Different Systems of Democracy

Presidential and Parliamentary Democracy

Democracy is not a sharply defined form of government that would need to be implemented in just one and no other way. Both in theory and in practice there are as many systems of democracy as countries. Nevertheless there are some general features as well as some groups of democratic systems that may be distinguished from each other.

Contrary to other authors, I will not try to present pure and ideal theories but rather start from the other side: how can the different systems of democracy be distinguished in everyday political life.

Common Features of Democracy

Before we look at the differences it might be useful to recall the basic principles common to all forms of democracy, however.

Two Basic Types of Democracy

Any form of democracy tries in its own way to ascertain the will of the people and to bring public affairs into line with it. Theoretically this can be achieved by a body of elected representatives (Representative Democracy). Within the group of Representative Democracies the focus may be on a strong president (Presidental Democracy) or on a strong parliament (Parliamentary Democracy).

Examples: USA, France Examples: UK, Germany, Spain, Italy
The President is head of state and leader of the government Head of State
is a differnent function than prime minister, it may be a monarch (queen/king) or an elected person
President elected by the people nominates the ministers [members of government] Government elected by the parliament based on a majority, may be dismissed by the parliament (especially when based on a coalition of several parties)
Parliament elected for a fixed legislative period
clear institutional separation of parliament and government (but the officials may cooperate as closely as in the other systems, if they like to do so)
Parliament elected for a legislative period, dissolution and early new elections possible if a clear majority cannot be established
Government members need not be members of parliament Government members must be elected members of parliament
Strong position of the president (veto) Strong position of the political parties
Laws are debated and passed by the parliament;
lobbyists do not have a formal right to be heared, but do exercise some influence on members of parliament in reality;
the president may block a law by veto;
as the president is elected as a personality (not only as a party leader) by the people (not by the parliament), he may or may not rely on a majority of the parliament (in practice there have been some periods with a president forced to cooperate with a majority of oppositional members of parliament)
Laws are proposed by the government (being the leaders of the coalition of parties)
laws are debated and passed by parliament;
lobbyists do not have a formal right to be heared, but do exercise some influence on members of parliament in reality;
if there is a solid majority, compromises are sought within the coalition (and may sometimes represent tactics rather than vonviction), the opposition may be ignored until the next elections but then laws may be revoked or changed by a new majority
A strong president may act immediately. If there are many small parties in a country, the close dependance of the government on a parliamentary majority may undermine the stability of the government.
The separation of powers - though it might seem very clear in theory - does not automatically provide more effective checks and balances between parliament and government than in a Parliamentary Democracy. If there are only two relevant parties and one has a comfortable majority, the parliamentary system offers few effective checks and balances.


Though there are remarkable formal and institutional differencies between the systems of Presidential and Parliamentary Democracy, there are more or less successful examples for both of these systems.

Therefore the practical results - measurable by different factors such as national wealth (both mean income and distribution of wealth), accessability and standards of education, life expectancy, infant mortality, corruption and so on - tend to depend less on the choice of one system or another but rather on what might be called an "established culture of democracy", consisting of both know-how (experience how the system once chosen works in practice) and trust that it works and it pays - for the society as a whole as well as for the individuals.