Presidential System of Government: Meaning, Features, Merits and Demerits


Presidential System of Government: Meaning, Features, Merits and Demerits

The presidential system government is a model of political and administrative governance in operation in many countries, developed and developing, in which both the executive and ceremonial powers are exercised by a single person who is also addressed as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.

This article takes a look at this system of government by first defining it and identifying its major characteristics. It also examines its merits and demerits as well as its practice in specific countries such as the United States and Nigeria.


The Meaning of Presidential System of Government

The institution of a single man and non-parliamentary executive chiefly characterizes the presidential system of government. The same person who holds the title of the head of state is also head of government.

The real political or executive power is combined with the ceremonial powers and are both exercised by a single man who is also addressed as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The executive headed by him is the government and it is headed by the president who is also the head of the executive.

The president is normally elected directly through popular votes or, indirectly via the collegiate system, otherwise known as the Electoral College and he is directly accountable to the electorate.

The election to the office of the president is independent of the election to the legislature. The whole country constitutes a single constituency to the president.

On assumption of office, the president is seen as the symbol of national unity and chief administrator for the nation.

Presidential System of Government is defined as that type of government in which the three organs of government, that is the legislature, the executive and the judiciary are separated and co-ordinate in power, each of them acting independently within its own sphere.

The President does not share his power with any other person, unlike the Prime Minister who is first among equals in a parliamentary system. The holder of the office of president is often called executive president because he is solely responsible for the implementation of legislative decisions.

He is the chief security officer of the whole country, and in the exercise of this power, he sees to the maintenance of law and order in the country. He is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, which confers on the occupant of that office the power to declare war to defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of his country.

Examples of countries in the world that practice this system of government are U.S.A, Spain, France, and Nigeria. The tenure office of the president is fixed; he stays in office for a specific tenure and he can be re-elected for a second term. The number of years a president stays in office depends on the constitution of the country concerned.

In Nigeria, the fixed tenure for any president is four years.


Features of Presidential System of Government

i) Combination of Two Offices in One: The combination of the office of the head of state and head of government makes for quick and prompt decisions, especially on rare occasions when delays or vacillations may be dangerous for the corporate existence of a nation. To facilitate this, the American presidential system, for instance, allows the president the power to issue executive orders without recourse to the congress, while the Nigerian system also permits a president to take steps in exceptional circumstances, before seeking the approval of the National Assembly.

ii) Presidential Discretion in Appointments: The President also has a free hand in appointing his ministers and other government appointees. Ministers can be chosen from outside the president’s party. This is due to the insulation of the president from party politics under the presidential system of government.

iii) A Single Countrywide Constituency: The whole country constitutes a single constituency for the president in a presidential system of government and he is elected for a fixed term of four years, and separately from members of the parliament.

iv)  Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances: The presidential system of government is anchored on the twin mechanisms of separation of power and checks and balances. This is not the case in the parliamentary system where there is a fusion of power among the three organs of government.

v) Fixed Tenure of Office: The President under the presidential system has a fixed tenure in office, usually a four-year period before another election is due when he can seek for re-election for another term in office. In Nigeria and the United States, no president can serve in office for more than two terms.

vi) Veto Power: In the presidential system of government, the president is constitutionally empowered to refuse to assent any bill passed by the legislature that he considers to be against the public interest, but it isn’t a feature in the parliamentary system of government.

vii) Primacy is accorded to the Constitution: The constitution is the supreme law in the presidential system. This is unlike most parliamentary system where supremacy lies with the parliament.


Merits of Presidential System of Government

i) Promptness in Decision-making: The presidential system of government makes for decisive actions because the president knows that ‘the buck stops on his desk’, a phrase popularized by the late Harry Truman when he decided to use nuclear weapons against two Japanese cities to bring about a decisive end to World War II.

In America and Nigeria, the constitution did not even make it mandatory for the president to call a meeting of the executive council before he can take action on any issue. The president is at liberty to either consult his ministers or any of them or refuse to seek their opinion in taking decisions. This promptness in decision-making therefore makes the response of the government to issues quick and decisive, especially in situations where any delay in taking action may be dangerous.

ii) Presidential Discretion in Appointments: In the presidential system of government, the president uses his discretion to appoint his ministers and other government appointees. Ministers could be chosen from outside the president’s party.

This confers a high degree of latitude on the president to select the best materials from any part of the country.

Since the buck stops at his desk, the president can easily replace or fire any of his appointees because they are directly responsible to him.

iii) A Single Countrywide Constituency: The fact that the electorate popularly elects the president makes the whole country a single constituency for him, and as such, the party does not have an overbearing control over him, beyond offering him advice at party caucuses. He, rather than his party or his appointees, bear responsibilities for his actions and inactions. This constitutes a consistent source of pressure on him to perform since he cannot shift blame to any other person.

iv)  Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances: The mechanism of separation of power enhances the effective performance of each organ of government in its functions, while checks and balances also ensure that a dictatorial president can be brought under constitutional checks. The combination of the two devises will obviously improve the performance of government.

v) Fixed Tenure of Office: The fixed tenure in the office enjoyed by the president under the presidential system makes for the stability of the government and the continuity of policies. A stable government allows for both medium- and long-term planning, rather than the instability that characterizes a parliamentary system of government.

A new general election can be called in a parliamentary system any time a vote of no confidence is passed on the government

vi)  Individual Ministerial Responsibility: Ministers take responsibilities for their actions individually not collectively. Thus, unlike the parliamentary system this allows a non-performing minister to shelter under the concept of collective responsibility, the presidential system makes it easier for an ineffective minister to be identified and singled out for blame or even dismissal.  His dismissal will not affect other ministers or even, in the extreme make a government collapse.


Demerits of Presidential System of Government

i) Prone to Dictatorship: The presidential system is prone to dictatorship or abuse of office, which is dangerous to the democratic process. This is a result of enormous power that is constitutionally allotted to the office of the president.

Presidentialism focuses too much on the personality of the president and his capacity, and when the individual is undermined the office is undermined and the system may even be threatened. The disposition of the president to be autocratic can also be attributed to the cumbersome process that is required before a sitting president can be impeached.

ii) Friction among Government Organs: Separation of powers can cause delays in the execution of government policies and programmes, especially in situations where executive-legislative relations are not properly managed. In less matured democracies of the developing world, this problem is more acute when different political parties are in control of the executive and the legislature. A watertight separation of power often inhibits the smooth running of government, especially if an attempt by one organ to moderate the activities of the other through the mechanism of checks and balances is being resisted

iii) Expensive to Operate: Another demerit of the presidential system is that it is very expensive to run. In the presidential system, elected members of the legislature are required to resign before they can be appointed as ministers, unlike in the parliamentary system which selected cabinet members from the elected members of the parliament. This arrangement is economically more efficient than the presidential system.

iv)  Absence of Party Discipline: Unlike the parliamentary system where party discipline is very strong and which fuses the cabinet and the parliament into one like a ‘Siamese twin’ which must swim and sink together, this is not the case in a presidential model.

Read On: Doctrine of separation of powers

Application of the Presidential System of Government

The Presidential system of government is an operation in many countries. The countries include the United States, a country that is unarguably the model for that system of government. Indeed Nigeria, with minor modifications, adopted the American type of presidential system of government in 1979.

The United States’ constitution under Article II provided for the establishment of the office of a strong president. As pointed out by Alexander Hamilton, a popular delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Article II was aimed towards “energy in the Executive”. The constitution did so to overcome the natural stalemate that was built into the bicameral legislature as well as into the separation of powers among the three organs of government.

The President of the United States exercises executive powers as the head of state; head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The arrangement almost equally applies to Nigeria. One major difference is that the vice president in the United States is also the president of the senate, a position he occupies by the fact of his being the incumbent vice president. He seldom attends the sittings of the upper house except on the rare occasion when he is expected to use his casting vote to break a tie in voting in the senate.

In Nigerian, the president of the senate is first and foremost an elected member of the senate before he is elected from among his colleagues as the presiding officer of the senate.


Conclusion on Presidential System of Government: Meaning, Features, Merits and Demerits

The American experience of over two hundred years has shown that the presidential system of government can be a success story. It is unique because political and administrative powers are divided among the executive, legislative and judicial organs. Despite its many advantages, however, it is claimed by the opponents of the model that the presidential system of government is too expensive to maintain, especially by less developed countries and that it cannot readily guarantee a responsive, or provide a responsible government.

In this article, we began with the treatment of the presidential system of government by defining it and stating its basic features. We also discussed the merits and the demerits of the presidential system of government, citing the United States and Nigeria as case studies to illustrate the practice.

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