Seldom does the opportunity present itself to a people to contemplate their system of government anew, with a sense of possibility in the horizon. Often, the constitution of the State is approached as a Leviathan, an immutable feature of the landscape one needs to navigate rather than improve, or even more radically, alter altogether. Yet it can be said that the wholesale disarray and disorder that plagues contemporary Brazilian politics affords us with a valuable opportunity to do precisely that- to imaginatively analyze the degree to which the fundamental nature of one’s system of government might shape the vicissitudes of a nation for better or worse.
Interestingly such a case study offers a scenario where comparative politics has left the Academy and taken to the streets, in the form of a small but burgeoning revival of a Monarchist movement, whose cause celebre is that the current crisis is not a momentary difficulty, but a symptom of systematic dysfunction inherent in Brazil’s republican constitutional arrangement, with its Presidential system. To draw a brief but necessary sketch of the background of the argument, its worth noting that uniquely among American nations, Brazil had a Parliamentary Monarchy from its independence in 1822 up until 1889, characterized by relative stability and prosperity, only to embark on an unsteady succession of brief democratic periods interlaced with authoritarian military governments following the proclamation of the Republic. Falling in line with the long-standing precedent of its South American neighbors.
The question we shall devote our attention to is whether such a change of fortune, from early promise to instability that shines forth ingloriously even today, is attributable to the country’s form of government. In this field in which we shall toil, we shall carefully consider the alternatives between parliamentarism and presidentialism, as well as the manner in which the form of government implicitly instills certain values in the polity, which then go on to govern its proceedings and relationship to the wider society, factors which play a role in this calculation. It will be proposed that while a republican Presidential system may have had inauspicious beginnings in Brazil, it nevertheless is preferable to a Parliamentary Monarchical one, and in fact, may just carry the seeds of future political and social renewal if only it is embraced, and its vision brought to full realization. While I shall be mainly drawing from a specific example, it will be also demonstrated how more broadly speaking, this conclusion is not only defensible in this case but universally applicable.
Institutional features; Parliamentary and Presidential constitutions
A venture into the contrast between monarchical and republican states would be incomplete without first elaborating the practical reality of their inner workings. To clarify the parameters of discussion, the competing visions in such a scenario would be that of a symbolic Head of State and an active Head of Government, who is drawn from the Legislature (parliamentarism, e.g. the Westminster model in the UK) as opposed to a Head of State who is also Head of Government, in the form of a President, in a system predicated on the separation of Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary powers (presidentialism, e.g. the American model). Although this taxonomy can be expanded, for the sake of brevity this should be sufficient for now.
An observation that comes to mind at this point is that the vast majority of prosperous and stable democracies in the world have adopted the former, while the latter option arguably can only boast of the US as its lone triumph of continuity in these respects. The historical prominence of parliamentarism in the lists of national ‘success stories’ is prima facie intuitively robust evidence as to its merits- and this is a rhetorical motif often advanced by the Monarchist movement, in its social media campaign and public events, not entirely without good cause. Moreover, the precedent established by presidentialism in Brazil since 1889, in summary, is one of instability, corruption, and bouts of authoritarianism- in total comprising of 7 constitutions, and number of coups d’état, with the first being the foundation of the republic itself. The latest impeachment of President Rousseff in 2016, and simultaneous exposure of omnipresent malfeasance in Congress likewise hardly inspire confidence in the national institutions. In stark contrast to this, its noteworthy that despite many occasions of turbulence, the parliamentary constitution of the monarchy in Brazil remained virtually the same from 1824 to 1889.
It has been cogently argued that not only does parliamentarism stands comfortably on its own record generally speaking, but that presidentialism is positively dangerous in so far as it tends toward a host of problems by its own design- taken in isolation, the collection of historical facts mentioned earlier, might seem like a particular illustration of what is a general principle. This is the view advanced by renowned Spanish political scientist Juan Jose Linz, in his influential 1987 essay “The Perils of Presidentialism”. Linz assiduously identifies a number of dysfunctions and paradoxes the arrangement can give rise to which although convincing at first, upon closer inspection appear to be predicated on worst case scenarios, when they aren’t equally latent in the parliamentary model, or indeed, aren’t problems at all.
The role of the President of the Republic
Linz argues that it is defined by a “plebiscitarian legitimacy”, whose enormity of responsibility, encompassing both the leadership of a whole branch of government as well as the symbolic headship of the state, is bound to endow the office-holder with a dangerous “sense of power and mission” as “the voice of the nation or the tribune of the people”. It remains unclear however, how in principle such a condition is reprehensible, seeing as surely the wisdom of this arrangement is contingent on the quality of the office-holder’s platform, and by extension, the electorate who put him there.
The “two-dimensionality” of the office is questioned as absurd, seeing as it is hard to imagine how a partisan figure, a demagogic orator at mass rallies can upon election become a suitable representative of the nation, trusted to advance the national interest above and beyond a sectarian party program, especially seeing as a great deal of people in the nation were “losers” at the election. This is a reasonable question to have, in light of the divisive response some Presidents invite in the general population, such as Lula in Brazil, or a Trump in America.
It is worth reflecting on the conundrum of this ambiguity, namely the potential for instability and arbitrary exercise of power, given the ease with which a President can be tempted to conflate his supporters wishes, with the ‘will of the people’ as a whole. The corollary of this scenario, being the conclusion that the President’s political opponents must be agents of narrow and parochial interests, whose loyalty to the nation is questionable. The best contemporary example of this being the vicious polarization of post-Trump America perhaps. However, while Linz is wise to highlight this issue, he does understate the degree to which such ominous prospects are diffused by the system of checks and balances entailed in the separation of powers. Even in the occasion of a collective lapse of judgement, whereby a deranged character was elevated to the highest office in the land, there are constitutional means of legitimately opposing such a President- through Congress as well as the courts, with the ultimate instrument of opposition being of course the process of impeachment.
However, if Linz and those who voice similar sentiments are right, the question then becomes, if for better or worse such exceptionally charismatic characters are unsuitable to be head of state, then who is?
In the case of a monarchy, the sole qualification required is birthright, which creates an unbridgeable gap between the monarch and his subjects. Once in the position, the monarch isn’t susceptible to accountability in any meaningful way should he prove to be inadequate to the task at hand, and it should go without saying that the method of selection is no guarantor of political acumen. On this last point, many Monarchists will reply that from early childhood the prospective monarch would receive the best education for the role, and that is true, but here one must consider not only the welfare of the population, but that of the prospective monarch himself. It’s not too difficult to imagine the tremendous burden placed on an individual, without choice on the matter, coupled with the aforementioned unbridgeable gap between a royal family and the common man, might inevitably produce a head of state who is out of touch with reality- a lamentable outcome not only for him, but those he reigns over as well.
In contrast, a President is invariably someone who has voluntarily chosen to enter the fray of statesmanship and all it involves, which all things being equal, would tend to favor those psychologically prepared for the position. The Monarchist might argue that this is a moot point when it comes to constitutional monarchies, seeing as the monarch in this case is reduced to a rubber-stamping, photo-ops, and state dinner-hosting position and therefore not expected to be overly invested in the affairs of the state as such. The problem with this response is that to the degree that one advances this minimization of the headship of state, the more difficult it becomes to justify the monarchy as anything more than an unnecessarily expensive and superfluous display of pomposity.
The scholars Scott Mainwaring and Matthew S. Shugart, in their 1997 essay “Juan Linz, Presidentialism, and Democracy: A Critical Appraisal”, argue that the expectations regarding the head of state are somewhat unclear. Linz suggests that in occasions of crisis, the head of state can fulfill the role of a neutral arbiter, but as pointed out by the scholars, for this role to be anything more than a feckless ornament, it needs to be “institutionally entitled” to other tasks as well.
On this point the Monarchists in Brazil have a trump card- which is the idiosyncratic provision of the constitution of 1824 of a “poder moderador”. This was a novelty which posited the existence of a 4th power, alongside the traditional three, residing with the monarch, which optimistically would allow for a resolution of disputes between the traditional branches of government, or pessimistically would allow for the monarch to unilaterally override them. Like a legislative hydra however, this is a solution which spawns problems more numerous than the ones it portends to solve- seeing as in addition to being susceptible to the usual variables (the qualities of the office-holder), it exists in splendid isolation from any democratic controls, being effectively a constitutional time-bomb in light of the potential for conflict and contestation of legitimacy inherent in this legal construct.
In any case, the scholars assert that Linz’s acknowledgement of the necessity of an “arbiter” aspect of the headship of state is a concession to the “Madisonian point that placing unchecked power in the hands of the assembly majority isn’t necessarily good”. What matters here, the scholars continue “is the distribution of powers among the different players involved in initiating or blocking policy”.
We remain with the possibility of a head of state who is too impotent to do any harm, and therefore utterly irrelevant, or a neutral arbiter whose power is proportional to the degree that it becomes problematic in the constitutional order- instead of grappling with this paradox, it would be better simply to admit that in European cases where symbolic Presidents exist, they do so as place-holders where monarchs previously were, and in those cases where monarchs are in the role, they are indeed merely ornamental. This is quite a blow to the underpinnings of the parliamentarian position. It is in this relationship however, between the legislature and the executive, that perils of parliamentarism become all the more evident.
The Dual Legitimacy problem
This is a prominent feature of the parliamentary position as championed by Linz. In light of the separation of powers in the presidential system, it is said that given both the President and Congress are elected via popular vote, both can lay claim to the be the true “tribune of the people”, and therefore in those cases where these come into conflict there is no “democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved”. Curiously, there is a brief acknowledgment of the fact that the US has successfully dealt with such occasions, but this example is dismissed as “exceptional” (!). Worse than this, is that leaving us wondering just what the US model might have to teach us on this matter, Linz goes on talk about the sad Latin-American experiments in presidentialism, arriving at the grotesque conclusion that its paradoxes in some cases can only be resolved by military coup d’états. While it is true that history has played out in such a manner, to simply assume this to be an inherent feature of presidentialism, particularly noticeable in the Latin-American soil where the flower of democracy presumably tends not to grow, is to eliminate all necessary context and overplay one’s hand. For the sake of fairness however, this claim is more of an insinuation than an explicit statement, but it is there.
The distance between the executive and legislative branch, is one which in light of this problem is not only conducive to a frustrated and potentially combative President, vis-à-vis Congress, but Linz argues, also will produce less than ideal Cabinets. A Prime-Minister is on more equal footing with his ministers, and other MPs, and therefore might be obliged to make concessions as to the composition of his Cabinet say to foster a sense of representation of prominent views in the legislature- thus allowing even the inclusion of some who might oppose him. This scenario is contrasted favorably against the presidential one, where it is said that its unlikely to contain “strong independent-minded members” by virtue of their selection being at the President’s discretion.
It remains unclear however why such a distance is not desirable, indeed, an observer who is anxious as to the potential for collusion between political actors resulting in an unassailable Leviathan of a leader would hopefully desire a healthy critical distance between these two branches of government. This is a wise prescription dating back to Montesquieu, that would ultimately allow for say, a Watergate investigation, or indeed the legislative deadlock that though temporarily unfortunate, is a mechanism that forces political actors to recognize their inability to impose themselves on other branches of government and the necessity of cooperation among equals. In regard to the Cabinet it’s also the case that by virtue of leading an independent executive, the President has much more scope as to his appointments, which allows for the introduction of outside experts or mavericks who would otherwise not necessarily find a voice or excel in the legislature- an example that comes to mind being perhaps the role of Alexander Hamilton, as secretary of the treasury, under George Washington.
The “dual legitimacy” problem however is deeper than this, Linz argues that in those cases where great regional discrepancies exist, its more likely that the political and social outlook of the legislature will contrast with that of the President and his supporters. As he puts it “the territorial principle of representation tends to give greater weight to small towns and rural areas. This may give ground for a President to question the democratic credentials of his opponents in Congress- as the representatives of local oligarchies and narrow selfish clienteles”. Now while these observations are astute and true enough, its not the case that they would uniquely plague a presidential system, as surely regional inequalities can prove just as problematic in parliamentary systems- indeed a common complaint in the UK is that the North of England is neglected by the central government in London.
Furthermore, we can join the scholars S. Mainwaring and M.S. Shugart, mentioned previously, in saying that the “dual legitimacy problem” can equally be a feature of a parliamentary system in those cases where disputes arise between an upper and lower Chamber, in bi-cameral legislatures.
More importantly, one must wonder to what degree this perceived problem is not a necessary and deliberate characteristic of presidentialism, harking back to the previous mention of Montesquieu. The alternative to it, would be the de facto concentration of power in the hands of the Prime-Minister, provided certain conditions are met, namely that his party hold a large enough majority in the legislature. This is a point well-argued by Mainwaring and Shugart, when they point out that in parliamentary systems with a disciplined party cadre, and a majority party in power, are the ones with the least amount of checks on executive power.
The Westminster model in the UK is perhaps the best example of how the parliamentary position works out in practice. Here the carping about regional inequalities that exist in the legislature is rendered moot, as these are then naturally reflected in the executive, which is drawn from it- no “tribune of the people” here either, as the Prime-Minister is not directly voted into power but selected by his party. The composition of the Cabinet is victim to a selection criterion that is aimed at preserving partisan cohesion, rather than the national interest as such, and by virtue of the electoral system, all this can be achieved with well under 50 % of the vote. In addition to these points, the Prime-Minister and the legislature historically have had an active role in judicial appointments (although admittedly the current situation is more nuanced since the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005). Most impressive of all however, is the fact that the parliamentary majority can in this scenario also use its dissolution power to strategically call for new elections and renew its mandate for another 5 years, before the end of its current term.
Honesty demands the conclusion that such an impressive array of prerogatives, for all intents and purposes, at the disposal of the Prime-Minister in this scenario is the stuff a President, all things being equal, could only dream of. Despite the formalities that inform a primer inter pares Prime-Minister, and the conventions which govern the internal proceedings of parliament, presidentialism recognizes the importance of a clear allocation of power, as well as a transparent delineation as to its boundaries. It’s not as conducive to a winner-take-all scenario as it is imagined to be, which takes us to the next significant element of Jose Linz’ case for parliamentarism.
The Electoral aspect and the question of succession
A recurring and admittedly compelling charge that runs through Linz’ case is that presidential systems tend towards “zero-sum elections” and “winner-take-all” results, which by their very nature can have unnecessarily destabilizing effects on the polity. Coupled with the parameters set by fixed term limits, Linz argues that the electoral element becomes an all-important factor in the political process, which will greatly influence for example “the way political competition is structured in the system […] the styles of leadership […] the ways in which power is exercised and conflicts resolved”.
This point however is envisaged in the context of the interactions between political parties, in the formation of coalitions and fronts, and what might be called the wheeling-and-dealing of power-brokering. It is said that “Power-sharing and coalition-forming are fairly common [in parliamentary systems] …These parties in turn retain expectations of sharing in power and, therefore, of having a stake in the system as a whole”. This is contrasted against a presidential alternative where “winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate […] losers must wait at least four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage”. Institutional arrangements therefore, necessarily shape the “way of ruling”.
While these, and what follow are cogent suggestions as to the manner in which government might be best based on consociational foundations, it must be admitted that to some degree this point is also a non-sequitur. In so far as these problems pertain more directly to the dynamics of the partisan landscape of a nation, rather than the form of government as such, whatever lack of broad consensus across coalitions that might occur in these scenarios, can’t be attributed to presidentialism per se.
Indeed, it can be said that there’s much room for maneuver for opposition party/parties which find themselves on the losing side of a contested presidential election, to the degree that to say these are uniquely conducive to “winner-take-all’’ results, is highly questionable. As S. Mainwaring and M. Shugart, in their response to Linz, helpfully point out, in such a scenario these opposition forces might still go on to seize majorities in Congress, and while this might not be considered the greatest prize to aim for, as it doesn’t necessarily allow a party to dictate policy it does however “allow the party or coalition to establish the parameters within which policy is made”. It might be added that the US practice of holding mid-term elections for the legislature, contributes to what is an additional check on the executive, given it can be effectively a ‘verdict’ on a presidency whether or not the opposition can secure major gains. The possibility of Congressional independence in legislative matters is a valuable advantage of this system.
The overall claim however that stakes are raised in elections while incontestable, given the potential that a party/coalition can be for all intents and purposes shut out of the executive branch for a significant period of time, can also be interpreted more positively as the major triumph of the presidential system. The fact that a people can have a hand in directly choosing the occupant of the nation’s highest office can only be said to be conducive to greater degree of participation and engagement on the part of the electorate, all things being equal. No such claim to demonstrable and direct legitimacy can ever be ascribed to the backroom deals and internal maneuvering that lead to the ascension of a Prime-Minister to power, however popular he may be.
That said, Linz has a perfectly valid concern as to the fixed term ‘rigidity’ of presidential mandates, which is the problem that arises in those cases where a President has lost support, and yet, cannot be easily replaced like a Prime-Minister would be with a simple vote of non-confidence. The process of impeachment is a laborious and cumbersome one, which depending on the maturity of a nation’s institutions in a time of difficulty can very well lead to a full-blown regime crisis before it is realized, in worst case scenarios- here perhaps we can think of President Maduro’s Venezuela as case in point, with no obvious constitutional resolution.
Moreover, even in less dramatic affairs, the event of a succession in the presidency owing to anything from incapacity to the death of the office-holder, can nevertheless admittedly lead to antagonism when there is a noticeable sense of discontinuity. In Brazil the question of vice-presidential succession came to the fore most recently following Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, with her successor, Michel Temer, being widely maligned as a “usurper”.
The hazards involved with such moments of transition however can only be said to be unavoidable, and contingent on the circumstances and the political actors involved. Objectively speaking, what can be said however is that, presidential systems nevertheless even in erratic and difficult scenarios allow for some degree of predictability and constancy by its very own rigidity, seeing as the line of succession is determined by law. A potential anomaly, such as the Jefferson-Burr split presidential ticket of 1800 in the US, whereby Thomas Jefferson ended up with Aaron Burr as vice-president despite belonging to different parties, could for instance be rectified by the 12th Amendment of 1804, to the US constitution.
Such guarantees of course, are fragile and can put a country to the test in exceptional times, but nevertheless are preferable to the drama which may involve the succession of a monarch- a family affair which in some cases can make or break a country. Likewise, in regard to the headship of government, a less than charismatic vice-president ascending to the highest office of a country, in terms of the relative impregnability of such a transition to democratic controls, is hardly worse than the behind-the-scenes politicking involving the replacement of a Prime-Minister. Nor it must be said, it is any more likely to produce an insipid outcome, as British Conservative Party has shown at various times in its history, where transitions led to the unlikely rise of figures such Theresa May.
On this last point rests what is fundamentally reprehensible in parliamentarism- which is articulated by Linz as being a systematically ordained need for “concord”, which influences the ebb and flow of succession. A situation where the “need to preserve party unity, the deference accorded prominent party figures, and the new premier’s keen awareness that he needs the help of his predecessor even if the latter does not sit on the government bench or the same side of the house” all effectively pre-determine the political process, and we might go further and say, ultimately override the ultimate question of popular mandate. We see here the manner in which parliamentarism has an intrinsic establishment bias, where leadership is susceptible to internal and unaccountable means of selection, alongside unwritten conventions. Suffer the masses, made all the more spectators in the decision-making which affects them.
At this point it is worth clarifying that all that has been discussed so far are matters of tendency regarding the general consequences of an institutional framework on the political process. Evidently, it would be misleading to claim that in all circumstances, a particular parliamentary system is objectively ‘worse’ than a presidential one, and vice-versa, indeed neither I nor the scholars I have cited so far have asserted this. What can be observed however, is that the alleged superiority of parliamentarism is far from indisputable, and it might be added that its predominance worldwide in no small part is attributable to historical accidents.
The Westminster model for example, naturally prevails in those countries with a legacy of British colonialism. In contrast, presidentialism regardless of the terrain in which it is found, the varying degrees to which a nation has a political culture that is hospitable to its functional application, can be said to be invariably a product of intention, even if indirect. The first wayward British colony, the fledging American states for all intents and purposes pioneered the first modern example of republican government by consciously adopting the presidential system, and following its ascendance in the international stage, America has served as a great model for many other countries as they matured into independence or attempted to have rational basis for their state.
What should be noticeable throughout this discussion is the degree to which the standards of measurement of both sides of the argument, in this case both Jose Linz and his critics, are familiar concerns for ‘democracy’, ‘stability’, and ‘legitimacy’. In so far as these are our guiding lights, we have already established that at the root of any such investigation into a constitutional arrangement, is the realization of the general will of a population, or their general welfare. It is a reminder that this discussion already takes place in the background of that revolutionary realization, contained in the 2nd paragraph of the US Declaration of Independence, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” leading naturally to the conclusion that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.
It is evident that contemporary monarchical parliamentary regimes excel greatly, by these standards, in contrast to many a presidential republic in the world, but they can’t be said to do so by their internal logic of governance, but by the movement of history. As we shall see in the next chapter of this essay, objectively speaking it is the ascendance of republican and liberal values during the Enlightenment, that we owe these measures of success to.