Bertrand Russell once wryly commented that the only change seen in the French Revolution was that France changed a king for an emperor. Around the same time, America changed a king for a president. The modern era has been dominated by presidents rather than emperors, although there seems a trend towards presidents increasingly resembling emperors in the difficulty of removing them democratically.
But there is another model to compete with the presidency model, and that is the model of the prime minister, so fundamental to the Westminster model of governance. It is a model that Zimbabwe had abandoned in 1987, and one that has had attraction for Zimbabweans in thinking about new constitutions. However, we decided to stick with the executive presidency, and perhaps this was unwise in retrospect.
Consider the two models: one where the citizens elect the executive directly, as we do in Zimbabwe and many other countries, and one where the executive is chosen by the party that wins the electoral contest.
In the former, the directly-elected president, even if elected by a minority of the voters as was Donald Trump, a man (and mostly a man) assumes executive power for a fixed period, and usually can only be removed for infirmity or bad behaviour. This power is supposedly constrained by the legislature and the courts, but, in general, these bodies will only exercise their powers for bad behaviour. The notion of the president’s incompetence seems a more difficult problem to address.
Take Zimbabwe for instance. Section 97 envisages the removal of the President in the following circumstances:
(a) serious misconduct;
(b) failure to obey, uphold or defend this Constitution;
(c) wilful violation of this Constitution; or
(d) inability to perform the functions of the office because of physical or mental incapacity.
My guess is that these are pretty standard grounds across the globe for removing a president, but they do not describe the situation where the incumbent is just not up to the job. I have in mind a situation where the electorate ill-advisedly elects a president who is just not up to the job, which might be a good description of the current presidency in the USA.
It seems to me that the problem of the directly elected president is just this: unless the incumbent shows wholly egregious behaviour, he or she is likely to serve the term, and this may be wholly detrimental to the nation.
Prime Ministers, however, as in the Westminster model, are wholly under the control of the party, and can be removed at any time. This does not necessarily require a vote of no confidence by parliament, although this would do it, but is subject to a lesser test of opinion, the confidence the party has in his or her leadership. The test of leadership is both internal and external: he or she can be removed either by the party or by the legislature on grounds far less than bad behaviour. This is, of course not perfect, as we can see in all the conflicts in South Africa about Jacob Zuma continuing in office: the party will not make him go, and parliament is unable to get the majority to push through a vote of confidence.
However, the major point behind my argument is even more basic. Kings and emperors governed in considerably simpler times than do presidents or prime ministers in the current age. It is highly improbable that any single individual can have the knowledge and skills sufficient to a comprehensive understanding of the issues and problems involved in governance. It is highly unlikely that any single person can have a grasp of all the issues involved in running a modern state, and hence must be willing to seek guidance continuously.
So, the problem with the directly elected president, and the directly elected president that is unwilling to take advice, or even worse thinks that he or she does not need advice, supported by an unwise electorate that has an over weaning belief in the power of “special” leaders, is that he or she can govern extremely badly, but this can be short of the grounds that suggest bad behaviour or infirmity. To my mind, this makes the case for prime ministers and non-executive presidents the only sensible way to govern.