The Explainer: The Presidential System


That was a clip from the cable TV series, “Rome,” in which the Roman Senate gave Caesar a crown; and the Republic died. What’s to stop a body of frightened men –whether it’s the Roman senate or the German Reichstag, from surrendering to a dictator? To the Americans, the answer lay in not allowing legislators to appoint Caesars.

Tonight, we’ll look at two principal differences between the parliamentary and presidential systems.


I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.




Last week, we tackled parliamentary government on its own terms. This week, let’s discuss how the parliamentary system compares and contrasts with the system we all know, the presidential system.

In our discussion, we learned that the parliamentary system evolved: as kings lost power, parliament gained authority. We can say parliament absorbed the powers of the monarchy. Which is why, in the parliamentary system, the head of state has little, if any, power, except, if the king is respected and wise, a kind of moral authority like we see in the King of Thailand. But in a parliamentary system, real power belongs to the head of government, the prime minister. And he exercises power by authority of parliament and no one else. Since the prime minister, as head of government, is answerable only to parliament, he is both master and servant of parliament. Or to be precise, of his party.

In a presidential system the president is both head of state and head of government: the president represents the nation, but he also appoints, and presides over, a cabinet composed of people who owe their jobs to him, and no one else. A President has power, not because parliament has authorized him to do so, or because his party controls Congress,  but instead, because he has been elected, either by the people or their representatives, to form a government.

The President’s government, or administration, does not make laws, and it does not have authority over the courts, as a parliament does. Those powers, united in a parliament, belong to two other institutions under the presidential system.

There is Congress, the body that makes laws, and there are the Courts, of which the highest is the Supreme Court, which act as a referee on legal disputes.

The President and his government are, therefore, both independent and dependent on the other two branches of government: independent because a President can run the government departments basically as he sees fit, but dependent because the money must come from Congress, and all his actions, like those of Congress, are subject to review by the courts.

Hence we meet one of the two main principles that separate the parliamentary from the presidential system. The first principle of the presidential system is called the separation of powers. We’ll discuss the second principle, checks and balances, a little later on.

The presidential system was invented in America. If the parliamentary system in many ways evolved in Britain, why did America not adopt that system? Why did they establish a new system no one else had used it before?

The founding fathers of America were paranoid and resentful people. They’d seen their first, painful attempt at a constitution, which began in 1777 and was only approved in 1781, called the Articles of Confederation, fail. They met again in 1787 to try to do better. Their efforts resulted in the American Constitution.

What were the American revolutionaries paranoid about? Everything. They were paranoid about establishing mob rule. They were afraid of the poor gaining power and depriving the rich of their property. They were paranoid about each other, being rich and powerful men. They were frightened by the thought of what might happen if one or some of them got more power than the rest. They were paranoid about one faction, one group of men, gaining a permanent advantage over the other factions. You see, their reading, combined with practical experience, had made them hyperactively suspicious of human nature.

In the 18th century, there was a French noble known to us as the Baron de Montesquieu. He wrote a profoundly influential book, “The Spirit of Laws.”

At the time he wrote his book, there were only a few basic kinds of government. Each kind, Montesquieu argued, depended on a particular kind of guiding principle to make them work.

A democracy, for example, required virtue, for if an ordinary person were to be given power by other ordinary people, only a dedication to virtuous governing would prevent tyranny;

A government by aristocracy required moderation, for if the nobles, never known for modesty or a lack of self interest, simply governed to plunder and steal, it would lead to eternal conflict and corruption;

A monarchy, if a king had power, needed to be based on honor, for kings by their nature were above the law, and so the only sure way to ensure they ruled justly is if they had a sense of shame arising from a sense of honor;

And finally, for despotism to work, it had to depend on fear: a tyrant, or despot, no one feared was a doomed dictator: and a society dependent on dictators would always be fearful of power struggles.

To the Americans, who had just rebelled against both a parliament composed of immoderate aristocrats, and a monarchy which they believed had no honor, despotism was not an option to consider. But neither was democracy worth while if couldn’t foster virtue.

What’s the enemy of virtue? The corrupting influence of unlimited power. I like to think that the founding principle of American government is a phrase coined much later, but which we all know: as Lord Acton wrote, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Therefore, one defense against the dangers of government by whimsy, and the weak defense of liberty tradition has to offer, was not to rely on an unwritten Constitution, as the UK has to this day, but rather, to write it down so everyone, both officials and ordinary citizens, knows who can do what.

Now even if the American revolutionaries were paranoid, they also had respect for the individual. The surest defense of personal freedom, in their mind, while ensuring a viable national community, was a popular idea at the time, that of Subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity means that the state is really composed of many institutions; these range from the family, to churches, to schools, towns and states; government is what binds all these together by ensuring peace and order; but the state has the obligation not to interfere in each part’s legitimate jurisdiction; invading what is properly the territory of a part, such as the family, or of property owners, endangers liberty, and thus, every part of the whole. Parliamentary supremacy to them, was as potentially tyrannical as a dictator or a king with absolute powers.


Let’s go back to the year 1780, when the people of the state of Massachussets clearly expressed in their own state Constitution.


“In the government of this commonwealth the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them – to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.”

-Constitution of State of Massachussets, 1780


Notice that famous sentence, a government of laws and not of men, which explains a long-standing criticism of parliamentary government: that it tends to be government by factions, which can ignore both the opposition or the public, which has no defense outside of elections.

So if the Americans, and we, in turn, have a system in which powers are separated into three branches, how do those branches deal with each other? The manner they do so, operates on the principle of checks and balances.  How this principle works, helps us understand important differences between the presidential and parliamentary systems. And that’s what we’ll tackle when we return.




That was from the first Star Wars. The film saga is actually a lesson in how checks and balances are the last line of defense against tyranny.

Let’s look at this graphic and go through how checks and balances works out in the presidential system. Each of the three branches, the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial, has definite responsibilities, but its behavior is subject to some kind of review by the other.

If you are the President, you appoint a cabinet, to head departments. But there is at least a minimum guarantee that you have appointed people with some kind of competence. That guarantee is that your presidential appointments require Congressional confirmation. Now if both the President and Congress are irresponsible crooks, you might get some moron in the cabinet. But chances are, since the cabinet doesn’t come from Congress, and since both Congress and the President derive their mandate from the people, if a presidential appointee is controversial and unpopular for whatever reason, that appointment can be blocked.

The President’s cabinet runs the departments, but the budget for government doesn’t go straight to the President. If that were to happen, he could treat the treasury like his own personal wallet, like the Marcoses did. Congress has to approve the budget, and therefore, there’s at least some kind of guarantee of transparency and control over spending.

At the same time, only Congress passes laws. There are three controls over the laws Congress chooses to pass. If, for example, a law is harmful to the President’s program, he can veto part of it or the whole thing. This also makes sure that in case Congress gets hysterical, someone can force the reconsideration of the law. If Congress, despite a veto, thinks the President’s just being stubborn, it can override the veto.

And even if the President and Congress collude or plot to approve tyrannical or illegal laws, the Supreme Court, independent of the President and Congress, can declare the law unconstitutional and thus, not valid. The President, too, if he thinks Congress is ignoring the needs of the times, can propose legislation, but he has to convince Congress to pass it.

The presidential and parliamentary systems both claim to include a system of checks and balances. The difference is that in the presidential system, it is explicit, while in the parliamentary system, it is implied. Again, we go back to a question the Americans tried to resolve: can any government be expected to do what is right? Their belief was, no: the system must be designed so that government’s parts serve to limit the natural tendency of all officials to try to bully everyone else.

And this is something crucial to understanding why checks and balances can be so complicated and time-consuming. Efficiency, in the presidential system, is not an ideal: to the Americans, governmental efficiency would raise government above the people, who wouldn’t have any real chance to prevent government from becoming abusive. To prevent abuse, the presidential system prefers each branch abuse each other, because it allows ordinary people to go about their lives undisturbed.

We can also look back to critics of the parliamentary system during our First Republic, to see why some people prefer checks and balances.

The Malolos Republic was a parliamentary Republic: Emilio Aguinaldo was made President not through the vote of the people, but the vote of the Malolos Congress, a unicameral body. Apolinario Mabini, who was chief political adviser of Aguinaldo, thought that setting up a parliament was premature. He was even more dissatisfied with the kind of parliamentary government set up.


“…the first Congress … imported into a country disturbed or threatened by a revolution the Constitution adopted by another nation in time of peace… Why did they not copy the Constitution adopted by the French Revolution or by the North American one or by any other nation that fought for its independence? At least logic and common sense would so counsel.”


Mabini asked why the Malolos Republic was patterned after the oligarchic constitutions of some South American countries and post-Napoleonic France, rather than the constitutions of people who’d actually revolted against tyranny, such as the Americans or the original constitution France drew up when it overthrew Louis XVI. But being a good patriot, he decided his duty was to serve, since his President had agreed to the new system.

But as our first prime minister, Mabini couldn’t resist making a devastating criticism of the system. This happened when he opposed a decision by the Malolos Congress.

Faced with a shortage of funds, the Congress proposed to establish a bank, to lend money to the Republic, at interest. The bank would be set up and owned by people close to the members of Congress. Being a parliament, neither the President, Aguinaldo, nor anyone else, would be able to stop such a self-serving proposal.

Mabini ended up invoking the only real check and balance under a parliamentary system: he took his case to media, what we’d call an expose today. Mabini wrote in a newspaper, “”Such is the work of the first Congress: a work of obstruction and not of development.”

The response of the members of Congress was to spread rumors Mabini was paralyzed because of a venereal disease. Mabini, of course, was dismissed as prime minister, and only history has vindicated him: but it didn’t do either the national treasury, or the reputation of the Republic, any good at the time.

If the separation of powers in the presidential system was viewed as a move forward, compared to parliament’s combining the executive and legislative, and if checks and balances are meant to prevent government steamrolling over ordinary people, why is there a proposal to abandon these two ideas?




Parliaments and presidential governments have both fallen under the sway of dictators.

But in defense of the presidential system, presidents who have become dictators have often had to shut down a constitutionally-independent Congress, as Marcos did in 1972. There is less of an opportunity in the presidential system to legitimize a dictatorship: a Congress may not stop a tank, but the tanks having to surround Congress on behalf of a president means no one can suffer from the delusion that what’s happening is either constitutional, or legal.

I once saw a documentary on the unicameral parliament of China. It’s a singe-party dictatorship, of course. Two delegates dared to vote against their party. Fellow delegates rushed to shake their hands –how thrilling, they said, to see democracy in action!

One of the two said, if it’s so thrilling, why didn’t you also vote against? The only response they got was, “well, you know, there are many reasons…”


Actually, only one. There aren’t any checks and balances.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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