Is presidentialism a bad thing?

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Many people have argued that presidentialism could be a bad thing for democracy and that a parliamentary model would be better. But early predictions that presidential systems would collapse have often proved to be wide of the mark, in part because presidents have found ways to act like prime ministers and build broad based coalitions. In an exciting new partnership with our friends at Democracy Paradox, we bring you their review of a recent book – Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective – that discusses the impact of presidentialism in Africa and beyond. 

Theories about presidentialism remain in the shadow of the “Perils of Presidentialism” thesis from Juan Linz. But a lot has changed since he made the case against presidential systems. Governments in nearly every region of the world have adopted some form of Presidential system. Chaisty, Cheeseman and Power have written a work which uses contemporary data to challenge Linz’s thesis. They focus on Presidential systems within multiparty political systems. These are often blended systems which combine elements of proportional representation with the institution of a President. Linz predicted disaster within these political systems. The Presidential system is supposed to work within a clear two-party system. But this work turns these assumptions upside down and looks to see what is inside. It turns out there is quite a bit to examine.

I will admit this is one of those books written by political scientists for political scientists. The authors probably do not expect anyone outside academia to read this book. Its list price for the hardcover is $85 and the kindle costs $79. It is priced for university libraries and students assigned the text for a course. It’s not priced for mass consumption. Thank god for interlibrary loan because this is an expensive read.

That said this is one of those books the character Will Hunting would have said blows your hair back. It dives into a range of countries from multiple political contexts to offer real world contemporary examples. The chapters focus on a Presidential Toolbox which are applicable to multiple political contexts. Nic Cheeseman uses a similar approach in his work How to Rig an Election. The authors break down the Presidential toolkit into five options:

  1. Legislative Powers
  2. Cabinet Authority
  3. Partisan Powers
  4. Budgetary Authority
  5. Exchange of Favors

Many of the tools are commonplace with wide acceptance within the democratic community. Legislative, cabinet and budgetary authority belong within the consensual model of democracy favored by Ljiphart. Indeed, many Presidents form supermajority coalitions so they have the power to pass constitutional reforms or cardinal laws. These supermajorities require wide coalitions which are much larger than the typical Westminster Model. Presidents bring new parties into their fold through a combination of legislative priorities, cabinet inclusion and budgetary proposals. The inclusion of different political parties into a Presidential coalition mirrors the consensual model more than the dominance of the Westminster model.

In ways this makes sense because the Presidential model divides the political system into legislative and executive functions. This separation of powers is consensual in nature, however the dominance of a Presidency over the political system has similarities to a Westminster model because it is largely based on majoritarian principles. In an American context, Andrew Jackson leveraged his status as a nationally elected official to dominate politics. He used direct appeals to majoritarianism to justify his partisan policies. But this book focuses on Presidents within a weak partisan position where they rely on the formation of a legislative coalition to retain their effectiveness.

The authors allow the book to blur the line between democratic governance and the competitive authoritarian systems as described by Levitsky and Way. Presidents use the exchange of favors to effectively bribe politicians to join their political coalitions. This becomes increasingly important within fragmented party systems. It is natural to include party leaders within cabinets in the formation of coalition governments. However, some coalitions require the inclusion of so many parties they cannot include them all within the cabinet. A fragmented party system may actually contribute to Presidential power because the parties become beholden to the President for legislative goals, favors and budgetary concessions. Those outside the coalition deliver nothing for their constituents and remain vulnerable from election to election.

The authors are well-known within the political science community. Professors are likely to be impressed from a reference to this recent work of scholarship. It is unlikely they have taken the time to have read it but the have likely read articles from the authors. Nic Cheeseman and Timothy Power write in some of the journals I read so I have come across their work without necessarily seeking it out. Nic Cheeseman has even been mentioned in the pages of The Economist which shows how mainstream his work has become. This work is essential for those who study presidential systems, but it also has relevance for those who study political institutions. I believe political science is largely based on the study of political institutions, so I find tremendous value as an extension or clarification of many of the grand theories from authors like Huntington, Fukuyama and Dahl.

Finally, this work is surprisingly accessible. There are not complicated formulas which distract from the prose. They include charts, graphs and statistics but they do not perform complex regressions which take up pages simply to explain their methodology. I remember reading Acemoglu and Robinson’s Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. That was a pain to read with all the econometric formulas and equations. This is written in clear prose that is easy to understand. It is dense but the writers are clear and concise, so it is understandable. And while it may not be available at your local library, you can probably find it through interlibrary loan so take advantage of WorldCat.


This article appeared first with our friends at Democracy Paradoxread the original there.

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