The presidential republican system
Developing countries need the efficacy in political action that only a presidential democracy, with correct checks and balances, can provide, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
My apologies to my regular readers for the fact that much of what I am about to say I have said in previous articles, some of which date to the 1980s. As this suggests, I first raised this subject long ago, whether for the consideration of the former regime, the opposition that existed at the time, or public opinion at large, all three of which accommodated to prevailing circumstances. But the height of my season for dealing with the system of government in Egypt under the old regime was in that period that preceded and continued through the constitutional amendments of 2005 and 2007. My position, which I voiced frequently in the written and audiovisual press, rested on two points. The first was the need for a new and democratic constitution that could restore Egypt to "normalcy" among modern nations, which is to say a country without permanent emergency laws, discrimination between classes of citizens and strange government institutions found nowhere else in the contemporary world. The second was that the constitution should provide for a democratic presidential republican system of government, as opposed to a parliamentary system of the type we had before the 1952 revolutionary order that in fluctuating forms we had until this year.
Although I have since discussed this subject many times in the interim, my article last week addressed the second point in particular. I was struck by one common response from readers, which was that the presidential system was simply another version of those Pharaonic systems that grant the head-of-state such extraordinary powers that he can virtually govern at whim, reduce his people to near slavery, and even bequeath his rule dynastically, as has occurred in one Arab "republic" and may have been tried in a couple of others. But nothing could be further from the way democratic presidential systems really work in countries in which it is actually applied. A president who is prevented from spending more than two four-year or five-year terms in office cannot be a "pharaoh". Nor can the president whose re-election for even a second term is contingent upon whether the majority of the people determine, through free and fair polls, whether he has fulfilled his initial campaign pledges and is worth keeping in office so that he can follow through on his programmes for one more term, after which he has no choice but to rejoin the ranks of the people. This is the case in most "respectable" presidential systems, in which the president has to stand down after two terms and sometimes, even one, after which if he does not wish to retire from public life entirely he can exercise a public role through his political party, his memoirs and lectures, or a form of humanitarian service.
If this is a "pharaoh" then at least it is not a "pharaoh-for-life," unless fate cuts that life short during one of his two terms in office, in which capacity he us under the constant scrutiny of the two other branches of government, the legislature and the judiciary. The first of these is an elected body, but the elections of legislative representatives are separate from presidential elections and the terms do not necessarily overlap. More importantly, the legislature has many powers of its own. As its name implies, it is the branch of government vested with the authority to legislate and a president cannot implement his programmes (a key to his re-election) if the legislature refuses to pass the necessary laws. Although a president has the right to veto parliamentary legislation, parliament can override the presidential veto with a certain majority of votes. The legislature also holds the strings of the pubic purse. A president can not spend a single penny without the approval of parliament, which means that if the members of that parliament feel that the president is stepping beyond his bounds on this policy or that programme, they can simply move to turn off the taps to the money. It is one of the most powerful checks on the executive.
Nor does parliament leave the president's choices of ministers and other holders of high office up to his personal whims or even those of his party. The legislature is empowered to "confirm" executive appointments. The term stands for a series of parliamentary hearings in which a presidential nominee for a certain office is obliged to answer a barrage of questions regarding to his or her qualifications and experiences and the policies or programmes he or she plans to implement. In the US, where this system is practiced, Congress frequently withholds confirmation of presidential nominees for secretary of defence or the Supreme Court. A fourth major control that the legislature holds over the executive is the power to impeach, which is to say to vote a president out of office on the basis of a trial before parliament that establishes a president's guilt on a charge of high treason or another legally stipulated impeachable offence. President Richard Nixon nearly faced impeachment charges over the Watergate scandal, but he resigned first. President Bill Clinton faced impeachment charges in the House of Representatives and was found guilty of some of the charges, but the Senate effectively acquitted him as it fell short of the necessary two-thirds vote to remove him from office, which is why he lasted out his second term.
The foregoing are not the only means the legislature has to keep a president in check, but suffice it to say that a president can not move all that far away from the lines a parliament draws. Nor is this the only branch of government that restricts the powers and limits the manoeuvrability of a president. While the president has the power to appoint Supreme Court judges -- a power that is subject to parliamentary confirmation, as mentioned above -- this is where his relationship with the judges ends. For one, Supreme Court justices sit for life or until they tender their resignation, which means that as presidents come and go, the justices remain and continue their business of interpreting laws, setting precedents, and ascertaining that legislation and its implementation are consistent with the constitution. The president has absolutely no right whatsoever to supersede a Supreme Court ruling, precedent or interpretation of a law. But on top of all these legislative and judicial fetters, which already render the very notion of a "pharaonic president" absurd, he is hemmed in by the free press, interest groups and civil society organisations that abound in a democratic society and that also prevent tyranny.
But, if a president is so encumbered what are the advantages of a presidential democracy over a parliamentary system or a kind of hybrid between the two (which we tend to find in France if voters bring in a president from one party and a prime minister from another party that then finds itself unable to make up its mind whether it is with the government or the opposition)? Perhaps the prime advantage is the total clarity of responsibility. The president is the uncontested head of the executive authority. There are no coalition governments to make the majority party's programme the subject of negotiation with other parties and, hence, vulnerable to the concessions that are inevitable in a coalition government. So, the president is squarely accountable for the fulfilment of his electoral pledges and it is on the basis of his success or failure, here, that he is assessed in the following elections. Secondly, the line of command is clear and there is no question of legitimacy. The head of state's authority is not contested by a king, even if the system of government is a constitutional monarchy, or by a president, however symbolic or honorary that position may be, in the case of a parliamentary democracy. In a presidential democracy, the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, thereby ensuring civilian control over the military establishment, and he is the chief executive and fully responsible for the successes or failures of that branch of government. Under this system, a president cannot hide behind a prime minister, as was possible in Egypt under the 1971 Constitution. The third advantage is that the system is relatively straightforward. In spite of the restrictions, all the checks on his powers, the president is the fulcrum of the political system and the nation's symbol in international forums. The fourth is the continuity offered by two full terms in office. There is no need to dissolve parliament in the event that a prime minister needs greater popular backing on a specific issue or that the opposition managed to corner him and force him to call for new general elections. On the eve of the 1952 Revolution, Egypt had just formed its fourth government in less than seven months and there was no sign that it would succeed where its predecessors had failed.
However, the most important advantage of the democratic presidential system is the fifth: its ability to set aims, to designate the means of getting there, and to produce results. It is probably this quality of relative efficiency that inspired the countries of South America and Eastern Europe to opt for this system of government. Since it provides for the election of the head of state directly by the people, the source of power, it confers upon him the legitimacy to take tough decisions without constantly having to haggle with other parties in a coalition government or even with the opposition, which is forever clamouring for new elections. Such haggling is a source of interruption and political instability, which hampers efficacy. In the case of developing nations in particular, this is hardly desirable since they cannot afford to get bogged down for lengthy periods of time in inter-party squabbles that put progress on hold, sometimes indefinitely. It will be extremely important to bear this consideration in mind when we consider the form of government for the post-25 January Revolution phase. During the next decade or so, Egypt will brim with a diverse parties, the interplay between which will inevitably fragment electoral blocs and make it very difficult to obtain a majority capable of pushing through the implementation of development plans.
I am sure that I have not listed all the advantages of the presidential system. I am also aware that constitutional and political experts will always be able to come up with advantages to the parliamentary system, and that in fact it is the system we had in the first half of the last century. But to me, that claim furnishes an argument against the parliamentary system, for its failure was, in large part, due to the legitimacy contest between the king and the prime minister. Towards the end of that era, the country was torn between the historic legitimacy of the Mohamed Ali dynasty and the popular legitimacy of Mustafa El-Nahhas's Wafd Party, which swept every general election. The result was that the majority party ended up ruling for a total of seven years, after which the system collapsed. My advice to my fellow Egyptians is this: Do not create a system of government that will only teeter and fall again.