In general terms, political scientists call a democracy presidential or parliamentary based on three distinguishing characteristics. Irrespective of the differences between the two systems, their chief executive’s foremost task is selection of the cabinet. In fact, the cabinet is so important that people sometimes refer to the cabinet itself as the government.
Defining political institutions is always a little bit dangerous, if only because so many variations exist all over the world. Still, in general terms, political scientists call a democracy presidential or parliamentary based on three distinctive characteristics:
First, the chief executive of a presidential regime is selected on the basis of a popular election, whereas the chief executive of a parliamentary regime (the prime minister) is indirectly elected by the legislature.
Second, a president is often said to be immune from the legislature, meaning that the legislature can’t easily remove a president from office. A prime minister, on the other hand, is directly accountable to the legislature, meaning that he or she can be summarily removed, often as the result of a simple majority vote: a vote of no confidence. If parliament votes no confidence, the prime minister generally has to step down.
Term in Office
A third difference between the two systems is that presidents serve for a fixed term of office—usually four or five years. After that, they have to stand for reelection.
A prime minister’s term of office, on the other hand, is more variable. Not only can parliament dismiss a prime minister and replace him or her with someone else, a prime minister can dissolve parliament and call for new elections. This is a tactic that prime ministers use to try to extend their time in office, and also to increase their party’s standing.
So, in the United Kingdom, for example, the House of Commons has to hold elections at least every five years. But a popular prime minister will often call for elections sooner than that, hoping that the new elections will deliver the ruling party an even bigger parliamentary majority, while also resetting the five-year clock.
The first and most important task of a president or a prime minister is selecting a cabinet. The cabinet is the group of people who will work with the chief executive to implement policy.
Here, too, there are some differences in terminology: In a presidential system, the cabinet officers are called secretaries, and each secretary heads up a department. In parliamentary systems, the prime minister has a cabinet of ministers, and each one heads up a ministry.
But whatever we call it, the selection of a cabinet is yet another place where we see clear differences between the two systems.
Choosing the Cabinet
A president can’t easily be removed from office by the legislature. This gives the president a freer hand in choosing his or her cabinet. A Republican president can choose an entirely Republican cabinet, and there’s not a whole lot that a Democratic Congress can do about it. At least as far as the cabinet is concerned, presidential cabinets are winner-take-all.
A prime minister, on the other hand, has to work hard to make her cabinet a reflection of the parliament that selected her. If they don’t, they risk getting removed from office.
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So, what happens when the prime minister’s party doesn’t have a majority of seats in parliament? Well, in that case, they will likely have to form a coalition with other parliamentary parties—giving them seats on the cabinet in exchange for parliamentary support.
By giving junior parties seats on the cabinet, the prime minister gives them influence on the political process. But they also gives them a stake in the cabinet. Remember, if a junior party ever jumps ship and votes with the opposition, they risk getting kicked out of the coalition themselves and losing the influence that they had.
Junior partners in a coalition are seldom inclined to bite the hand that feeds them in that way. That’s just another way that parliamentary systems build in loyalty between the two branches.
Incentives to Work Together
Despite their ability to essentially fire each other, parliament and prime minister have powerful incentives to work together. If a prime minister can’t keep a working majority in parliament, she could suffer a vote of no confidence and be forced out of office. But breaking with a ruling coalition can also be a form of political suicide for junior partners to that coalition. This allows a prime minister to be fairly decisive in pursuing her agenda. If a prime minister and her cabinet have parliamentary support, there’s not a whole lot that stands in their way.
In presidential systems, the two branches face no such pressure to work in concert. A president can’t force a legislature to go along with something it doesn’t want. Meanwhile, a president might find himself blocked—checked—by a downright hostile legislature, especially when that legislature is dominated by a rival political party.
To get anything done in situations like this, the two branches have to find ways to work together. In the best of circumstances, this forces compromise and encourages moderation. In the worst of circumstances, it can bring the decision-making process to a halt.
That’s the safety—and the danger—of a presidential system. The fact that power is vested in two separate institutions—the separation of powers—prevents one institution from making decisions unilaterally. This, in theory, gives the other side a voice. But it also means that the system is susceptible to gridlock.
Common Questions about Characteristics of Presidential and Parliamentary Democracies
The cabinet is a group of people who are going to work with the chief executive to implement policy. Thus, the first and most important task of a president or a prime minister is selecting the cabinet.
In a presidential system, the cabinet officers are called secretaries, and each secretary heads up a department. In parliamentary systems, the prime minister has a cabinet of ministers, and each one heads up a ministry.
When a prime minister’s party doesn’t have a majority of seats in parliament, she’ll likely have to form a coalition with other parliamentary parties—giving them seats on the cabinet in exchange for parliamentary support.