Parliamentary vs Presidential Government: Definition, Features, Differences & Similarities

Parliamentary versus Presidential Forms of Government: Definition, Features, Differences, and Similarities

A parliamentary system of government is a system of government in which the executive branch is chosen from and is accountable to the legislature. The head of government is typically the prime minister, who is chosen by the party or coalition with the most seats in the legislature. The prime minister and his or her cabinet are responsible for carrying out the laws passed by the legislature.

A presidential system of government, on the other hand, is a system of government in which the executive branch is separate from the legislature and is headed by a president who is directly elected by the people. The president appoints his or her own cabinet (the ministers), which is responsible for carrying out the laws passed by the legislature. The president can also veto laws passed by the legislature.

Key Differences

1. Separation of Powers:

  • Parliamentary: Blurs the lines between the executive and legislative branches. The Prime Minister and cabinet members are typically drawn from the legislature, creating a fusion of powers.
  • Presidential: Maintains a rigid separation of powers. The president and executive branch are independent of the legislature, leading to checks and balances.

2. Executive Leadership:

  • Parliamentary: Prime Minister chosen by the party or coalition holding the majority in the legislature. More flexible, allowing for quicker changes in leadership if needed.
  • Presidential: President directly elected by the people. Fixed term in office, offering stability but making mid-term change more difficult.

3. Accountability:

  • Parliamentary: Executive branch directly accountable to the legislature. Can be removed through a vote of no confidence.
  • Presidential: Executive branch accountable to the people through elections. More independent from the legislature, potentially leading to gridlock.

4. Decision-Making:

  • Parliamentary: Can be more collaborative and flexible, as the executive and legislature work together.
  • Presidential: Can be more decisive and efficient, as the president has significant unilateral power.

5. Stability:

  • Parliamentary: Can be more prone to political instability due to potential changes in leadership and coalitions.
  • Presidential: Offers greater stability with a fixed-term president, even if there are disagreements with the legislature.

Examples:

  • Parliamentary: Canada, India, Germany, UK
  • Presidential: United States, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Argentina

Here is a table that summarizes the key differences between parliamentary and presidential systems of government:

FeatureParliamentary GovernmentPresidential Government
Head of governmentPrime minister, chosen by the legislaturePresident, directly elected by the people
AccountabilityExecutive branch is accountable to the legislatureExecutive branch is accountable to the people
Separation of powersFusion of powersSeparation of powers
Decision-makingMore collaborativeMore decisive
StabilityMore prone to political instabilityMore stable

Similarities:

While parliamentary and presidential systems differ in structure and dynamics, they share some key similarities:

  1. Democratic Foundation: Both systems are rooted in democratic principles, guaranteeing fundamental rights and holding elections to determine leadership. Citizens participate through voting and holding their representatives accountable.
  2. Rule of Law: Both operate under a constitution outlining the powers and limitations of different branches, ensuring equal application of laws and a framework for governance.
  3. Legislative Function: Both have legislatures composed of elected representatives responsible for creating and enacting laws, debating policies, and approving budgets.
  4. Checks and Balances: Though to varying degrees, both systems implement mechanisms to prevent concentration of power. In parliamentary systems, the legislature can remove the executive through no-confidence votes. In presidential systems, the legislature can override vetoes and hold the executive accountable through oversight committees.
  5. Public Service: Both rely on a professional civil service to carry out administrative functions and maintain continuity in government operations, regardless of changes in elected officials.
  6. International Relations: Both engage in diplomacy, trade agreements, and participate in international organizations to address global challenges and promote national interests.
  7. Evolution and Adaptation: Both systems have evolved over time to adapt to changing social, economic, and political circumstances. Countries may even adopt hybrid elements from both systems to address specific needs.

Overall, while focusing on their distinct structural aspects, recognizing the underlying similarities between parliamentary and presidential systems can provide a broader understanding of how democratic governance functions in different settings.

Which System is Better?

There is no definitive answer to this question. Both parliamentary and presidential systems have their own advantages and disadvantages, and the best choice for a particular country depends on its specific needs and circumstances. Ultimately, the goal is to choose a system that promotes effective governance, accountability, and political stability for its citizens.

Some considerations for choosing which system to practice are:

  • Size and diversity of the country: Parliamentary systems may be better suited for smaller, more homogeneous countries, while presidential systems may be more manageable in larger, more diverse nations.
  • Level of political development: Established democracies may have the infrastructure and culture necessary for either system, while developing countries might benefit from the relative stability of a presidential system.
  • Historical and cultural context: Some countries have long histories with one system or the other, making it difficult to switch due to ingrained political traditions and public expectations.

The Parliamentary/Cabinet System of Government

A parliamentary or cabinet system of government may be defined as one in which the real executive powers of government lie with the prime minister and his ministers. It is called the parliamentary system because the executive arm of government is chosen from the parliament, while it goes by the name of the cabinet system because the real executive powers reside with the Prime Minister and his ministers.

In this system, there is a head of state who performs ceremonial functions for the government. He could be called president, as in Nigeria (1st republic), or queen or monarch, as in Britain. Examples of states with this type of system are Britain, Italy, India, the Nigerian First Republic, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

Features of Parliamentary Government

  • The prime minister is the leader of the cabinet; he is selected from the party that won the majority seats in parliament. He, in turn, selects members of his cabinet. In most cases, the leader of the majority party is the person who assumes the post of prime minister. In other words, he is not directly elected by the electorate, as in the presidential system of government.
  • The real executive powers of the government are vested in the prime minister and his cabinet. Apart from selecting his ministers, subject to ceremonial ratification by the head of state, he allocates them to different departments, changes them where necessary, and calls for the resignation of any member of his cabinet. 
It is important to note that in countries like Britain, which is a classical example of a parliamentary governmental system, the choice of ministers to be included in the cabinet is solely the responsibility of the prime minister. Note also that in this system, not all ministers are cabinet members, but all cabinet members are ministers. The function of a non-cabinet minister is to be in charge of a particular portfolio of government; that of a cabinet minister is also to help in determining, along with his colleagues, the general policy of the government in all departments and to control administration.
  • There is a close relationship between the cabinet and the legislature by virtue of the fact that members of the cabinet are drawn from the legislature and continue to sit in parliament. The cabinet is equally answerable to the parliament, especially the lower house, for every policy that they embark upon and for every action that they take. They hold their office so long as they command the confidence of the lower house; when the case is the opposite, convention demands that they resign. In Britain and other countries, most bills introduced in the House are done by cabinet, and convention demands that when the cabinet loses the chance of getting a bill passed by the House, it is tantamount to a vote of no confidence.
  • In this system, the opposition party, which is next in popularity to the party in power, forms the shadow government or shadow cabinet. It can be one party or a coalition of parties, just like a cabinet can be formed by a coalition of parties. An example is the UPGA alliance in Nigeria's first republic against the NNA alliance, which was trying to form the government party. The duty of the opposition is to watch and criticize the government when it goes wrong and also to prepare itself to form a new government in the event of the existing government being voted out of office—hence the name shadow government.
  • Members of the cabinet are all bound by the decisions of the cabinet and are all responsible for any decision of the cabinet. Any member who disagrees with the cabinet can only resign, since you cannot be in the cabinet and against the cabinet at the same time. This is known as the principle of collective responsibility.
  • The cabinet can ask for the dissolution of the parliament, just as the parliament can call for the resignation of the cabinet when a vote of no confidence is passed. In Britain, for instance, should the cabinet be defeated in parliament on any of its policy decisions, the whole cabinet falls, not merely the minister that is responsible for the policy, thus being defeated. Once this happens, the Prime Minister is dully bound to advise the head of state to dissolve the parliament and hold a general election to elect a new government.
  • The parliament is normally elected for a fixed term of office, usually four to five years, depending on the constitution of the particular country.
  • The head of state in this system is usually a normative head and exercises only ceremonial functions. This does not mean that the head of state has no influence on policy matters or the executive arm, but as in the case of Britain, the king or queen is the depositary of power, and he or she enjoys three rights: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn. The queen also forms part of the three branches of government. As head of the legislature, she is referred to as the queen in parliament; hence, she summons parliament, prorogues it at the end of each session, and dissolves it before a general election. Again, no bill can become law until it has received the royal assent; this assent is hardly ever withheld since she is supposed to be acting on the advice of her ministers. In her capacity as head of the executive, she is known as the queen-in-council. Although the powers of the executive are exercised by her ministers, In effect, she presides over the Privy Council, which is the highest executive body in Britain. The cabinet is the working committee of the Privy Council. This council consists of past and present cabinet members and certain judicial dignitaries. As the fountainhead of justice, justice is administered in her name. She retains the royal prerogative of mercy or the right to pardon, either freely or on conditions, for a convicted person. In the 1963 Republican Constitution, the power to open or dissolve the parliamentary session was also vested in the president. He was also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He also exercised the prerogative of mercy. Certain appointments in the public service must receive the approval of the president before they can become valid. In this way, the president, like the British monarch, exercised a lot of influence on the governments of the day.
  • In this system, accountability is ensured through the institution of "question time." This is a period set out in parliament for ministers and their ministries to be appraised. At this time, ministers are questioned about the work of their ministers, and the ministers are expected to answer the questions with all frankness and honesty. This period is usually given ample press publicity. This is an effective mechanism for protecting the general public from arbitrary ministerial action, or even more likely, arbitrary action by an anonymous civil servant who is not directly responsible to the electorate, like the minister.
Parliamentary governments are known for collective responsibility and the fusion of powers among the executive and parliamentary members. To illustrate this, for example, after the representatives have been elected into parliament, the leader of the party with the majority or a coalition of parties is invited by the head of state to form a government. Thus, the person so invited becomes the Prime Minister.

After this process, the government is then formed by the Prime Minister, who chooses members of the cabinet from the Parliament. Members of the cabinet so appointed are collectively responsible to the legislature for all decisions and policies taken and formulated in the operation of the entire government.

It is significant to point out that the Prime Minister, as the leader of government, possesses executive power, presides over cabinet meetings, disciplines his or her ministers, and can dismiss any of them if necessary. Examples of contemporary parliamentary systems of government include Britain, Japan, Canada, India, the Netherlands, Nigeria under the 1960 independence and 1963 Republican constitution, and Israel, among others.

Presidential System of Government

This is a governmental system in which all the executive powers of government are vested in the president. He is the chief executive of his government. He is usually elected directly, as in Nigeria, by the general electorate, or indirectly, as in the United States of America, through the electoral college.

In this system, the president and his other cabinet members are not part of the legislature and therefore do not take part in the legislative process, although they can influence the policies and lines of thinking in the legislature. The president chooses members of his cabinet from within or outside his party, subject to ratification by the Senate. The members of the cabinet are accountable to him, and he reserves the right to dismiss any of them when he so chooses.

The principle of collective responsibility is absent in this system; each minister is individually responsible for his actions, but the president takes all the blame or praise arising from his administration. In this system, the president is elected for a fixed term of office, usually 4-5 years, and cannot be removed except by the process of impeachment when a case of gross misconduct has been proved against him by the legislature; otherwise, he leaves at the expiration of his term of office.

Functions of the President

  • Head of state and government: As head of state, he performs all the ceremonial functions and receives all the privileges that go with that position. As head of government, he performs all the executive functions, like the prime minister in the parliamentary system, although unlike the prime minister, he is not a member of the legislature and does not take part in the legislative process.
  • Spokesman and Representative of the Nation: The president's voice is the voice of the nation. He can only be pressured to change his policy, but he cannot be denied the privilege and right of speaking for the nation.
  • Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces: He orders the armed forces to go to war. Every military officer or general is subject to the authority of the president, while the legislature (i.e., Congress in the USA or the National Assembly in Nigeria) retains the power to declare war. It is the president who determines how the war should be fought. In the U.S.A., the president can limit congressional power by creating a situation where the Congress would have no choice but to declare war.
  • The president as chief diplomat: He is the chief diplomat and foreign policy formulator. The secretary of states on foreign affairs, as in the case of the U.S.A., or the foreign affairs minister, as in the case of Nigeria, is just an adviser. He makes treaties with other states, which have to be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. However, the executive agreement of the president with other heads of state does not need senatorial ratification and is enforceable by the presidency.
  • In his appointive capacity, he appoints the members of his cabinet, judges of the Supreme Court, and ambassadors subject to scrutiny and approval by the Senate.
  • In his legislative capacity, he assents to bills passed by the two houses of the legislature. Although he can veto the bill by withholding assent, this veto power can be countered if the bill receives the approval of a two-thirds majority vote of both houses of the legislature. He can also initiate bills, which he can lobby members of the house to support.
  • He is the head of his party and enjoys patronage powers.
  • As the head of administration, he appoints ministers and other officers of government and can remove them, except those protected by the constitution and certain judicial offices. As head of administration, he presents the annual budget of his and his government (and, as in the Nigerian second republic), authorizes the withdrawal of money from the consolidated revenue fund.
  • He can summon the legislature (the Congress in the case of the USA) in special sessions or cases of emergency, and he also enjoys the power to adjourn Congress in cases where the two houses cannot agree to a date of adjournment.
  • 10. He also exercises judicial powers through his power of pardon. In the U.S., for instance, he may grant a full or conditional pardon to any person convicted by the federal courts, or he may reduce the sentences of those courts. The Nigerian president, under the 1979 and 1999 republican constitutions, also exercises similar powers.
Although the president shares power with the national legislative body and judiciary, he or she is regarded as the most powerful, important, and influential in the United States and Nigeria, for instance. The president may be elected for a fixed term by the people either directly, as in the case of Nigeria in the Second Republic and in the present Fourth Republic, or indirectly through an electoral college, as in the United States.
Other examples of countries practicing presidential form of government include Belarus, Afghanistan, South Korea, Cote d'Ivoire, and Ghana, among others.

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