In search of a more perfect system

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EI SUN OH

THE American political system provides for the legislative and executive branches to be elected separately and there are official check-and-balance functions between them, with a “third watch” kept by a (hopefully) vigilant judicial branch. It is no secret that I think such a rigorous separation of powers is far superior to the British (and by extension Commonwealth) system in which the legislative and executive branches are essentially “fused,” whereby the former “produces” the latter, while the latter in effect controls the former, and selection to the judicial branch is in the hands of the executive branch.

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I like especially the flexibility and inclusiveness of the American Cabinet, whose members are not limited to members of Congress as is mostly the case with their British counterparts (although a limited number of British Cabinet members who are non-members of parliament can be artificially “ennobled,” i.e., appointed without election as members of the House of Lords (the British equivalent of a Senate), and thus in theory become members of parliament).

Most American Cabinet members are actually not politicians per se, but professional experts, businessmen, academics and others who can inject non-political vitality into the departmental offices they hold. A case in point is none other than Henry Kissinger, who was a Harvard professor before his appointment as national security adviser and then secretary of state. Thinking out of the usual box which constrains most politicians, Kissinger and his boss President Richard Nixon engineered a diplomatic breakthrough with China in the early 1970s.

In the United States, appointments to the Cabinet and the federal judiciary requires Senate approval. And before such approvals are granted, extensive rounds of confirmation hearings are usually held. When I was a student in the US, I was often enthralled by these open hearings which are telecast live. It enables the common citizens to learn of the intricacies of government policies and procedures, and in the process become more politically motivated. I still vividly recall the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas who was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to be a justice of the Supreme Court. Allegations of sexual misconduct were hurled during the hearings, and Justice Thomas was only narrowly confirmed for his seat on the Supreme Court.

When President Clinton came to power, he nominated Zoe Baird, a corporate counsel, to be the attorney general. After allegations of having illegally hired a foreign household helper surfaced during her confirmation hearing, she withdrew from being considered for the post. No such luxury of essentially public inquiry is typically available in Commonwealth countries, where appointments of Cabinet members and judges are simply only announced without prior open examination. Of course, there is a socio-political price to be paid for such open selection of government officials, especially in efficiency. President Donald Trump’s last Cabinet members were confirmed only a few weeks ago, several months after his inauguration. But democracy itself is not free; it has to be carefully nurtured over time, and with cost.

There is yet another political system which may best be described as lying somewhere in between those of American and British varieties, and usually termed “Continental” (referring to continental Europe). Best exemplified by the French political system, it usually entails both a powerful presidency and a not insignificant premiership, and the checks and balances are usually exhibited not so much (though still existing) between the three branches of government, but between the president and the prime minister. The French President, just like his American counterpart, is elected separately from the national assembly (congress).

And France, despite its romantic reputation, is actually a very power-centric nation where the powers of the central national government are enormous, and usually personified in the presidency. This could well be the enduring legacy of ancient imperial times, when King Louis XIV famously observed that “I am the state!” The indefatigable Napoleon, too, aggregated power unto himself and even crowned himself as emperor after a brief period of essentially republican mob rule following the French Revolution. General Charles de Galle who emerged victorious after World War 2 defined French politics with his larger-than-life leadership style for almost two decades, and his ubiquitous influence can still be felt, with France typically and periodically verging left and right in politics.

For many years, French voters would first vote in a right-leaning president but later a left-leaning national assembly, necessitating a so-called “cohabitation” whereby the president and the prime minister (who is typically appointed from the majority party in the national assembly) usually hold diagonally opposite ideological views. The French appear to feel comfortable with such an awkward political arrangement even in the same branch of government.

But not in this latest election round. French voters ushered in their youngest, centrist President last month, and then gave his new party a large parliamentary majority in the national assembly. It remains to be seen how this essentially end of cohabitation will translate into not only greater push for policy changes in France, but also how the consequent lifting of internal checks and balances will affect the practice of democracy in France.

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