Why an executive presidency?

Stabroek News
July 27, 1999

It is disappointing that the executive presidency, introduced in the undemocratically imposed l980 constitution and widely seen at the time as an authoritarian device to give great power to the leader and insulate him from being removed from power even by his own party, has been recommended for retention by the Constitutional Reform Commission. The vote was l3 for and 3 against. A proposal for a largely ceremonial president as head of state above the fray but with some powers of making appointments only secured 3 votes. l0 voted against and 3 abstained.

Why an executive presidency? Political scientists have noted that the parliamentary system is more flexible than the presidential one. Moreover, a president combines two roles. As head of state he is the representative of the entire nation. In his other capacity he is head of a political party. In an article entitled "The Perils of Presidentialism" in the Journal of Democracy, Winter l990, Juan Linz argued: "Presidentialism is ineluctably problematic because it operates according to the rule of "winner-take-all" - an arrangement that tends to make democratic politics a zero-sum game, with all the potential for conflict such games portend". And again "The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president's fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate. There is no hope for shifts in alliances, expansion of the government's base of support through national-unity or emergency grand coalitions, new elections in response to major new events, and so on. Instead, the losers must wait at least four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarisation".

Three years later in the same journal his colleague in an article entitled "Latin America: Presidentialism in crisis" noted that although Latin America emulated Europe in devising its electoral and judicial systems, it patterned its form of government after the United States, "making the Americas the homeland par excellence of presidentialism". He continued: "Presidentialism has been successful only in the United States. Many factors have contributed to the consolidation there of a regime based on the separation of powers, including the development of the Supreme Court as an arbiter between the other two branches, the firm tradition of civilian control over the military, and the practice of federalism (which centered power for generations at the state rather than the national level). Despite these factors, it is doubtful that presidentialism would have succeeded in the United States had it not been for something that was not foreseen by the U.S. founders, namely the development of distinct political parties organised in a two-party system". He might also have noted that Latin America represents a specific European tradition, that of Spain and Portugal, and is more a reflection of their political culture, at the time of the conquest and later, Roman Catholic, corporative and semi-feudal, than of the institutions of Britain or France.

What is there to be gained from the executive presidency as distinct from a full parliamentary system with a ceremonial head of state, perhaps with certain limited powers? The detailed debate of the commissioners on this issue is not available in the report. At a time when there is an opportunity to craft a new constitution how can it be supported in principle? In addition, the president is elected on a plurality and not a majority, effectively a departure from the system of proportional representation. Though not designed by the PPP they would understandably support this as they remember clearly what happened to them in l964 and can visualise the other parties ganging up against them again if they fail to win an overall majority of the vote. But it shows again the artificiality of the provisions crafted by Mr Burnham in l980 for his own purposes.

The Commissioners do make other recommendations on the presidency, among these that one person may only hold the office for a maximum of two terms which shall be consecutive. There are two that are of particular significance. The first is that the cabinet shall be collectively responsible to parliament for the control of the government and that the cabinet, including the president, must resign "if the government is defeated by a majority of all the members of the National Assembly on a vote of confidence". The other is that the president "who shall have ministerial responsibility for subjects and departments not assigned to ministers shall be accountable to the National Assembly for the subjects and departments so retained. The President shall assign or appoint a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary to be answerable to the National Assembly for such matters not so assigned".

These two recommendations amount to a fascinating recognition of the hybrid system we now have (the parliamentary system we inherited in l966 with the presidential imposition in l980) and are an attempt to bring the President firmly within the parliamentary system and to establish the supremacy of parliament. It may well be an unprecedented innovation for a presidential system as it means that the term of the chief executive can be terminated by a decision of the legislature and may reflect an underlying unease with the system which was never voted for by anyone and has never had its rationale spelt out. Indeed there are many who would argue that the Presidency has in fact become largely ceremonial in practice, though not in form.

In other recommendations, the commissioners seek to reduce the powers of the president for which there would be widespread support.

It would seem that an historic opportunity has been missed to grapple with a difficult topic. And the system contains the possibility of a constitutional confrontation if the president wins on a plurality but does not have a majority in parliament, which could have happened in l992. The commissioners clearly recognised the problem but were unable to come up with a solution acceptable to the majority. The questionable legacy of l980 has been retained, though modified.

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