decent life expectancies and decent levels of health and happiness. Much better than most countries in Africa and even much of Asia. So I wouldn’t take them as your exhibit A.

      Sure, men love power and indeed are prone to submit to it too. That is the case everywhere. You say together with direct votes that power hunger produces demagoguery, which for me does not follow at all. Parliamentary systems have direct votes too. Why not demagoguery in that? And indeed, under which definition of demagoguery are they not demagogic (fake news was apparently invented in 19th century Victorian Brittain! You should read the UK papers if you want to see constant demagoguery). Also, there are plenty of parliamentary elections, like the upcoming one in Germany, that are deliberately reduced by the main political parties to a horse-race between particular individuals (do you want Merkel to be your chancellor? And the chancellor appoints the ministers). Why not demagoguery for that type of personal politics?

      So, I repeat, you need a theory.

    • Alan says:

      The 2007 amendment made Turkey semipresidential, not presidential. There continued to be a prime minister and cabinet who were responsible to the parliament. The amendment passed last year makes the prime minister and the cabinet responsible to the president. Indeed, as the Venice Commission noted, the new Turkish constitution cannot be classed as democratic.

  7. Mike Pepperday says:

    Thanks for the link to Professor Kobach’s article, Ravi. What an excellent outline of the evolution of the Swiss referendum system. When I saw who the author was, I wondered whether your professor beats my professor. But our professors agree. You have somehow misread him. Kobach says:
    “The 1848 Constitution … established the constitutional initiative for total revision, by which 50,000 citizens could petition the government to call a referendum on a proposed rewriting of the document.”

    and then after discussing the Constitutional revision of 1874:
    “With 30,000 signatures—not difficult to achieve in a country of 2.7 million—or with the vote of eight cantons, any non-urgent law could be challenged in a nationwide referendum.”

    Kobach’s well-written article contains illustration after illustration of how the people acquire power when one bunch of elites beats another bunch by giving a measure of power to the people. (I think this is the only way the people acquire power.)

    You say: “Most major legislation is voted upon by directly and requires a double majority.”
    No, Swiss most laws just pass the two houses. Only 6% of them suffer a facultative referendum—the 30K signatures is now 50K. The referendum does not require a double majority; only constitutional amendments need that. Taken decade by decade, the 6% is remarkably constant. Of these, half fail.

    You have: “In a parliamentary system, if the cabinet disagrees with a majority in parliament, then parliament dismisses it.” Well, not quite. Disagreements are common. It is if the house passes a vote of no confidence that the executive must resign. Your assertion re semi-presidential may apply to France but not to Finland.

    The details of the president’s powers are not critical. That is actually the beauty of the binary distinction. The details of presidential and parliamentary systems vary enormously but the rule that presidential doesn’t work and parliamentary does, is very strongly supported by the evidence.

    The critical point is that the legitimacy of the popular vote, along with a swollen head, gives the president the power to expand his power (everywhere except the US—so far). In 1999 Venezuela was rated a democracy by Arendt Lijphart but look at it now. This sort of crap has been going on in South American countries for two hundred years and is set to go on forever.

    Of course cabinets are administrators. That is what they are there for. They only need to be policy designers when a change is required but we are not really considering education policy. We are talking about freedom and oppression and the menace of the national leader.

    • Alan says:

      And yet when Bush II launched the military response to the 11 September atrocity he had to go to the congress for authorisation. John Howard made the decision Washington without even consulting the cabinet, let alone the parliament.

      • Mike Pepperday says:

        So it appears the PM of a parliamentary system can be allowed latitude a president cannot.

        Term limits is another. The inference is that they dare not allow the president to be in office more than two terms.

        A strong court is yet another. We have a reasonably powerful constitutional court but Switzerland and parliamentary Holland let no court examine acts of the executive.

  8. Mike Pepperday says:

    So, Paul, I am selectively deaf. If the argument is weak, adopt the professorial approach: try ad hominem. It’s the pox of academe.
    I said France and Finland were the only established democracy cases of semi-presidential. Turkey is not an established democracy. It is also immaterial whether it is Erdogan or Father Christmas. Turkey changed to direct election of a president and within ten years the PM who did it made himself dictator. Proves my point in spades.

    It’s a fundamental misjudgement to accuse me of selective deafness. It is not merely that I didn’t craftily exclude Turkey, but that I am actually very keen to hear of refuting instances. The confirmatory instances of failed presidential systems are so many, they are almost embarrassing: not just Turkey and virtually the whole of Latin America but the Philippines, Cambodia, and the post-soviet presidential countries—and these last are directly opposed to the post-soviet parliamentary countries which seem to be okay.

    What of South Korea? The North Korea drama along with the US alliance makes it a peculiar case. It might be that if this special circumstance did not obtain, SK might be like the US, i.e., not actually fail but be a second lonely outlier of presidentialism, lurching from manic episode to manic episode, perhaps an impeachment here, a corruption scandal there.

    In short: if you have a refuting instance, I do want to know of it. It is not much use speculating that historically South America might have had systems less stable than presidential. Which countries? When? And most of all, what? What other forms of democracy are there besides presidential and parliamentary? South America is doing better than Africa or Asia? But that is no comparison. If South America is my exhibit A it is because it was taken over by Europeans when the US and Canada were, and long before Australia and New Zealand. Why aren’t the South American countries like us? Why were they left in the dust?

    Of course all voting can produce demagoguery. The point is, parliamentary systems prevent it getting out of hand. The PM can get the flick from his party and he knows it. The president can’t—and he knows it. There is your “theory.” It is not demagoguery in the newspapers which matters. That is called free speech. Demagoguery becomes important when it isn’t in the newspapers, e.g., in Turkey and Cambodia right now.

    Of course parliamentary elections are often reduced to a horse race between the PM and the opposition leader. That’s the point: people everywhere hanker for a strong leader, a messiah. The beauty of the parliamentary system is that it prevents this hankering getting out of hand. It seems to have worked in Turkey for a couple of decades—and then: bang!

    Such a simple dichotomy: presidential versus parliamentary. So pertinent.

  9. paul frijters says:


    ” The beauty of the parliamentary system is that it prevents this hankering getting out of hand. It seems to have worked in Turkey for a couple of decades—and then: bang!”

    wow. Truly stunning. You really don’t see the problem in that sentence? Let me summarise your theory as I see it:

    Axioma 1: Presidential systems lead to disaster.
    Axioma 2: If a democratic system does not lead to disaster, dont call it presidential but parliamentary or in a grey zone.
    Axioma 3: if a system moves from parliamentary to disaster via something despotic (which is the disaster), call the despotic step presidential and claim this proves the point that presidential leads to disaster.
    Axioma 4: claim that presidential leads to disaster via demagoguery. Dont define demagoguery, but if pressed on existence of demagoguery in parliamentary democracy, claim this proves the point that parliamentary works (by axioma 2).

    You are quite right with the analogy with economic theory. Lots of economic theory indeed works on similar principles. Revealed preference theory is pretty much organised on the same lines.

    • Mike Pepperday says:

      “If a democratic system does not lead to disaster, dont call it presidential but parliamentary or in a grey zone.”

      Rubbish. The two terms were clearly defined by the legislative structure, quite independent of their performance. Walk down the corridor and talk to a political scientist; you will find the distinction is not in dispute.

      No established parliamentaries have led to any disaster.

  10. Mike Pepperday says:

    Alan says:
    “…if you look at the handful of non-Westminster systems that existed in 1900 you don’t help your case much. Adding in Germany, Austria, France and Italy does not make the stats look any better. Beyond that you have the Netherlands and the Scandinavias.”

    I am not after helping my case. I seek its refutation.

    Any 1900 statistics on democracies (let alone established democracies) are going to be pretty doubtful. The data on democracies might start being useful about 1990, with 40 years of evidence after WW2. (Lijphart’s first cut was in 1983.) In 1900 Germany, Austria and Italy were not democracies and I don’t know of anything untoward in France or Scandinavia. So the 1900 evidence, such as it is, is all one way, helping my case as you put it.

    I also don’t think we can take the post-soviet countries as indicating anything much. They are hardly established so if they collapsed tomorrow it wouldn’t really prove anything for present purposes. Still, you made me curious and after some in-depth research on Wikipedia I find that they, too, generally support my thesis. Semi-presidential (strongish) Lithuania is okay, parliamentary Latvia and Estonia are okay, Ukraine was presidential and turned into a dictatorship, presidential Belarus is an autocracy, as is presidential Russia. I didn’t look but presume the stans are all lost causes.

    Of the Visegrad four it is notable that the one with a powerful president, Poland, is well down the slippery slope. The other failing one is parliamentary Hungary. It is in deep shit. Hungary is unicameral with single-member electorates, a structure which has never worked anywhere. Unless that changes, there is no reason to think it can prosper. The EU’s iron chancelloress is applying pressure; perhaps she will rescue it. Parliamentary Czech Republic will be fine and for semi-presidential (weak) Slovakia we can say, like Lithuania, Finland and France, so far so good.

    Overall the scorecard is:
    – At most, there are two established presidential countries that are surviving: the US and Costa Rica. The latter is a poor and corrupt but stable since a civil war in 1948.
    – There are a few dozen presidential countries that are a shambles. The South American ones have been trying to be democratic for a century or two. There are a couple of new presidential democracies that are wobbly: Indonesia and South Korea.
    – There are two established semi-presidential countries which are okay: France and Finland, and three new ones, East Timor, Lithuania, and Slovakia which are okay so far.
    – There are a couple of dozen established parliamentary democracies of which none have failed. Once established, it seems parliamentary democracy is impervious. The ones conquered during WW2 immediately reverted when the German jackboot was lifted.

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