Voters taking part in elections, Armenia. Image by Photolure
Following the parliamentary election on April 2, the Republic of Armenia is set to transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system of governance. There has been much public discourse about the differences and implications of each system for the development of democracy since the 2015 Constitutional referendum which triggered this change. Will this new parliamentary system of governance have the potential to create the conditions for a stronger democracy?
Before moving on to a comparative analysis, it is important to dispel one of the most absurd arguments against the vote for a parliamentary system of government – that is Armenia will become (even) less democratic because people will not be directly electing the country’s leader anymore. Germany is not less democratic than the U.S. because Germans do not directly elect the Chancellor. Similarly, Norway is not less democratic than France because of the difference in their governance structures. The two systems of electing top country leadership are different. They have their pros and cons. There are good arguments one could voice in defense of the presidential system, but “less democracy” is a weak argument.
In a presidential system, voters elect the top leader of the executive branch of the government: the president. In a separate election, they choose their representatives to the legislative branch: the Congress, Parliament, or National Assembly. Both branches are equally matched, because they both have been directly empowered by the people. This is the idea of the separation of powers and checks and balances. They are supposed to be working together for the benefit of the people, but they are also supposed to be keeping an eye on each other.
In the parliamentary system, voters elect the parliament. Once elected, the parliament forms the cabinet (the top leadership unit of the executive branch) headed by the prime minister. The cabinet and the prime minister are responsible to the parliament and can relatively easily be removed by the parliament. On the other hand, since the prime minister and the cabinet were appointed by the parliament in the first place, they are likely to enjoy the support of the parliamentary majority unless they mess up badly. In contrast to the principle of the “separation of power,” political scientists often describe this system as a “fusion of power.” Does this mean that power goes unchecked? No. The political opposition has an important role to play in the parliament, and sometimes in the executive branch of the government (if it becomes a coalition member).
The two systems are similar in that respect: the real check on political power always comes from the (a) political opposition, (b) critical and independent mass media, and (c) active citizens. Presidential systems can be abused as badly as parliamentary ones if power goes unchecked. In fact, the historical record so far seems to favor parliamentary democracies as more stable. They have higher rates of surviving, while presidential democracies are more vulnerable to creeping or abrupt authoritarian takeover. Most democracies today are parliamentary.
Presidential systems can be abused as badly as parliamentary ones if power goes unchecked. In fact, the historical record so far seems to favor parliamentary democracies as more stable.