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A presidential system is a system of government where a head of government is also head of state and leads an executive branch that is separate from the legislative branch. The United States, for instance, has a presidential system. The executive is elected and often titled "president" and is not responsible to the legislature and which cannot, in normal circumstances, dismiss it. The legislature may have the right, in extreme cases, to dismiss the executive, often through impeachment. However, such dismissals are seen as so rare as not to contradict a central tenet of presidentialism, that in normal circumstances using normal means the legislature cannot dismiss the executive.
The title president has persisted from a time when such person personally presided over the government body, as with the US President of the Continental Congress, before the executive function was split into a separate branch of government and could no longer preside over the legislative body.
Presidential systems are numerous and diverse, but the following are generally true:
Countries that feature a presidential system of government are not the exclusive users of the title of President. For example, a dictator, who may or may not have been popularly or legitimately elected may be and often is called a president. Likewise, leaders of one-party states are often called presidents. Most parliamentary republics have presidents, but this position is largely ceremonial; notable examples include Germany, India, Ireland, Israel and Italy. The title is also used in parliamentary republics with an executive presidency, and also in semi-presidential systems.
- There are some of us who think gridlock is the best thing since indoor plumbing. Gridlock is the natural gift the Framers of the Constitution gave us so that the country would not be subjected to policy swings resulting from the whimsy of the public. And the competition—whether multi-branch, multi-level, or multi-house—is important to those checks and balances and to our ongoing kind of centrist government. Thank heaven we do not have a government that nationalizes one year and privatizes next year, and so on ad infinitum. (Checks and Balances, 8)
- Under a cabinet constitution at a sudden emergency the people can choose a ruler for the occasion. It is quite possible and even likely that he would not be ruler before the occasion. The great qualities, the imperious will, the rapid energy, the eager nature fit for a great crisis are not required—are impediments—in common times. A Lord Liverpool is better in everyday politics than a Chatham—a Louis Philippe far better than a Napoleon. By the structure of the world we want, at the sudden occurrence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman—to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm.
- But under a presidential government you can do nothing of the kind. The American government calls itself a government of the supreme people; but at a quick crisis, the time when a sovereign power is most needed, you cannot find the supreme people. You have got a congress elected for one fixed period, going out perhaps by fixed installments, which cannot be accelerated or retarded—you have a president chosen for a fixed period, and immovable during that period: ..there is no elastic element... you have bespoken your government in advance, and whether it is what you want or not, by law you must keep it ...
- The executive can veto legislative acts and, in turn, a supermajority of lawmakers may override the veto. The veto is generally derived from the British tradition of royal assent in which an act of parliament can only be enacted with the assent of the monarch.
- The president has a fixed term of office. Elections are held at regular times and cannot be triggered by a vote of confidence or other parliamentary procedures. Although in some countries there is an exception, which provides for the removal of a president who is found to have broken a law.
- The executive branch is unipersonal. Members of the cabinet serve at the pleasure of the president and must carry out the policies of the executive and legislative branches. Cabinet ministers or executive departmental chiefs are not members of the legislature. However, presidential systems often need legislative approval of executive nominations to the cabinet, judiciary, and various lower governmental posts. A president generally can direct members of the cabinet, military, or any officer or employee of the executive branch, but cannot direct or dismiss judges.
- The president can often pardon or commute sentences of convicted criminals.
Direct elections — in a presidential system, the president is often elected directly by the people. This makes the president's power more legitimate than that of a leader appointed indirectly. However, this is not a necessary feature of a presidential system. Some presidential states have an indirectly elected head of state.
Separation of powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. This allows each structure to monitor and check the other, preventing abuses of power.
Speed and decisiveness — A president with strong powers can usually enact changes quickly. However, the separation of powers can also slow the system down.
Stability — a president, by virtue of a fixed term, may provide more stability than a prime minister, who can be dismissed at any time.
Tendency towards authoritarianism — some political scientists say presidentialism raises the stakes of elections, exacerbates their polarization and can lead to authoritarianism (Linz).
Political gridlock — the separation of powers of a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Critics argue that this can create an undesirable and long-term political gridlock whenever the president and the legislative majority are from different parties, which is common because the electorate usually expects more rapid results from new policies than are possible (Linz, Mainwaring and Shugart). In addition, this reduces accountability by allowing the president and the legislature to shift blame to each other.
Impediments to leadership change — presidential systems often make it difficult to remove a president from office early, for example after taking actions that become unpopular.
- In a presidential system, the central principle is that the legislative and executive branches of government are separate. This leads to the separate election of president, who is elected to office for a fixed term, and only removable for gross misdemeanor by impeachment and dismissal. In addition he or she does not need to choose cabinet members commanding the support of the legislature. By contrast, in parliamentarianism, the executive branch is led by a council of ministers, headed by a Prime Minister, who are directly accountable to the legislature and often have their background in the legislature (regardless of whether it is called a "parliament", assembly, a "diet", or a "chamber").
- As with the president's set term of office, the legislature also exists for a set term of office and cannot be dissolved ahead of schedule. By contrast, in parliamentary systems, the prime minister needs to survive a vote of confidence otherwise a new election must be called. The legislature can typically be dissolved at any stage during its life by the head of state, usually on the advice of either Prime Minister alone, by the Prime Minister and cabinet, or by the cabinet.
- In a presidential system, the president usually has special privileges in the enactment of legislation, namely the possession of a power of veto over legislation of bills, in some cases subject to the power of the legislature by weighted majority to override the veto. The legislature and the president are thus expected to serve as checks and balances on each other's powers.
- Presidential system presidents may also be given a great deal of constitutional authority in the exercise of the office of Commander in Chief, a constitutional title given to most presidents. In addition, the presidential power to receive ambassadors as head of state is usually interpreted as giving the president broad powers to conduct foreign policy. Though semi-presidential systems may reduce a president's power over day-to-day government affairs, semi-presidential systems commonly give the president power over foreign policy.
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