By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of parliamentary and presidential regimes.
- Distinguish between government stability and policy stability.
- Explain what a coalition government is and how these governments potentially work within each regime.
- Define political gridlock and political polarization and explain how they may impact public policy.
- Summarize how minor parties are more viable in a parliamentary regime than they are in a presidential regime.
Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. This section will primarily focus on the systems’ effects on policy: stability, coalition governments, divided government, and representation of minor parties.
|Presidents can claim a mandate and take the lead in setting the legislative agenda.
|If there is divided government, it can lead to gridlock.
|A unified government enables the quick enactment of policies.
|Drastic policy change is possible from one government to the next.
|During a time of crisis, a president may be able to act quickly.
|A president may blame the legislature for policy failures.
|A clear line of policy-making responsibility helps define accountability.
|Coalition governments may be short-lived, with frequent elections.
|Separation of powers may better protect rights of minority groups when an independent judiciary has the power of judicial review.
|One individual must play the roles of both head of state and head of government.
|Minority parties are frequently represented in parliamentary legislatures.
|Minority groups have relatively fewer protections.
|Party discipline tends to be weak. Strong presidents or populist leaders can emerge, presenting challenges to democracy.
|Political parties and party discipline tend to be strong.
Governmental Stability versus Policy Stability
Any discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of presidentialism and parliamentarianism begins with the hypothesis, first posited by Yale University professor Juan Linz, that parliamentary regimes are more stable than presidential regimes and that “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States.”38 To Americans, the claim that parliamentary regimes are more stable may appear strange. As already noted, while parliamentary regimes have regular elections, they are not necessarily fixed-term elections. This means an election can happen at any time, opening up the possibility for multiple elections within a relatively short period of time. From 2018 to 2021, there were four separate elections in Israel.39 In April 2020, Benjamin Netanyahu again was given the opportunity to form a new coalition government.40 Ultimately, however, he was unable to do so and was ousted as prime minister.41
To Americans, this may seem like the very definition of instability. Within this context, stability refers to the stability of the political system itself and not the stability of any particular government within that system. Parliamentary regimes may experience multiple elections in a short space of time, but that does not mean the system itself is unstable. It could simply reflect current electoral politics. In that respect, the current demographics of a particular country could work against a majority emerging and encourage coalition governments. Deep divisions within the Israeli electorate have made the formation and maintenance of a coalition government difficult. Nevertheless, the political system remains stable and in place, even if the ramifications of Israel’s crisis in determining its leadership do raise some concerns for aspects of the system. Any instability provides the opportunity for political change.
Instability can also take the form of policy change. Policy swings are more likely in parliamentary regimes. Because there are no set elections, elections could take place at any time. While public opinion does tend to move rather slowly, it changes over time and when triggered by events that cause the public to rethink key issues. Within a parliamentary regime, changing demographics or changing attitudes among the public could bring in a new government that has a very different majority than the old government. That new government could bring sweeping policy changes. Whether an individual sees the changes as a sign of political instability or a sign that the government reflects the will of the people may depend upon whether that individual agrees with the new policies. What one person might view as instability, someone else might see as needed policy change.
Generally, coalition governments are shorter-lived than majority governments.42 The sheer duration of a government provides no indication as to its efficiency or its effectiveness in enacting public policy. The stability of a system can also be interpreted as policy change because the electorate may interpret the system as responsive and adaptable. Georgetown University visiting researcher Josep Colomer found that governments with more parties experienced greater stability with respect to policy change.43
Israeli Opposition Parties Strike Deal to Form New Government
In this clip, DW News reports on the deal opposition parties struck to form a coalition government, resulting in the ouster of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Forming a new government within the existing parliamentary structure does not require a fundamental change to that structure or its institutions. Consider what happens when a new US president is elected. That president forms a new administration. Similarly, after congressional elections, there may be new leadership in either or both of the houses if there have been significant partisan shifts, with one party losing majority status and the other party gaining it. The 2020 presidential election illustrates the point well. Joe Biden won the presidency and chose a cabinet. Similarly, Democrats gained a slim majority in the Senate and put in place a new majority leader, Senator Charles (Chuck) Schumer. The government was new, but the structure of the branches of government and its institutions did not change.
Coalition governments can be considered a disadvantage of parliamentary regimes, but they can also be a potential advantage. One argument in favor of a parliamentary regime with proportional representation is that more parties are represented. While presidential regimes do not inherently result in a two-party system, there is no doubt that the presidential regime in the United States works that way. Indeed, in the United States, no third-party candidate has ever won the presidency. Theodore Roosevelt came closest in 1912. While he managed to finish second and collect 88 Electoral College votes, he effectively split the Republican vote and helped to ensure the election of Woodrow Wilson, who received less than 45 percent of the popular vote. In a parliamentary regime, it is conceivable that Theodore Roosevelt would have been able to build a coalition with the Republican Party and form a government. So, not only is one more likely to have viable third parties in a parliamentary regime, but those third parties could hold significant power within a government.
One of the primary disadvantages of presidentialism is the possibility of gridlock. Political gridlock is when governments are unable to pass major legislation and stalemates between competing parties take place. Certainly, gridlock can occur within parliamentary regimes, but because presidential regimes have separate institutions, they often result in divided government and are biased against coalition building. Generally speaking, neither of those conditions is typical of a parliamentary regime. These conditions in presidential regimes appear to make them more conducive to gridlock.
Over the years, there has been considerable debate over whether divided government causes gridlock. Yale Emeritus professor David Mayhew argues that gridlock is not inevitable in divided government and that important legislative productivity takes place within both divided and unified governments.44 That is not to suggest, however, that gridlock does not take place. Brookings Institution fellow Sarah Binder notes that the 2011–2012 Congress ranked “as the most gridlocked during the postwar era.”45 When gridlock does happen, it tends to be highly visible, with each side publicly posturing and blaming the other side for the impasse, and gridlock eventually ends. That gridlock ends suggests a self-correcting aspect; the two political parties do not diverge from each other all that much or for all that long.46 At the same time, presidential regimes carry a risk of polarization. While political polarization is not unique to presidential regimes, they are prone to its development.
The last 30 years in particular have seen an increase in political polarization.47 The extent to which it exists both within political parties and within the electorate has been the subject of heated debate.48 Political polarization is a disadvantage of presidential regimes that presents a cause for concern for the enactment of public policy. But does polarization cause a systemic breakdown in the legislative process? The short answer is that perhaps it can. Dodd and Schraufnagel have demonstrated a curvilinear relationship between polarization and legislative productivity.49 Higher levels of polarization tend to be more likely to interfere with the policy-making process. But interestingly enough, low levels of polarization also result in low levels of productivity. It is when polarization is somewhere in the middle that legislative progress is most likely to occur. Indeed, Dodd and Schraufnagel note that attention should be given to the “virtues of divided government.” So, while presidential regimes work against coalition building, Manning J. Dauer Eminent Scholar in Political Science at the University of Florida Lawrence C. Dodd and Northern Illinois University professor Scot Schraufnagel conclude that divided government may provide both parties “some incentive to embrace sincere negotiation, timely compromise, and reasonable, responsive policy productivity by government, since each is responsible for one branch of government and could be held accountable by the public for obstructionist behavior by its branch.”
Viable Third Parties
In any democracy, third parties or minority parties play important roles. Presidential regimes tend to encourage the formation of a two-party system, resulting in a weaker role for third parties than in most parliamentary regimes that have proportional representation. The reasons presidential regimes are more prone to result in a two-party system are twofold. The first is due to voting procedures. While there is considerable variation in how elections are held across countries, a common approach is plurality voting (also known as “first-past-the-post”). With plurality voting and single-member districts (one person being elected per geographic area), a two-party system is likely to emerge (this is known as Duverger’s law and was covered in Chapter 9: Legislatures). The presidency is “the most visible single-member district.”50 While Duverger’s law is not determinative because it does not guarantee a two-party system, it encourages its development. In addition to voting procedures, presidents have to appeal to voters across groups and form a coalition. Political parties are simply coalitions of varied groups. In order to appeal to as many voters as possible, political parties are more likely to broaden their scope of appeal rather than to define themselves more narrowly.
Third parties are much more viable in a parliamentary regime—that is, they have actual representation and voice within the national government. The 2018 elections in Italy resulted in over a dozen parties being represented in its parliament. Generally, this is a positive because voters are much more likely to vote for their first choice. Within a two-party system, however, voters may vote for their second choice because they do not wish to waste their vote. In a parliamentary regime with proportional representation, the threshold for representation within the parliament can be quite low at less than 5 percent. Once elected, the minority party could potentially find itself holding some power. In a parliamentary regime, a minority party may find itself with a disproportionate amount of power as it aligns itself with one of the larger parties. While it is possible to exaggerate the power the minority party holds in the partnership, it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
In a presidential regime, however, large numbers of voters face the unenviable task of voting for a candidate who is less than their first choice, and voters often frame that choice as voting for the “lesser of two evils.” In the 2016 US presidential election, 46 percent of Republicans indicated that neither of the major-party candidates would make a good president. For Democrat respondents, that percentage, while lower, was also substantial at 33 percent.51 In recent presidential elections, the percent of voters indicating satisfaction with the candidates has never been higher than 72 percent and has been as low as 33 percent. See Figure 10.8.