Democratic systems are classified into three categories: presidential regimes, parliamentary regimes, and semi-presidential regimes. Within each regime, there is a head of government as well as a head of state. In presidential regimes, the head of government is directly elected by the citizens and also serves as the head of state. In parliamentary and semi-presidential regimes, the head of government and head of state are separate individuals, and the legislature selects the head of government. Generally, the head of state is a ceremonial role, while the head of government holds political power and takes the lead in setting the policy agenda.
The single greatest distinctiveness of presidential regimes is that the chief executive is popularly elected. This individual serves as both head of government and head of state and serves fixed terms. More so than parliamentarianism, presidentialism provides the opportunity for populism to emerge. Populism is a political approach that uses emotional appeals to the masses and promises the masses a political voice in a government that is perceived to be ruled by elites. As is the case with all chief executives, presidents possess both formal and informal powers. Formal powers are those granted to the president by statute or constitution. Informal powers arise from custom or tradition. The power to persuade is most likely the greatest power a president has and is connected to the president’s approval ratings. Through the use of the bully pulpit, presidents have the opportunity to shape public opinion and convince the public that the president’s policies are the best approach to address issues facing the nation.
In parliamentary regimes, the head of government is typically termed the prime minister and is a member of parliament. The parliament selects the prime minister after party elections have taken place. If one party earns a majority of the seats in parliament, the majority party selects the prime minister. If no party earns a majority of the vote, then two or more parties will form a coalition and the coalition will select the prime minister. Prime ministers hold considerable political power such as the power to select members of the cabinet. Nevertheless, prime ministers can be removed by a confidence vote. Sometimes called a “no confidence vote,” this is a procedural move in a parliamentary regime in which ministers vote to continue to support the prime minister. If the prime minister loses the confidence vote, new elections take place.
The main advantage of presidentialism is that presidents can claim a mandate and act quickly during a time of crisis. The judiciary is separate from the executive in presidential regimes, an arrangement that may help protect the rights of minority groups. The main disadvantages of presidentialism are that it may lead to gridlock, there is a relative lack of accountability, and the chief executive performs the roles of head of government and head of state. Within presidentialism, political parties are weaker. The advantages of parliamentarianism are unified government, clear lines of accountability, the representation of minority parties in the parliament, and stronger political parties. Parliamentarianism’s disadvantages include drastic policy change from one government to the next, coalition governments resulting in more frequent elections, and relatively fewer protections of minority rights.
Often viewed as a hybrid of presidentialism and parliamentarianism, semi-presidential regimes are difficult to define. In their most basic expression, the legislature selects the head of government (the prime minister) and citizens directly elect the head of state (the president). Both the prime minister and the president hold political power. In semi-presidential regimes, there is a wide discrepancy in the amount of freedom citizens have within their countries. This suggests that authoritarianism is more likely to be associated with semi-presidential regimes, but while the connection between the two is interesting and noteworthy, causality (i.e., a semi-presidential regime causes authoritarianism) cannot be determined or inferred.
Within both presidentialism and parliamentarianism, cabinets serve as formal advisors to their chief executives and oversee specific departments. As the head of the department, an individual typically holds the title of secretary. Within parliamentarianism, cabinet secretaries are also members of parliament. In presidentialism, cabinet secretaries typically are not members of the legislature. It is common for secretaries to have a background in government as well as an expertise in the area their department oversees. Nevertheless, in presidentialism this is not always the case, and political loyalty and shared ideology are often considered when presidents make appointments to the cabinet. In parliamentary regimes, cabinets are more commonly integrated into the executive decision-making process, while in presidentialism, cabinet secretaries tend to be more independent and are not always included in presidential decision making. Within both parliamentarianism and presidentialism, it is not unusual for chief executives to form informal groups they turn to for advice. Historically, these informal groups of advisors have been called “kitchen cabinets.”
Since the 1800s, bureaucracies have grown in both scope and number and now affect the daily lives of all citizens. In many countries, government bureaucracy is the country’s number one employer. Bureaucracies share a number of characteristics such as hierarchical authority, job specialization, formalized rules, impersonality, professionalization, and the maintenance of files or records. Today, the recruitment and retention of employees are usually based on merit, as most countries have adopted a civil service system emphasizing competence and rejecting selection or promotion based on partisanship. In the 1800s, however, it was not unusual for countries to follow a “spoils” system in which positions were awarded based on partisan loyalty. Even though the public tends to have a negative view of bureaucrats, these bureaucrats perform essential functions, ensuring governments run smoothly and that citizens are kept safe.