Prime Minister Obama: Would the U.S. Be Better Served by a Parliament?

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President Barack Obama delivers his annual State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress and the Supreme Court on January 25, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo: Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty Images)

Over at the GPS Blog, Fareed Zakaria asks a pointed and valuable question: “Does America need a Prime Minister?” Given the paralysis and farce that has gripped Washington in recent months, it’s worth considering. As Zakaria observes, presidential systems never resolve the “basic contest for legitimacy” between the power of the executive — the President — and that of the legislature — in the U.S.’s current case, a Congress cowed by a House of Representatives dominated by the political opposition. Zakaria writes:

In America today, we take this struggle to an extreme. We have one party in one house of the legislature claiming to speak for the people because theirs was the most recent electoral victory.  And you have the president who claims a broader mandate as the only person elected by all the people. These irresolvable claims invite struggle.

The situation in a parliament, says Zakaria, citing a seminal essay by the political scientist Juan Linz, is theoretically more stable. The executive is the product of an elected legislature, their legitimacy intertwined. Under the watch of a Prime Minister’s government, the sort of standoff that convulsed Washington over the debt ceiling debate would be unthinkable. Says Zakaria: “There could not be a public spectacle of the two branches of government squabbling and holding the country hostage.” Perhaps. But a look at some of the shenanigans taking place in other parliaments shows that they are hardly themselves immune to dysfunction. Many, particularly in the developing world, could potentially be better off with a more American system.

Take the land of Zakaria’s birth, India. The world’s largest democracy will always wrestle with the pressures of its vast, diverse population. The Indian parliament, adapted from the Westminster of its former colonial ruler, teems with elected officials from myriad political parties, many representing diverging regional, ethnic, and caste interests. All of these are arguably better served in a parliamentary system where they can make a direct claim on what eventually comprises the executive.

But this has proven as much a burden to progress as it is a boon. Though it won the most seats during national elections in 2009, the Congress Party was obliged to form a coalition with other smaller parties in order to have a super-majority in Parliament. While the U.K. was spared for decades the horse-trading and cynical alliances of coalition politics, these have shaped the fledgling democracies of much of the developing world.

Moreover, in a parliamentary system, ministerial portfolios tend to become political bargaining chips. That’s how A. Raja, a nondescript lawmaker who belonged to a prominent regional party that the Congress Party had to woo, became India’s  Telecommunications Minister in 2009. A year later he resigned, implicated in the country’s biggest ever political corruption scandal.

This would be far less likely in the U.S.; sure, the President’s cabinet is also lined with political appointments, but the executive in the Presidential system is not drawn from elected officials in the legislature. Positions like the Secretary of Energy — manned by a Nobel prize-winning physicist — need not be farmed out to appease troublesome allies, nor awarded to longstanding, loyal political hacks. It’s a structure that gives competence and professionalism a better chance.

And while India has a decent track record of political stability, many of its neighbors do not. Nepal’s parliamentary assembly has still found itself unable to overcome often petty political differences and rivals jockeying for cabinet berths to agree upon a Constitution for the country. Fragile coalition governments keep crumbling one after the other, while a peace process initiated in 2006 teeters moribundly on the brink of collapse.

Three years ago, I reported from Bangladesh, then under emergency military rule. The country’s top military officer at the time, Gen. Moeen Ahmed, spoke wearily of the failings of Westminster politics in South Asia, suggesting that his impoverished nation needed a firmer, less craven hand guiding the ship of state. “No systems of government are bad in their own right,” he told me. “It’s the human beings who make it so.” I cast our conversation then as a gloomy sign for the future of civilian rule in Bangladesh, but Gen. Moeen proved me wrong, and helped usher the transition back to parliamentary rule. Lo and behold, the usual dysfunctions and abuses of power seem to have crept back into daily life.

Still, a presidential system is hardly a guarantee for stability and, often in developing countries, has led to authoritarian rule. Conversely, one can imagine a democracy as old and (hopefully) mature as the U.S. could competently manage the parliamentary process. Were President Obama actually Prime Minister Obama, he’d sit at the head of a parliament where the Tea Party would comprise just a number of minority benches in the opposition, and wouldn’t be able to bring its radical agenda so fully to bear as it did during the debt ceiling debate. Zakaria argues that the U.S. can ill afford another such incident:

We’re living in a world where you need governments that are able to respond decisively and quickly.  In a fast-moving world, paralysis is dangerous. Other countries are catching up – if not overtaking – America.

It’s curious, though, to ponder which countries are really “catching up.” Not any in Europe, with its parliaments and legislatures all consumed over fears of fiscal crisis and arguments over austerity measures. And not even India, whose ruling parliamentary coalition is currently fending off vociferous opposition to its governance. The only real place to point to is China — what’s become the veritable engine of this “fast-moving world” — a one-party, authoritarian state. Surely, despite the deficiencies of both presidential and parliamentary democracy, that’s not an option worth considering.

Ishaan Tharoor is a writer-reporter for TIME and editor of Global Spin. Find him on Twitter at @ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.

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