We need honest talk on systems of government

A famous American statistician, W. Edwards Deming, once said: “In God we trust. Everyone else must bring data.” Let us apply this principle to the ongoing debate about whether the presidential system is to blame for corruption and entrenched impunity. Is this assertion a misconstruction, or a fact?

Here is another rudimentary question: when someone bribes a traffic policeman, is it because we have a president instead of prime minister? Or more realistically, would government officials be less likely to steal public funds in the context of a parliamentary system? If that country also has functioning institutions such the judiciary, then the answer is yes. But if the country has an entrenched culture of corruption at all societal levels, then the public officials would still loot- it doesn’t matter the system of government.

India, for instance, has a parliamentary system, but ranks high in corruption indices; while France, which is a presidential system, ranks low. South Africa has a parliamentary government, and grapples with corruption. If we are being logical, the answer can only be definite if other factors are considered. This debate is suffering from causal oversimplification. Analysts are assigning causality to a factor just because it exists at the same time as another factor. Graft and the presidential system just happen to exist at the same time, it does not follow that there is a correlation between them.

It is like declaring that your friend got into a bad accident (‘Kenya is corrupt’) because an animal suddenly crossed the road in front of his car (‘because of the presidential system’). But you omit the fact that he had taken quite a few drinks before getting behind the wheel (‘we have had weak institutions’), and he was also attempting to complete an M-Pesa transaction on his phone as he was driving (‘we have a celebrated culture of trying to get rich quick’), in addition to driving over the speed limit (‘selection of leadership based on tribe not integrity’).  

Accusations, just like confessions, can only be valid if there is full disclosure. But on the flipside, can the presidential system be legitimately blamed for other things? Absolutely. There is one particularly grave ‘sin’ of the presidential system, which is unique to our heavily tribal context. The presidential system is a direct cause for cyclical electoral contestation. And this is because a high premium is placed on the presidency. But presidential systems are also engineered in a manner that breed unhealthy contestations, especially in societies that are heterogeneous, or deeply divided such as ours.

First, they are by nature exclusionist. Because much is at stake, much is contested. And these contestations can take severe angles. Second, presidential systemsseek to build consensus, not through dialogue, but through dominance. They encourage competition, rather than cooperation. In a presidential system, one party, the majority, dominates the other unapologetically, thus creating resentment. Third, presidential systems tend to be unrepresentative of the whole. They are best at representing the majority.

Although parliamentary systems are slow to action because they are cooperative in nature, they are relatively stable. Heads of state are changed overnight in countries such as South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom without any ‘earth-shaking seismic shifts’. 

But one would ask, are the contexts in these countries the same? Are these jurisdictions as ethnically fragmented as ours? Some are, but some are not. Belgium and South Africa, for example, are deeply divided. Belgium is split along party and ideology, and South Africa along race and ethnicity. Overall, history shows us that parliamentary systems are better suited to deeply-divided societies. As we examine what systems of government are best suited for our context, we must be honest in our analysis, especially when it comes to what is to blame for what.  This fallacy of a single cause is either blinding our outlook, or is a sign of severe denial.    

- The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University. [email protected]

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Systems of GovernmentCorruption