The Presidential and Parliamentary Governance Forms

A government is the organization, machinery, or agency, through which a political unit exercises its authority, controls and administers public policy, and directs and controls the actions of its members or subjects [1] . The government makes laws, regulate economies, conduct relations with other countries, provide infrastructure and services, and maintain an army and a police force amongst others on behalf of the people of the country [2] .

Democracy is any system of government in which the people have the rule. The ancient Greeks used the word democracy to mean government by the many in contrast to government by the few. They key of democracy is that the people hold ultimate power. Abraham Lincoln best captured this spirit by describing democracy as a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Democratic government is opposed to an authoritative government, where the participation of its citizenry is limited or prohibited, and a state of anarchy where no form of government exists.

Over the years there has been a dramatic growth in the number of political regimes that meet basic standards of procedural democracy. Such procedures include freedom of association and expression, competitive elections that determines who holds political power, and systematic constraints on the exercise of authority.

The establishment of democracy in countries with no prior democratic experience, its re-establishment in countries that had experienced periods of authoritarian rule, and the expansion in the number of independent states following the demise of European and Soviet communism led to the adoption of democracy in most countries. As a result of these changes, attention has been focused on constitutional rules that guide competition for and the exercise of political authority under democracy.

Democratic governments are those that permit the nation’s citizens to manage their government either directly or through elected representatives. This is opposed to authoritarian governments that limit or prohibit the direct participation of its citizens. One of the fundamental aspects of constitutional design is the choice between presidential government, parliamentary government and a hybrid system that combines some aspects of these two. A main difference between the presidential and the parliamentary systems of governance is as a result of how that states executive, legislative and judiciary organs are organized.

The United States (US) has a presidential system, as do countries it has influenced regionally, culturally or militarily [3] . With the exception of the US, presidential systems in the past have often been associated with politically unstable and authoritarian regimes. Countries that have adopted a form of the parliamentarianism include the United Kingdom (UK), much of continental Europe, Israel, Japan, many of the former British colonies in Africa and Asia, and most Caribbean countries. The French hybrid system has provided a model for a number of countries. Countries that have adopted the French model in West Africa include Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Mali and Senegal. A few states, such as Ghana, Poland, Bulgaria and Portugal also have a hybrid system, with similar elements as the French model.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the differences between the presidential and parliamentary systems of governance with a view to recommending a system for Ghana. The paper has been structured to focus on the separation of powers, the procedure of removal from office and the functions of legislative. The Party discipline and the current system of governance in Ghana have also been discussed. The paper assumes that democracy is the best form of governance for Ghana.


Key differences among the three systems (presidential, parliamentary and hybrid) include the extent to which the powers of government are separated functionally between branches, and in the powers one branch does or does not have over another. These include the extent, to which the executive can control the legislative branch, or the extent to which the legislature can control the executive (oversight), and the extent to which the legislative branch controls the capacity to legislate. One important area of control and competition is the capacity to introduce and approve legislation, and these vary considerably among the three systems.

In a presidential system, political and administrative powers are divided between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Officials in these branches serve different terms of office and different constituencies. In a parliamentary system, Parliament is sovereign and executive authority (exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet) is derived from the legislature. In a hybrid system, executive power is shared between a separately elected President and a Prime Minister.

Presidential Government

In a presidential system, the President (who is the chief executive as well as the symbolic head of government) is chosen by a separate election from that of the legislature. The President is elected directly by the people and is answerable to the voters. The President then appoints his or her cabinet of ministers (or "secretaries" in US parlance). Ministers/Secretaries usually are not simultaneously members of the legislature, although their appointment may require the advice and consent of the legislative branch. Because the senior officials of the executive branch are separately elected or appointed, the presidential political system is characterised by a separation of powers, wherein the executive and legislative branches are independent of one another. Presidents have great control over their cabinet appointees who serve at the President’s pleasure, and who are usually selected for reasons other than the extent of their congressional support (as in parliamentary systems). In contrast, the British Prime Minister is more constrained to represent his/her parliamentary party in the Cabinet.

The US represents the strongest form of presidentialism, in the sense that the powers of the executive and legislative branches are separate, and legislatures often have significant powers.

Parliamentary Government

Parliamentary systems, unlike presidential systems, are typified by a fusion of powers between the legislative and executive branches. The Prime Minister (who is the chief executive) may be elected to the legislature in the same way that all other members are elected. The Prime Minister is the leader of the party that wins the majority of votes to the legislature (either de facto, or in some cases through an election held by the legislature). The Prime Minister is a member of Parliament and is directly responsible to that body. The Prime Minister appoints Cabinet Ministers. However, unlike in the presidential systems, these members are typically themselves legislative members from the ruling party or ruling coalition. Thus, in a parliamentary system, the constituency of the executive and legislature are the same. If the ruling party is voted out of the legislature, the executive also changes. Continued co-operation between the executive and legislature is required for the government to survive and to be effective in carrying out its programs. In a parliamentary system, the legislature holds supreme power.

Parliamentary systems are characterized by no clear-cut separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, leading to a different set of checks and balances compared to those found in presidential systems. Parliamentary systems usually have a clear differentiation between the head of government and the head of state, with the head of government being the prime minister or premier, and the head of state often being a figurehead, often either a president (elected either popularly or by the parliament) or a hereditary monarch (often in a constitutional monarchy). [4] 


A key difference between presidential and parliamentary systems lies in the power to remove a chief executive or to dissolve the legislature. In parliamentary systems, the chief executive’s term of office is directly linked to that of the legislature, while in presidential systems the terms are not linked.

Presidential Government

In a presidential system, in line with the notion of a separation of powers, presidents and members of the legislature are separately elected for a given length of time. Presidents have no authority to remove members of the legislature. Premature removal of either legislative members or the President can only be initiated by a vote in the lower legislative chamber and under particular conditions. Thus, under normal circumstances, even if the political party that the President represents becomes a minority in either or both houses of the legislature, the President will remain in his position for the full term for which he was elected.

A number of Latin American presidential systems have provided an additional constitutional check on the power of the President in this regard, likely due to a history of authoritarian executive rule. For example, in Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Paraguay, a President is not allowed to serve more than one elected term. In other countries, including Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and the US, the President is not allowed to serve for more than two consecutive terms.

Parliamentary Government

In a parliamentary system, the Prime Minister can be removed from office in two ways. The first is through a ‘no-confidence’ motion, which is typically filed by the opposition or a coalition of opposition parties. The no confidence motion calls for a vote in the legislature to demonstrate that the legislature no longer has confidence in the Prime Minister (the Chief Executive) and his cabinet of Ministers. If the vote passes by a majority, the Executive, including the Prime Minister, is forced to step down. Since the Prime Minister and his cabinet of ministers are members of the legislature, this brings about new legislative elections. The term of the Prime Minister, therefore, is generally linked to that of the rest of the legislature.

Secondly, the Prime Minister can be removed by his/her own party members, in a setting outside of the legislature. For example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was removed by party vote and replaced by John Major during the Conservative Party caucus [5] . Such a removal, whereby the party decides to change its leader, does not force legislative elections.


In parliamentary, presidential and hybrid systems, the legislative body discusses political, economic and social issues and is required to legitimize new laws. One of the major differences of these systems lies in the legislature’s power (or lack thereof) to formulate and initiate legislation.

Presidential Government

In a presidential system, the legislature formulates its own agenda and passes its own bills. The legislature typically formulates and introduces legislation. The legislature can and often work closely with the executive branch in formulating legislation, particularly when the same party is in power in both branches. The executive can draft laws, but members of the legislature must introduce them on the floor. Some presidential systems, however, limit the legislature’s power to amend the proposed executive budget, and a president may force the legislature to act on legislation within a certain period. Some characteristics of a legislative function in a presidential system or governance are as follows:

The legislature tends to have broad powers to amend any legislation. However, lack of resources and other factors may act to blunt this power. In some countries, like Mexico during the period of one-party domination, the President effectively controlled the Congress’ lawmaking function.

The potential for legislative assertiveness is greater in presidential systems, but the actual realization depends on the presence of other conditions.

Legislatures in presidential systems are more likely to have specialized and permanent standing committees and subcommittees with a number of professional staff to help draft, review and amend legislation. Large congressional staffs in the United States came about in the post World War II (WWII) years, with the greatest growth in the sixties and seventies. Staff and other resources are typically much greater in the U.S. presidential system than in the Latin American or other presidential models.

Via the committee system, the legislature has extensive powers to call expert witnesses, members of the cabinet, presidential advisors, etc. for public or private hearings before the legislature.

The President can veto legislation, which can only be overridden by a two-third vote in the legislature.

Parliamentary Government

In parliamentary systems, the executive (meaning the Prime Minister, cabinet and bureaucracy) controls the legislative agenda, and individual legislators have little political power to introduce their own legislative initiatives. Characteristics of a legislative function in a parliamentary system are as follows:

The chief executive and his/her cabinet initiate any piece of legislation affecting the budget or revenue. In the UK and other similar models, legislatures can only amend legislation on narrow, technical terms.

There are significantly fewer permanent or standing committees with relatively few professional staff to help draft and review legislation. (There are exceptions – Germany’s semi-parliamentary system has relatively strong committees where legislation can be initiated, reviewed and amended by individual members. Australia has a larger staff system than does the UK).

Important policy decisions can and often are made at party caucuses rather than within committees.


Party discipline, refers to the practice where legislators vote with their parties. Party discipline is typically stronger in parliamentary systems than in presidential. This is because the "executive" government requires majority party cohesiveness for its own survival. In countries that are transitioning to a two or multiparty system whether presidential, hybrid or parliamentary, party discipline may be generally weak owing to the fact that parties may be newer, lack a strong internal structure and constituent base and/or lack experience in operating in a multiparty legislature.

Presidential Government

Parties in presidential systems tend to be less structured than parties in parliamentary systems. Failure to vote with one’s party does not threaten to bring the government down. Therefore, members of the legislature are freer to identify with regional, ethnic, economic or other divisions when considering policy issues. Because they are usually directly elected and identifiable with particular districts or regions, many members see a duty to their constituents (in a district or state) as the first priority, with allegiance to a party and its platform as secondary. While the legislators are under some pressure to vote with their party, particularly on important votes, the consequences of not doing so are not as serious to the individual legislator and to the system. Legislatures and executives are elected separately and often for different terms, it is therefore not uncommon for them to be controlled by different parties.

Parliamentary Government

Parliamentary systems in developed countries are characterized by parties that are highly structured and tend toward unified action, block voting and distinct party platforms. This party discipline is required in parliamentary systems primarily because deviation from the party line could result in bringing down the government. Parliamentary systems require that the "executive" and legislative members come to agreement upon issues, lest it forces the dissolution of the government. In addition, majority parties in parliamentary systems are perceived by voters to have a mandate to run the country. Therefore, each party may develop a system of punishments and rewards. Individual members of the legislature who deviate from a party vote may be punished by exclusion from their party within parliament or may not be nominated by the party in the subsequent election.

Similarly, opposition parties theoretically want to maximize their power in a system dominated by the majority by voting as a block and squelching internal dissent. Opposition party discipline is more likely if the party or parties perceive that they can eventually gain the majority. Consequently, for both majority and minority parties in parliament, important policy decisions are made within party structures, such as party caucuses, rather than within the legislature itself. Obviously, it is not possible for the legislature and executive to be controlled by different parties in a parliamentary system.

The following are common attributes of the two systems based on party discipline:

Advantages of weaker party discipline in presidential systems:

Relations between individual members and constituents tend to be stronger.

The President and individual members are directly accountable to the voters.

In deeply divided societies, some theorists argue that the parliamentary system can lead to one party controlling the state and locking other ethnic or regional groups out of power.

Advantages of stronger party discipline in parliamentary systems:

Parties and stable party coalitions within parliament can be held accountable to the public based on their promotion of the party platform.

The chief executive can be made accountable to his/her party and the parliament as a whole by a vote of no confidence at any time.

Highly organized parties can act as a link between party leaders and constituents at local levels.

Evolution of the Hybrid System of Governance in Ghana

Ghana, from Independence to date, has evolved through the presidential system of governance, the parliamentary system and currently is practising a hybrid system of governance.

In 1957, the Independence Constitution introduced a parliamentary system under which the Prime Minister and all Ministers of State were Members of Parliament. The Members of Parliament were elected on party lines. This system was practiced between 1957 and 1960 (first Republic) and again between 1969 and 1972 (second Republic). [6] 

In the 1960 Republican Constitution, an Executive President and a Parliament consisting of a President and National Assembly were introduced. The Executive President was not a Member of Parliament but Ministers of State were appointed from among the MPs. The Ministers had to sit in Parliament while at the same time deal with matters that fell under their portfolios.

The 1979 Constitution (third Republic) provided for a presidential system of government where the President, Vice-President, Ministers of State and their Deputies were not Members of Parliament. [7] This system followed the US system, but had a single chamber legislature.

The Parliaments of all three Republics had their own weaknesses. In the first Republic, this included the concentration of power in the executive which led to a one party state, the lack of an effective committee system and the high passage of bills which denied the public any direct participation. In the second Republic this included an ethically unbalanced cabinet as the Party of the day lost all his potential Ministers in one of Ghana’s largest ethnic groupings (the Volta Region). The third Republic saw a strict separation of powers, however, the President appointed several able Ministers from Members of Parliament thus depriving Parliament of some of its best legislators. As such the minority side with several Members having previous experience in Parliament exploited procedures and defeated Government in a number of national issues. In a parliamentary system the defeat of Government would have brought the Government down but this was not so under the presidential system.

The framers of the 1992 constitution were clearly influenced by such factors as political instability that had occurred in the past in the form of coercion and armed rebellion. The hybrid system was thus designed to ensure that both the executive and parliament work along the same lines.

The following Articles in the 1992 Constitution are indications that the current system of governance in Ghana is a hybrid system:

Article 63(2) provides that the president shall be elected on the terms of universal adult suffrage (Indication of a presidential system);

Article 76(1) of the constitution states that the cabinet shall consist of the president, the vice and not less than 10 and not more than 19 ministers of state (Indication of a presidential system);

Article 78(2) empowers the president to appoint all the ministers of state (Indication of a presidential system);

Article 78(1) provides that the president with the prior approval of parliament shall appoint the majority of Ministers of State from among Members of Parliament (parliamentary system);

Article 79(2) provides that Deputy Ministers shall be appointed from among Members of Parliament (parliamentary system).

The hybrid system as embedded in the 1992 constitution of Ghana has constraints on both Parliament and its committees. Some of the constraints of Parliament are the lack of their oversight responsibility o the Executive and inability to appropriate money unless it is proposed by the Executive. Article 78(1) which requires the President to appoint majority of Ministers from among Members of Parliament undermines Parliaments oversight function. This difficulties among others in the 1992 Constitution has necessitated its review by the current administration.


The system of governance in countries differs depending on whether a country has a presidential, parliamentary or hybrid political system. Though each country has its own variance based on political structure, the characteristics of each of these systems and their relationship to political conflict, executive and legislative power differ. In view of the inconsistencies in the hybrid system of Ghana, I advocate for the adoption of the presidential system of governance for Ghana based on the following:

Direct mandate — in a presidential system, the president is often elected directly by the people. This makes the president's power more legitimate than that of a leader appointed indirectly.

Separation of Powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. This arrangement allows each structure to serve as check and balances thus, preventing abuses.

Speed and Decisiveness — the president has stronger powers and can usually enact changes quickly.

Stability — A president, by virtue of a fixed term, may provide more stability than a prime minister who can be dismissed at any time.