Of the many myths told about parliamentary governance, one of the most odd is that somehow parliamentary systems are biased against supremely talented individuals who would otherwise rise more rapidly in a literally individual based (rather than party based/manifesto based) presidential system. This argument is flawed for a number of reasons.
Merit over money
First of all, most presidential systems around the world require vast amounts of money in order to not only participate in the elections, but to realistically get noticed. This makes it particularly hard for the young with fresh ideas or the middle aged without vast wealth or connections to vast wealth, to get heard. By contrast, standing in a parliamentary election costs comparatively little.
In a parliamentary system, getting into the parliament itself is half the battle in respect of making a name in national politics. Compared to presidential systems, this battle is small in terms of geographical scope and the money one needs to spend in order to stand a realistic chance of securing victory. While the big cities of the UK have some of the highest living costs in Europe, standing in a UK parliamentary election will cost a comparatively affordable deposit of £500 (644 USD). In Ireland, there is no deposit required at all so long as one can prove that at least 30 potential constituents have pledge support for your campaign. In India, the cost is ₹ 25,000 (350USD), whilst in Malaysia the cost is RM10 000 (2,430 USD), with the cost in Singapore coming in at S$14,500 (10,000 USD). In each of these parliamentary systems, one’s initial deposit is fully refunded if the candidate in question receives at least 5% of all votes cast in a UK constituency, 12.5% of all votes case in a Singaporean constituency, with similar figures existing in other parliamentary systems, with the average requiring a candidate to secure around 1/8th of all votes cast in order to receive a full refund of one’s initial deposit.
This of course does not account for the costs of a campaign. That being said, powerful political parties rather than the campaigns of individuals tend to cover most of the costs of an actual campaign to win an election in a parliament system. Even if one is part of a small party or standing as an independent candidate, all one needs to do is campaign in a local area in order to become a member of parliament. When one realises that in countries with traditional parliamentary constituencies – such a constituency is either part of a medium sized town or a very small part of a big city, one realises that mounting such a campaign is generally far more cost effective than mounting a presidential campaign. This is all the more true if one is previously known in the local community.
In other words, when all is said and done, one’s campaign is either paid for by others or if one isn’t backed by a major party, one can focus all of one’s resources and time on a very small geographical area. The ability to target people in a specific area using social media and online advertisements has further reduced the cost of such campaigns vis-a-vis the pre-internet age.
To put things into perspective, in the last US Presidential election, Hillary Clinton spent $1.4 billion in order to lose, whilst Donald Trump spent $957.6 to win.
Once you’re in – it becomes even more about merit than about money
For most parliamentary candidates whose campaigns will be aided by a national or regional political party, getting into parliament and remaining in parliament remains largely a merit based matter, rather than one involving constant fundraising. Even for an independent candidate or someone from a small (aka less wealthy) party, once one gets into parliament, they’ll likely have to spend less and less of one’s own money in every subsequent election. The reason for this is that unlike a presidential system in which an individual with money can come out of nowhere and get serious publicity at a national level, thus potentially winning a national leadership election with no previous record required, in a parliamentary system, there is written and video evidence of each candidate’s performance in political debates that can serve as a springboard to future electioneering, fund raising and general people-to-people networking.
In other words, even if one’s experience in Parliament is on the backbenches, such an individual is able to elevate one’s profile in the media, social media and among the public as a whole so as to create a sufficient nationally recognised profile. This naturally helps to attain financial momentum behind one’s next election bid. The result is that even if one has to go around with a digital begging cup or use one’s savings to fund his or her initial independent election, after this first election, unless one’s parliamentary record is dismally uninspiring, the next round will be easier because support will have been built among those who will be happy to contribute to future campaigns.
Fresh ideas get attention and gain credibility in parliamentary systems
The only difference between an ordinary backbench member of parliament and a head of government (typically called a prime minister) is that a party leader who can command the support of a majority of all members of parliament, becomes the leader of the government. This might sound like a simplification of matters, but the fact remains that when going into a new election, a sitting prime minister is forced to fight at a local level in the same way as an ordinary candidate. This is true whether in Malaysia, Singapore, Britain, Canada and elsewhere.
What this means in reality is that all members of parliament have similar experiences in terms of fighting elections, participating in debates and proposing policies. After being elected to parliament, it is merely a matter of displaying one’s merit and subsequently rising through the ranks of a party and/or displaying a unique ability to build a coalition around one’s ideas, that separates a backbencher from his or her chance to play a vital role in government, including a leadership role. In this sense, members of parliament are both campaigning and helping a country to function simultaneously, whilst in a presidential system, the process of gaining the public’s trust is totally removed from having to actually prove it for any first time candidate.
Because of this, someone who is an outstanding speaker and/or an outstanding defender of sound policies and/or a master and building consensus, will get to have his or her voice heard in the place where a nation is governed, whilst in a presidential system the opposite is true. In a presidential system, unless one is an incumbent president running for re-election (something that is impossible in The Philippines for example), one’s attempts to appeal to the people during an election are based on hypothetical proposals that are physically and intellectual detached from the seat of government.
Because of this, a young person with a big new set of ideas is often silenced in favour of the old and wealthy – people who in many cases promote old and discredited ideas. In parliamentary chamber, one is by contract, actively building a political movement by participating either in the support or official opposition to government. In a presidential system, it’s all about one individual “against the world”.
Thus, whilst presidential systems lend themselves more easily to the Hollywood myth of supreme individual triumph, realistically, presidential systems are far more prone to plutocracy than a parliamentary system and as many fresh ideas come from the young and as most people become wealthier over time – clearly there is much more of an opportunity for fresh ideas to get national attention for free or at little cost in a parliamentary system than in a presidential system.
Finally, because all a candidate in a presidential election needs to do is employ a loyal team whilst attaining leadership experience in a parliamentary chamber requires building a consensus with one’s colleagues, parliamentary systems are on the one hand more favourable to powerful and original individual ideas, whilst they limit one’s ability to act as a ruthless egotist. Of course, the inverse is true in presidential systems.
Parliamentary systems have an overall effect of equalising egos (as much as is possible in any political system) while giving once obscure voices a chance to enter the mainstream through repeated exposure to a national (and international) public. While most independent minded presidential candidate have a difficult time getting any exposure for his or her ideas, because it is easier to enter parliament as a backbencher than to enter a presidential palace as a newcomer, one can build a political career in real time, gain the right kind of attention from the public and do so while working to build a new parliamentary consensus in such a way that puts someone of supreme ability on the path towards leadership rather than one towards either bankruptcy or obscurity.