As democracy comes under threat globally, isn’t it time for a system check?

By Osmund Agbo
With the resignation of Liz Truss in October last year, barely six weeks after being sworn in office, the 42-years old Rishi Sunak became the fifth Prime Minister of Britain within the last six years since the Brexit vote of June 2016. Like a revolving door, No. 10 Downing Street, witnessed the exit of four of its former occupants within that time period. Now, that’s a record turnover especially for a country with a system that for centuries was synonymous with stability and dependability, even if sometimes dull governance. But even as chaotic and polarized as British politics has become in recent years, the country continues to enjoy an orderly transfer of power every single time and thus far, no group of insurrectionists have descended upon the Palace of Westminster. There has to be a reason for that and it’s not because there is shortage of British versions of Donald Trump and Trump wannabes.
In December of 2022, Pedro Castillo, the leftist union leader who served as the President of Peru since July 2021 ordered a reorganization of his country’s  judiciary and prosecutor’s office which at the time was investigating him for alleged corruption and influence-trafficking. He also proceeded to dissolve the legislature in a last-ditch effort to prevent the body from holding an impeachment vote against him and imposed a night-time curfew to stop potential protesters. That led to weeks of nationwide political turmoil that thus far has resulted in the death of more than fifty people and led to Mr. Castillo’s removal from office. 

Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as the President of the Republic of Brazil in January 2019 but lost re-election in December 2022 to a leftist former president, Lula da Silva. He, however, refused to concede defeat and his sympathizers stormed the Planalto Presidential Palace, destroying government properties and clashing with authorities, in a manner reminiscent of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021 by supporters of the then President Donald Trump.

From Donald Trump of the United States, Pedro Castillo of Peru and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, democracy has come under serious threat globally by world’s strongmen and narcissists, duly elected presidents who are clinging ferociously to power even when they lost an election. 
The three countries aforementioned are all Presidential democracies compared to countries like the U.K., Canada, New Zealand or Germany that practice the Parliamentary system. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, the nation’s 40th Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party since 2017 just announced her plan to resign from those positions by February 7th. Germany’s Angela Merkel, longtime serving chancellor, stepped aside voluntarily in December 2021. There is an emerging pattern which seems to suggest that governments within the presidential system are unusually likely to collapse into coups or other violence in comparison to parliamentary democracies.
Those who have studied the pattern, like Dr. Juan Linz and his group identified several reasons. Not in the least, is the fact that the Presidential systems are set up in a way that makes removing a leader far more difficult and cumbersome, raises the stakes so much higher while at the same time also effectively discouraging leaders from stepping down voluntarily. Dr. Linz, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Yale University, specialized in comparative politics. He once submitted that the “the vast majority of the stable democracies in the world today are parliamentary regimes, where executive power is generated by legislative majorities and depends on such majorities for survival.”
The separation of power between the legislative and executive branches in a presidential system means that a ruling party cannot simply change out an unpopular leader with a replacement as easily obtained in the parliamentary systems. Both the ruling party and the opposition are keenly aware that impeachment is difficult and messy; hence many Republican congressmen did not have qualms urging Donald Trump, a president seen as a threat to America, to stay on in office.
The Parliamentary system also is not without its own serious drawbacks. Unlike in the Presidential system, the head of government is not directly elected by the people but chosen by the majority party in congress. This also means that the Prime Minister can easily be changed on a whim simply by his party members in parliament, passing a vote of no confidence even when such a leader might still be enjoying huge popularity with the citizens. That happened recently in Pakistan when Prime Minister, Imran Khan, hugely popular in his country was ousted by the nation’s National Assembly alleged to be under the control of the military top brass.
France operates a semi-presidential system, some kind of a hybrid between the parliamentary and presidential systems of government. The nation’s political system consists of the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The President of France is directly elected by the people and the presidency is the supreme magistracy of the country. His position is the highest office in France and whoever occupies that office is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the French Armed Forces. The Prime Minister is appointed by the President and oversees much of the nation’s actual day-to-day domestic affairs, though the president still wields significant influence and authority, especially in the fields of national security and foreign policy. The Prime Minister is only answerable to the National Assembly and once appointed, cannot be dismissed by the president. The whole idea is to reap the benefit of both parliamentary and presidential models while attempting to mitigate the inherent systemic weakness of each design. 
But truth be told, no system is “pitch perfect” and devoid of unique encumbrances, be it parliamentary, presidential or even a hybrid of both. Every system needs a critical mass of men and women, willing, ready and committed to protecting the guardrails of democracy for it to work. That is the only way to put a check on the excesses of men in the corridors of power. 
For far too long, the world has always believed in the naive concept of benevolent dictators and leaders who will voluntarily relinquish power when they have served out their time and purpose. But over and over again that has proven to be an illusion. In reality, what separates those leaders who step down from those who do not often turns out to be less on that leader’s goodwill than on the simple nature of their political system. Even in the parliamentary systems, resignation often appears voluntary but most often it’s not. It comes amid quiet nudging and some internal pressure coming from party members to do the right thing or face threat of impeachment upon refusal. That was the case with the U.K. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson before he finally was forced to resign. 
Eternal vigilance, Thomas Jefferson cautioned, is the price of liberty. We are reminded that all it takes to bring the world’s most enduring democracy to its knees is a very ambitious narcissist, supported by a bunch of loonies. John Philpot Curran summed it up so nicely when he said;
“The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he breaks, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”
The ripple effect of the egregious and multi pronged attacks, targeting all the pillars of democracy in the United States offers a cautionary tale. 
Osmund Agbo writes from Houston, Texas. Email: [email protected]

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