Presidentialism and Executive Stability in the Pacific Islands: Quick fix or long-term solution?

As outlined in my recent blog post on Marshall Islands, executive instability has become the salient feature of democratic politics in the Pacific region over the last two and a half decades. In particular, given the relative absence of institutionalised political parties, commentators regularly bemoan the side switching, party hopping or ‘grass hopping’ of expedient MPs who frequently topple governments in pursuit of personal advantage (usually control of ministerial portfolios). In most cases, this feature of politics is interpreted as a problem particular to the way Westminster has been transferred, with reformers often extolling the relative executive stability of Presidential systems when canvassing alternatives.

Of course, there is a great variety of presidential and semi-presidential systems in the Pacific some of which, like Nauru which uses the terminology but is basically Westminster in practice, has very high rates of executive turnover, just as conventional Westminster systems, like Samoa, can be the most stable. Nevertheless, here I consider some of the pros and cons associated with adopting the ‘purer’ forms of presidentialism, as modelled in the former United States Trust Territories of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).

Palau is the only Pacific Island nation to have a directly elected president. Kiribati also holds direct presidential elections but the candidates are first chosen by MPs from amongst their membership and once elected the president remains a member of the legislature. In FSM, the president is also elected by MPs but once sworn in their seat is declared vacant and so they govern as per a conventional separation of powers. Presidents of Palau and FSM are also free to appoint ministers from outside of parliament, which means they and their cabinets enjoy greater autonomy relative to their Westminster counterparts.

It is this relative autonomy from parliament, advocates claim, which is the main virtue of a presidential system in a Pacific context, as, despite the absence of institutionalised political parties, the executive remains immune from shifting allegiances on the floor of the house. At least, that is the theory. In practice, presidents require parliamentary approval for legislation, budgets, appointments and so forth and so leaders in Palau and FSM still find themselves routinely frustrated once in office as ‘ambition’ is made to ‘counteract ambition’. Presidents of FSM in particular can be severly hamstrung by the strength of state influence in the legislature. By way of contrast, in Samoa, where the ruling party has been in power for more than 30 years, Westminster provides the Prime Minister of the day both a stable cabinet and control of the legislative agenda. However, given that this is the Pacific exception rather than the rule, some commentators consider that it is better to trade the unstable status quo for frustration once in office.

There are several other features of presidential systems, including issues relating to national unity, accountability, and cabinet expertise, that I could canvass here[i] but the important point to note is that arguments for and against institutional design in the Pacific tend to hinge on the specific goal reformers seek to pursue. Executive instability in the Pacific is said to breed corruption as MPs give and take bribes in a bid to secure coalition numbers. Conversely, we know from experience that the longer governments stay in power the more likely they are to fall foul of corrupt practices. As such, despite the weight of arguments on both sides, it remains unclear if presidentialism offers Pacific nations a quick fix or a long-term solution to the myriad of governance challenges they face in the 21st century.

[i] For a more comprehensive survey see Henderson, J (2006) ‘Would a presidential system be better for Melanesia?’ Pacific Studies no. 1: 50-66.

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