Political Stability in New Democracies: Presidentialism or Parliamentarism?

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For new democracies in the developing world, which system—presidentialism or parliamentarism— is more likely to ensure political stability? Why? And do we have a universal answer for all countries?

Presidentialism and Parliamentarism are two of the most commonly practised political systems in modern politics, whether they be existing in pure forms or hybrid forms. Amongst the two, which system is more conducive to the maintenance of political stability, particularly in newly democratized states, has remained heatedly discussed. Presidentialism and Parliamentarism are differentiated by the election and removal methods of the political leader of the executive branch, the scope of authority of the executive leader, and the power relationship between the executive and the legislative branches. Their distinctive features have ensured political stability in one way or another, which will be discussed and contrasted in this paper. To assist analysis, “political stability” shall be defined as “smooth transition to and consolidation of democracy” in the context of this paper. To substantiate the analysis, examples of new democracies arisen from the Third Wave of Democratization will be included. Lastly, a concluding remark shall be drawn on the question whether there is a universal answer for all new democracies. Presidentialism is widely adopted in the United States of America (US) and Latin America. A key feature of presidentialism is the independence of the executive and legislative branches from each other. The president, as head of the executive branch and the whole government, is “independently elected on the basis of popular election” (Mahler, 2008). Since he enjoys public mandate derived from the election, neither him, nor the cabinet chosen by him, are directly accountable to the legislature. He is often vested with two important roles, namely the Head of State (performing symbolically as the representative of a state in ceremonial functions) and the Head of Government (administrative role). With both the executive and the legislature popularly elected, the two branches enjoy dual authority. President enjoys fixed term of office, usually subject to re-elections at regular intervals. It is often difficult to remove president except through impeachment. For example, the US President may only be removed from office by the impeachment of Congress under 4 circumstances through a complicated trial process (Section 4, Article II, US Constitution). Parliamentarism is well received and practised in European countries, such as the United Kingdom (UK) and Spain. It is often characterized as “Fusion of powers” (Heywood, 2000), as the Prime Minister is the party leader of the majority party, elected from the same election as other members of the parliament. In other words, he has an overlapping membership in the executive and legislative branches. The relationship between the Prime Minister and the Parliament is described as mutually dependent (Stepan & Skach, 1993). On one hand, the Prime Minister relies on the support of the Parliament to gain office and sustain power, and may easily be removed with a vote of no-confidence. On the other hand, he enjoys the authority to dissolve the legislature in cases of major political deadlocks. Parliamentary election is usually held more flexibly without a regular time interval. The Third Wave of Democratization emerged after the decline of authoritarian rule and “the strengthening of civil society” (Shin, 1994) with an increase in public’s civil awareness towards their own political rights. Nevertheless, fight for political power and ethnical cleavages were not uncommon at the beginning stage of democratization (Lijphart, 1996), and were often obstacles of pursuance of political stability and consolidation of democracy. Therefore, a parliamentary system, known for its flexibility, more equal power delegation and impetus to political cooperation and party development, is more...
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