Parliament or president?

In the first of the "Arab Spring" countries – Tunisia and Egypt – political debate now centres on the drafting of a new constitution. In both cases there is much discussion about the role of Islam in relation to the state and the rights of women (here and here, for example). But there is far less discussion about another issue which is at least as important: their future system of government.

The question here concerns the relative powers of the legislative and executive branches. Interestingly, Egypt seems to be leaning in one direction – with a strong president and executive – while Tunisia is leaning in the other, towards a strong parliament.

In a critical look at Egypt's draft constitution, Ellis Goldberg, a professor of political science at the University of Washingtonwrites:

"On balance it looks as if ... the drafters of the Egyptian constitution envisage a civil state based on a very powerful executive authority rooted in but not directly managed by an elected president. 

"Educated professionals will play a dominant role in administration and legislation. The new state will have obligations to the sixty percent of Egyptians who are poor or illiterate but they will have no role in its institutions and relatively little in its politics. The political elite will engage in competitive elections over power and the military and the judiciary will function with significant levels of autonomy."

In an article for Foreign Policy, Steven Fish and Katherine Michel of the University of California warn that "Egypt is currently in danger of replicating the strong-executive, weak-legislature model the prevailed during the Mubarak era", and say there is a risk it could follow the example of Russia which "squandered its chance for durable democracy by adopting a constitution that permitted presidential arrogance".

Tunisians, on the other hand, "are uprooting dictatorship, not merely expelling the dictator," Fish and Michel say. 

"They are not only changing the rulers but also fixing the rules. Rather than replacing the old autocrat with a legitimately elected but still dominant president, Tunisians are tackling the problem of overweening executive power head-on. They are betting on good institutions rather than on a strong, wise ruler. Their farsighted choice will yield benefits for decades to come."

Fish and Michel are the authors of a recent study which investigated the effect of the power of the legislature vis-à-vis the executive on the fate of democratisation around the world. 

They conclude that the outcome "depends vitally on constitutional provisions that define the powers of national legislatures":

"Where the legislature is free from executive appointees and enjoys sole custody of the right to make laws, the probability of escaping autocracy is markedly higher than were the legislature contains executive appointees and shares lawmaking authority with the executive."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2012.