The two faces of democracy
The ongoing debate on restructuring, on whether Nigeria should return to the 1963 parliamentary Constitution or just to modify the current presidential system, calls for sober reflection. But all regimes whether presidential or parliamentary depend for their preservation upon the support and vigilance of the people. The democratic revolution of the past prompted many nations to decide if they want a presidential or parliamentary system of government.
Usually elected directly by the people, a President heads an executive branch, separate from the legislature; while a Prime Minister, as first among equals, is a member of the majority party in Parliament, selected by his peers to form a government. The American presidency is noted for its stability – a direct mandate from the electorate with smooth transitions between administrations. However, new presidential systems like that of Nigeria (1979-83, 1999-2017) can be hampered by legitimacy between the president and parliament.
And the fixed term reduces flexibility since change is needed. On the other hand, parliamentary regimes adapt to events easily by forming new governments. They often share responsibilities with opposition parties in coalitions and place power in the Office of the Prime Minister rather than the personal stature of an individual. Coalitions in Britain and Germany have contributed to continuity and change in those parliamentary countries. The unusual coalition between the Senate President Bukola Saraki of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Senator Ike Ikweremadu of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is the source of much of the disaffection in President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
By contrast, the only presidential democracy with a long history of continuity is the United States. But the Nigerian experiment with President Shehu Shagari between 1979 and 1983 was exemplary. Disputes between the president and the National Assembly were settled by the party caucus. That caucus comprised the principal officers of the party, the principal officers of the executive and the principal officers of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Sadly, in the Buhari’s case, such a council had not been constituted two years on. Thus, presidential system has an advantage since its rigidity guards against uncertainty and instability. The constitutions of Finland and France are hybrids rather than true presidential systems. For Nigeria, the parliamentary system will be unstable especially under conditions of bitter ethnic conflict as recent Nigerian history attests. However, the superior historical performance of parliamentary system is no accident.
This conclusion applies to nations with deep political cleavages like Nigeria where resource control is the underlining conundrum. Although the growing personalisation of party leadership in some parliaments has made Prime Ministers more and more like Presidents. In presidential systems, there is an executive with great constitutional powers, including the full control of the composition of the cabinet and administration is directly elected by the people for a fixed term and is independent of parliamentary votes of confidence.
The president is not only the holder of executive power, he is also the symbolic head of state and can only be removed by impeachment. In practice, the success of an executive depends on the cooperation of the legislature. Two things stand out for the presidential system: the president’s strong claim to democratic legitimacy and secondly, the fixed term in office. But like in the USA, some presidents gain office with a smaller proportion of the popular vote than many premiers who head minority governments; although voters may see premiers more weekly legitimated.
Following the British political thinker Walter Bagehot, we might say that a presidential system endows the incumbent with both the ceremonial functions of a head of state and the effective functions of a chief executive. Thus creating an aura and the popular expectations regardless of the victory margin, which are quite different from those associated with a prime minister, no matter how popular.
But what is striking in a presidential system is that the legislators, whenever they are a cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. Such claim is thrown into high relief when the majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to what the president represents. Such is the case with the Saraki led National Assembly and President Buhari. In the circumstance, who has the stronger claim to speak for the people: the legislative majority in parliament or the president? Since both are elected.
There is no democratic principle whereby such rivalry can be resolved. The mechanism the constitution might provide are likely to prove too legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in such situations in the past the armed forces were often prompted to intervene as mediators. But the USA has successfully rendered such conflicts normal and thus defused them.
President Buhari has not been able to resolve the feud between him and the Senate. Which is why the sectional fears that Buhari might use the army via a coup to quench the feud isn’t misplaced. The drawback in the fixed term principle of the presidential system is that it breaks political process into discontinuous demarcated periods leaving no room for adjustments that events may demand. The duration of the presidential mandate becomes a crucial factor in the calculations of politicians.
Often, presidential constitutions incorporate contradictory principles which stand against the array of particular interests represented in the legislature. In Jean Jack Rousseau’s conception of democracy, the implied idea of the people for whom the president speaks, such interests lacks legitimacy, so does the Anglo American notion that democracy involves a jostle or melee of interests.
Foremost among constitutional bulwarks against arbitrary power is the prohibition in some countries on reelection. Other provisions like legislative advice and consent powers over presidential appointments, impeachment and judicial independence also reflect the suspicion of abuse of power. Perhaps, the best way to summarize the basic differences between the systems is to say that while the parliamentarians impart flexibility to politics, the presidential system makes it rigid.
I still prefer the presidential system. The current impasse between Buhari and the National Assembly can easily be resolved if Buhari would only convene the party caucus. A more sagacious leader would acknowledge the preeminence of the Senate and listen to them. Pandering to the wishes of the people through constitutional amendments is the solution to our problems. Realignments going on between the South South, south east and south west will certainly produce changes in 2019. In the interim we should be vigilant, for the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
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