A presidential system is a system of government where an executive branch is led by a president who serves as both head of state and head of government. In such a system, this branch exists separately from the legislature, to which it is not responsible and which it cannot, in normal circumstances, The title president has been carried over from a time when such person actually presided over (sat in front of) the government body, as with the US President of the Continental Congress, before the executive function was split into a separate branch of government. After this split, the President was no longer needed to sit in front of the legislative body, although the executive title remained in legacy.
Although not exclusive to republics, and applied in the case of semi-constitutional monarchies where a monarch exercises power (both as head of state and chief of the executive branch of government) alongside a legislature, the term is often associated with republican systems in the Americas. Presidential systems are numerous and diverse, but the following are generally true of most such governments:
• The executive branch does not propose bills. However, they may have the power to veto acts of the legislature and, in turn, a supermajority of legislators may act to override the veto. This practice is generally derived from the British tradition of royal assent in which an act of parliament cannot come into effect without the assent of the monarch.
• In the case of presidential republics, the president has a fixed term of office. Elections are held at scheduled times and cannot be triggered by a vote of confidence or other such parliamentary procedures. Although in some countries, there is an exception to this rule, which provides for the removal of a president who is found to have broken a law.
• The executive branch is unipersonal. Members of the cabinet serve at the pleasure of the head of state and must carry out the policies of the executive and legislative branches. However, presidential systems frequently require legislative approval of executive nominations to the cabinet as well as various governmental posts such as judges. A presidential leader generally has power to direct members of the cabinet, military or any officer or employee of the executive branch, but generally has no power to dismiss or give orders to judges.
• The power to pardon or commute sentences of convicted criminals is often in the hands of the head of state.
Characteristics of presidents
Some national presidents are “figurehead” heads of state, like constitutional monarchs, and not active executive heads of government (although some figurehead presidents and constitutional monarchs maintain reserve powers). In contrast, in a full-fledged presidential system, a president is chosen by the people to be the head of the executive branch.Presidential governments make no distinction between the positions of head of state and head of government, both of which are held by the president. Many parliamentary governments have a symbolic head of state in the form of a president or monarch (Again, in some cases these symbolic heads of state maintain active reserve powers). That person is responsible for the formalities of state functions, or in cases where the head of state has reserve powers, the “hands off” ensuing of a functional parliament, while the constitutional prerogatives of 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. A few nations, such as Slovakia, Ireland and Portugal, do have a popularly elected ceremonial president. A few countries (e.g., South Africa) have powerful presidents who are elected by the legislature. These presidents are chosen in the same way as a prime minister, yet are heads of both state and government. These executives are titled “president”, but are in practice similar to prime ministers. Other countries with the same system include Botswana, the Marshall Islands, and Nauru.
Presidents in a presidential system 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 Weimar Germany and South Korea, there is an office of prime minister or premier but, unlike in semi-presidential or parliamentary systems, the premier is responsible to the president rather than to the legislature.
Advantages of presidential systems
Supporters generally claim four basic advantages for presidential systems:
• Direct elections — in a presidential system, the president is often elected directly by the people. To some[who?], this makes the president’s power more legitimate than that of a leader appointed indirectly. However, this is not a necessary property of a presidential system. Some presidential states have an unelected or indirectly elected head of state.
• Separation of powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Supporters[who?] say that this arrangement allows each structure to monitor and check the other, preventing abuses.
• Speed and decisiveness — some[who?] argue that a president with strong powers can usually enact changes quickly. However, others argue that the separation of powers slows the system down.
• Stability — a president, by virtue of a fixed term, may provide more stability than a prime minister who can be dismissed at any time.
Disadvantages of presidential systems
• Tendency towards authoritarianism — some political scientists[who?] say that presidentialism is not constitutionally stable.
• Political gridlock – The separation of powers of a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Critics[who?] argue that this frequently creates undesirable and long-term political gridlock and political instability whenever the president and the legislative majority are from different parties, which is common because the electorate usually expects more rapid results from new policies than are possible. In addition, this reduces accountability by allowing the president and the legislature to shift blame to each other.
• Impediments to leadership change — it is claimed[by whom?] that the difficulty in removing an unsuitable president from office before his or her term has expired represents a significant problem.
Tendency towards authoritarianism
Winning the presidency is a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize. A prime minister who does not enjoy a majority in the legislature will have to either form a coalition or, if he is able to lead a minority government, govern in a manner acceptable to at least some of the opposition parties. Even if the prime minister leads a majority government, he must still govern within (perhaps unwritten) constraints as determined by the members of his party—a premier in this situation is often at greater risk of losing his party leadership than his party is at risk of losing the next election. On the other hand, once elected a president can not only marginalize the influence of other parties, but can exclude rival factions in his own party as well, or even leave the party whose ticket he was elected under. The president can thus rule without any allies for the duration of one or possibly multiple terms, a worrisome situation for many interest groups. Juan Linz argues that:
The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president’s fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate… losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization.
Constitutions that only require plurality support are said[who?] to be especially undesirable, as significant power can be vested in a person who does not enjoy support from a majority of the population.
Some[who?] political scientists say that presidentialism is not constitutionally stable. Some political scientists[who?] go further, and argue that presidential systems have difficulty sustaining democratic practices, noting that presidentialism has slipped into authoritarianism in many of the countries in which it has been implemented. According to political scientist Fred Riggs, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in nearly every country it has been attempted. Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out that this has taken place in political cultures not conducive to democracy, and that militaries have tended to play a prominent role in most of these countries. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the presidential system may have played a role in some situations. On the other hand, an often-cited[citation needed] list of the world’s 22 older democracies includes only two countries (Costa Rica and the United States) with presidential systems. It is noteworthy that the youngest democracy (established under US influence) Afghanistan, is presidential, and many[who?] predict its quick failure after American pull-out.
In a presidential system, the legislature and the president have equally valid mandates from the public. There is often no way to reconcile conflict between the branches of government. When president and legislature are in disagreement and government is not working effectively, there is a powerful incentive to employ extra-constitutional maneuvres to break the deadlock.
Political gridlock
Some political scientists speak of the “failure of presidentialism” because the separation of powers of a presidential system frequently creates undesirable and long-term political gridlock and political instability whenever the president and the legislative majority are from different parties. This is common because the electorate usually expects more rapid results from new policies than are possible and often prefers candidates from a different party at the next election. These critics, including Juan Linz, argue that this inherent political instability can cause democracies to fail, as seen in such cases as Brazil and Chile.
Impediments to leadership change
Another alleged problem of presidentialism is that it is often difficult to remove a president from office early. Even if a president is “proved to be inefficient, even if he becomes unpopular, even if his policy is unacceptable to the majority of his countrymen, he and his methods must be endured until 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 most presidential systems provide no legal means to remove a president simply for being unpopular, many presidential countries have experienced military coups to remove a leader who is said to have lost his mandate.
In parliamentary systems, unpopular leaders can be quickly removed by a vote of no confidence, a procedure which is reckoned to be a “pressure release valve” for political tension. Votes of no confidence are easier to achieve in minority government situations, but even if the unpopular leader heads a majority government, nonetheless he is often in a far less secure position than a president. Removing a president through impeachment is a procedure mandated by most constitutions, but impeachment proceedings usually cannot be initiated except in cases where the president has violated the constitution and/or broken the law.
Finally, many have criticized presidential systems for their alleged 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.)

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