A prime minister should be able to pass legislation, but keeping together a coalition is challenging. A president can’t strong-arm a legislature into submission, and that’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what one thinks of what the president is trying to do. If that’s how the two systems are designed to work, how is it that they fail?
Involvement of Small Political Parties
Because their cabinets are often coalitions (rather than winner-take-all), parliamentary regimes encourage the participation of smaller political parties: A small political party might not have any hope of winning the presidency, but in a parliamentary system, they might make it into the ruling coalition—and this can give even a tiny party disproportionate influence.
The problem is that small political parties are often small because they represent narrow or even radical elements of society: A communist party, or an openly fascist party, might win 5% or 10% of the electorate. That’s not nearly enough to be competitive for the top job, but it might be enough to get into the ruling coalition. By encouraging the formation of coalition government, parliamentarism invites small parties into the political process.
This does make representation better, but at the cost of representing fringe elements that one might not want to hear from in the first place.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Another potential problem with parliamentary regimes is that coalition government can be very unstable. The defection of just one party from the ruling coalition can trigger a new election at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, competition among parliamentary factions, and the ever-present possibility of a no-confidence vote, means that government transitions can come at a blistering pace.
A case in point is Germany between the two world wars. Germany’s government at the time, the Weimar Republic, had a fractious parliament, with dozens of political parties, ranging from communists to various right-wing nationalist parties, including the Nazis. In this factionalized environment, even the biggest political parties didn’t have more than 30% of the vote. This led to the formation of large and unwieldy coalitions, oftentimes comprised of political parties that had little in common. Not surprisingly, these coalitions crumbled almost as quickly as they were formed.
The Weimar Republic had eight elections between 1919 and 1932, some of them just months apart. In the last two, the Nazis got more votes than anyone else (albeit never a majority). That’s how, through totally democratic channels, Adolf Hitler became chancellor.
Representation Threshold and Constructive No-confidence Vote
Today, Germany has a few features built into its parliamentary system that are meant to prevent history from repeating itself. For one thing, if a political party doesn’t get at least 5% of the vote, it doesn’t get any representation in parliament. This is called a representation threshold, and it’s meant to keep small, fringe parties out of parliament, and to limit the number of parties overall.
Germany also has what’s called a constructive no-confidence vote. This streamlines the transition from one administration to the other, and it’s intended to limit the chaos and uncertainty of the Weimar period.
Constitutional Crisis in Russia
In presidential politics, the worst conflicts come about not when parties of a legislature fight with each other, but rather when the legislature as a whole finds itself at odds with a powerful president.
A really vivid example of this occurred in Russia in the early 1990s, just after the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had crumbled, and in Russia’s first-ever presidential elections, a moderate, independent reformist named Boris Yeltsin won a landslide victory. This was a time of hope for democracy, not just in Russia but around the world.
But things took a dark turn after Yeltsin took office. A clear majority of the Russian people supported Yeltsin and his reforms. But the Russian congress at the time (the Congress of People’s Deputies) was still controlled by the old guard.
This set the stage for a constitutional crisis.
In 1993, Yeltsin and the legislature both kind of fired each other: Congress impeached Yeltsin and sought to replace him with his vice president. Yeltsin, for his part, tried to dissolve congress and call for new elections.
What followed was the most intense civil conflict in Russia since the Revolution of 1917. The legislators barricaded themselves in their chambers and refused to budge, while their supporters demonstrated outside. In the meantime, Yeltsin called in the army, which proceeded to shell the legislature with tanks. The country was on the brink of civil war.
When the dust settled, Yeltsin was left standing, and democracy managed to survive in Russia, at least for a while. But even today, people are bitterly divided in their attitudes about the crisis. Some in Russia even blame it for the skepticism and mistrust of democracy that remains to this day.
Presidentialism in America
Clearly, not every dispute between a president and a parliament is going to lead to military confrontation. But politics is about conflict, and so every political system needs ways to resolve intense disagreements.
When America’s Founding Fathers chose presidentialism for their new republic, they figured that a strong, independent executive would be the best way to temper a hyper-partisan and factionalized legislature. Little could they imagine that their cure might be worse than the disease, and that conflict between a legislature and a president might prove more destabilizing than conflict among legislative factions.
Confrontations like these aren’t just historical curiosities. Around the world today, politics is plagued by partisanship, gridlock, cultural conflict, and skepticism about a government’s ability to deliver solutions to the governed.
As for democracy, perhaps time will tell whether presidents or parliaments are better suited for the challenge.
Common Questions about Hazards of Parliamentary and Presidential Governments
In Germany, if a political party doesn’t get at least 5% of the vote, it doesn’t get any representation in parliament. This is called a representation threshold, and it’s meant to keep small, fringe parties out of parliament, and to limit the number of parties overall.
In presidential politics, the worst conflicts come about when the legislature as a whole finds itself at odds with a powerful president.
America’s Founding Fathers chose presidentialism for their new republic, as they believed that a strong, independent executive would be the best way to temper a hyper-partisan and factionalized legislature.