A common expression of discontent that is almost always uttered after an American Presidential election is “even though I didn’t vote for him, this is our President and we’re stuck with him for four years”. And although this is an accurate observation in the context of the American system, in parliamentary systems, when a government is formed based on the victorious party securing either a small majority, a mere plurality within a coalition or in rare cases a minority government, people on the “losing side” have no reason to be as pessimistic as they would in a US style presidential election. This is the case even if the margin of victory was similar in both a hypothetical parliamentary election and hypothetical presidential election.
Whilst a President of the United States can win an election and govern for a full four years without the realistic prospect of being removed from office on a mere 50.1% of all electoral votes, a parliamentary party with a majority of only a handful of seats is in a very weak position to form a government which remains in power for anything that could be called a substantial period of time. In such an instance, all it would take for the government to be in serious jeopardy would be for a small number of nominally government supporting members of parliament to refrain from supporting the government on a specific major policy proposal.
Typically, major votes in parliamentary systems can be understood as votes of confidence in the government. Therefore, if the government loses a major vote, in many if not most cases, such a government will resign and a snap election will be called. In instances when such a loss doesn’t result in an immediate resignation of the government, members of the opposition, as well as disgruntled members of the governing party can force parliament to hold a specific vote of confidence in the government. If more votes are for ‘no confidence’ than for ‘confidence’, new elections will be called and the people will get to decide what happens next by voting for the party of their choice.
Inversely, if a party regularly wins strong majorities in election after election, the same prime minister and a similar cabinet can legally be in power for extensive periods of time. While Italy is often cited as an example of a parliamentary system in which confidence is lost in multiple governments on a fairly regular basis, some of the world’s strongest and most effective democratic governments are derived from parliamentary systems that produce leaders that are rewarded with years of political power, owing to the fact that they are able to maintain the confidence of parliament and the electorate which votes for members of parliament during the course of an election. Here is just a partial list of some notable prime ministers that have served far more than the single 6 year term allotted to a Filipino President or the 8 years maximum possible for a US President.
Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore): 1965-1990
Mahathir Mohamad (Malaysia): 1981-2003/2018-present
Indira Gandhi (India): 1966-1977/1980-1984
Angela Merkel (Germany): 2005-present
Margaret Thatcher (Britain): 1979-1990
In each instance, the political heads of government in question left a big mark on their country – frankly bigger than that which most presidents subject to term limits are capable of achieving.
By contrast, unpopular prime ministers often spend a comparatively short period in office. Here are some examples of poorly performing Prime Ministers who have spent less than six years in office before the government switched to the leadership of a new party following an election:
Paolo Gentiloni (Italy): 2016-2018
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (Pakistan) : 2017-2018
Paul Martin (Canada): 2003-2006
Ehud Barak (Israel): 1999-2001
Thus, one can see that parliamentary systems reward capable leaders like Lee Kuan Yew with extensive periods in office, whilst also allowing for unpopular or incapable leaders to be easily removed in far less than six years. Such a system of governance is necessarily more meritocratic and indeed more democratic than presidential systems in which talented and popular leaders are prohibited from staying in office, whilst unpopular and incapable leaders cannot be removed for anything short of a major crime (and even then impeachment is often difficult if not impossible).
There is nothing virtuous about having to live under a leader who after a year or so in office has been deemed to be less than capable. This does not mean that every prime minister is inherently capable, but it does mean that there is far more scrutiny of both poor performing and high performing prime ministers than there is of presidents. Of course, presidents can be criticised in the press and are done so in many countries on a regular basis. However, this doesn’t make a bit of difference until the next election and in a country like The Philippines where re-election is illegal for presidents, the criticism ends up being largely useless when all is said and done.
In business, those who perform well are rewarded with increased pay or promotions to a high position. The same is true of members of parliament who are rewarded by promotions from the backbenches to the front benches and in some cases, eventually to the leadership. When a capable leader wins many elections on a proven record for success, political power is the just reward.
Inversely, if someone in the business world is performing poorly, he can be removed from his position. The same is true of under-performing heads of government in a parliamentary system.
Thus, parliamentary systems allow leadership to be derived from the assessment of performance – not just once every few years, but literally on a daily basis. In this sense, parliamentary systems are vastly more meritocratic than presidential ones. Just as meritocracy is the best method to achieve success in the business world, the same is clearly true in respect of the political world.