Home articles Parliamentary vs presidential system

Parliamentary vs presidential system

Mohammad Jamil
BOTH parliamentary and presidential systems have merits and demerits; however presidential system in the US, Germany, France is working as efficiently and effectively as parliamentary democracies in other countries of Europe and elsewhere. In Pakistan, after long and short hiatuses, debate rages over the system but it is mostly an academic debate, as switchover to the presidential system is not possible under our present constitutional scheme. Perpetual political upheavals, the wheeling and dealing of elected members of Parliament for personal gains, perks and privileges of power, making majority party hostage to a minority party are to name the few of some demerits of parliamentary system. In 1990s, Manzoor Wattoo with only 17 members out of 240 members had manoeuvred to get himself elected as the Chief Minister of Punjab because the PPP did not have adequate numbers to form government in Punjab.
Anyhow, smaller parties are in a position to bargain with or blackmail the major parties, as is obvious by the pressure tactics of the MQM, JUI-F, PML-Q and PML-F. In Parliamentary system, members of the Assembly elected by the people in turn elect the Leader of the House, meaning that it is an indirect election of the prime minister. Even when a Party gains a clear majority, the government is susceptible to splits and defections, necessitating re-alignments or re-elections. Even in the entrenched democracy like England, the way Margaret Thatcher was changed mid way of her tenure by the ruling party is a case in point. In Pakistan from 1947 to 1958, at least seven prime ministers took oath and none of them completed the tenure. Similarly, from 1988 to 1999, the PPP and Muslim League were twice returned to power, but were sent packing under 58-2(b) because of their intolerance to each other.
In Pakistan, the presidential system was adopted after martial laws of General Ayub Khan, General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, and not by the civilian setup. In the editorial of renowned English daily titled ‘Debate on Presidential System’, the leader writer stated, “Instead of engaging in the debate, the Opposition should remind them that this Parliament is not mandated to change the structure of the Constitution into one that establishes presidential form of government. In order to do so, it will have to do away the Constitution, elect the Constituent Assembly and go for presidential system. The alternative is a referendum on the issue on which the Constitution is vague if not silent”. Opponents of presidential system argue that the surrender to the authority of one individual, as in the presidential system, is dangerous for democracy, as it centralizes power in one individual unlike the parliamentary system.
Opponents of presidential system believe that the over-centralization of power in one individual is something to guard against. On the other hand, those who argue in favour of a presidential system often state that the safeguards and checks are in place: that a powerful President can be stalled by a powerful legislature. They reject the argument about lack of autonomy in presidential system, as there is unprecedented autonomy in the US, and many states have their own laws; hence the argument that under presidential system there is no autonomy is not convincing or valid. According to the tenth amendment to the US Constitution, the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people. The Tenth Amendment allows states to engage in trade missions with foreign countries.
Article 4, section 4 of the US Constitution states, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence”. But the proponents of parliamentary system quote Quaid-i-Azam to prove their point that he strongly believed in federal parliamentary system. They also refer to the remarks made in Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report that formation of One-Unit, principle of parity, unitary form of government and system of basic democracies were the reasons for alienating the people of smaller provinces that led to disintegration of Pakistan. There is no denying that both systems – parliamentary and presidential – are democratic systems that are quite successful in European countries and the US respectively.
Both systems have good points; but in a country like Pakistan where federating units have different ethnicities, languages and cultures, the smaller federating units consider the presidential system as an effort to exploit and dominate them. The people of smaller provinces tend to feel that under parliamentary system there is chance for the regional parties to make it to the top slot in the province. It should be clear to any student of history or political science that political systems were evolved in step with changing conditions; therefore, it was crucial that its political setup was open to reform. It is an irrefutable fact that from the tribal and feudal epochs, with their own peculiar political systems of kingship, tribal Jirga and dictatorships, the world has progressed to the present democratic order based on system of ‘one-man one-vote’ and the elected govts of fixed tenures.
—The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.