Parliamentary Democracy

views updated


1914–1945: RISE AND FALL

Parliamentary democracy is a political system in which legislative power and a genuine control of the executive power rest with a representative body, constituted through elections in which a broad majority of the population of a nation is expected to participate in a free and equal way.

For parliamentary democracy defined as such, Europe's twentieth century has been a period ridden with paradox. The thorough democratization of nineteenth-century parliamentary regimes—and therefore the birth of parliamentary democracy in the true sense of the word—after World War I was faced from the very start by alternative, antiparliamentary models of democratization, which made an end to parliamentary government, and to democracy, in large parts of Europe between the 1920s and the 1940s. Parliamentary democracy gained prominence again after World War II in Western Europe, in the 1970s in southern Europe, and after 1989 in Russia and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, if these parliamentary regimes of the second half of the twentieth century were more democratic than their nineteenth-century predecessors, they were at the same time less parliamentary. The role of elected bodies in the political system was overshadowed by that of corporative groups, political parties, and the executive power.

1914–1945: RISE AND FALL

The political democratization that had characterized the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth was accelerated by the experience of World War I. In both the victorious and the defeated countries—and in the new nations that emerged out of the Habsburg Empire—new electoral systems came into being, based on male universal suffrage. Female suffrage, until World War I achieved only in Finland (1906), Norway (1913), and Denmark (1915), was introduced shortly after it in various countries at the national legislative level (Germany and Austria, 1918; the Netherlands, 1919; Hungary, 1920; the United Kingdom, partially in 1918 and fully in 1928). Moreover, many countries replaced the old majority rule with some form of proportional representation, considered to guarantee a more genuine reflection of the population in parliament. The most radical settlement was reached in the Netherlands in 1917, where the introduction of proportional representation went hand in hand with the creation of a single electoral district covering the whole country. In Germany, where universal male suffrage had existed since 1867, it was not only extended to include women and refined through the introduction of proportional representation, it also became a truly democratic instrument through the introduction of the principle of ministerial responsibility. The transformation of the Wilhelmine empire into the Weimar Republic therefore appeared as the most striking evidence for the triumph of parliamentary democracy.

And yet this victory of parliamentary democracy was only apparent, because the strident antiparliamentarism of the late nineteenth century was not laid to rest by World War I. On the contrary, the enhanced democratic consciousness of large groups of the population was directed against the elitism and the complacency of the parliamentary ruling classes. Moreover, the sudden extension of the suffrage—and therefore the arrival of large groups of inexperienced parliamentarians—seemed to strengthen the preexisting image of parliaments as impotent "debating clubs."

Only in Russia, a nonparliamentary, Soviet model of democratization was followed with success, but the attraction of this communist alternative was evident throughout the Continent. Nonetheless, the integration of most social democratic parties into the parliamentary system rendered the left-wing antiparliamentarism rather marginal. A much more palpable threat to parliamentary democracy came from right-wing alternatives, preaching a corporative organization of society, a strong leadership, and a homogenization of the nation. The first real implementation of this right-wing alternative to parliamentary democracy was the Fascist experience in Italy, where male general suffrage had been introduced in 1919. After the March on Rome in 1922, the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini gradually turned parliament into an impotent and undemocratic organism, before abolishing it altogether in 1938 and replacing it with an Assembly of Corporations.

Between 1920 and 1939, parliamentary institutions underwent a similar evolution in fourteen other states, mostly in central, eastern, and southern Europe—those parts of the Continent where parliamentary traditions had only recently been installed. In most of these countries, parliamentary democracy was not replaced by a modern, mass-based fascism, but rather by reactionary forms of authoritarianism. Strikingly, in some of these countries, the newly created parliamentary institutions deliberately marginalized themselves. This was the case, for example, in Hungary, where the first democratically elected unicameral parliament consisted mainly of counterrevolutionary forces. It immediately reinstalled the Hungarian monarchy and gave the temporary regent Miklos Horthy the right fully to overrule the parliament (1920). Under most of these authoritarian regimes, representative institutions were not abolished but were rather overshadowed by more powerful authoritarian and/or corporative structures. A striking example was offered by Romania, where in 1938 King Carol II reduced the parliamentary institution to a merely decorative body, deprived of all its legislative and controlling functions. A similar fate befell the Cortes of Spain after Francisco Franco came to power in 1938.

The most radical dismissal of parliamentary institutions occurred in Germany, where the National Socialist Party seized power in January 1933. Even if democratic appearances were upheld during this seizure of power, the parliamentary institutions were set aside from the very start of the Nazi regime. After the burning of the Reichstag—secretly inflicted by the Nazi leaders themselves—all non-Nazi members of parliament were expelled, and no new legislative elections were held in Germany until the end of the Nazi regime.

If the parliamentary institutions were fully maintained in the countries of northern and western Europe, they did not go unchallenged by the threat of antiparliamentary sentiments. During the whole of the 1930s, pleas for a strengthening of the executive power were uttered both by influential elites and by broad sections of public opinion. If structural measures in that direction were not taken in any of those countries, in practice governments did strengthen their position by exacting temporary unlimited powers from the parliament (as in Belgium in 1934) or resorting to a technocratic, nonpartisan style of reigning.

Parliaments in northern and western Europe lost power not only to executive bodies but also to newly created corporative organs, to which the socioeconomic organization of society was increasingly entrusted. The evolution in the direction of a planned economy, as propagated most of all by socialist leaders (Henri de Man in Belgium, Gunnar Myrdal and Per Albin Hansson in Sweden, Léon Blum in France), implied a structural weakening of parliamentary institutions.

As a response to these evolutions, parliaments in western and northern Europe tried to transform themselves in an attempt to enhance their political efficiency. Measures were taken to limit the length of parliamentary speeches, the parliamentary rules were made more severe (especially after some violent confrontations that occurred during the 1930s in several of these countries), and the plenary sessions lost their importance more and more to the work of specialized commissions, as they were created in several countries after World War I. Moreover, the existence of enduring parliamentary groups or factions, each of them representing political parties, became officially (though only gradually) recognized during this period, and members of parliament increasingly adhered to the directives of their parties. Through all these evolutions, parliaments became ever more removed from their nineteenth-century liberal roots, according to which they were deemed to be autonomous institutions in which independent representatives freely deliberated in order to promote the public good. If these measures were intended to adapt the parliamentary institutions to an age of mass democracy, they were not able to dispell the antiparliamentary sentiments within public opinion. On the contrary, the growing influence of political parties—an evolution that had already been well under way at the end of the nineteenth century—was one more reason to reject the parliamentary institutions.


During World War II, parliamentary institutions were abolished in all countries occupied by the armies of the Axis Powers, so that they survived only in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, and Iceland (along with the powerless parliaments of authoritarian Spain and Portugal). If parliamentarism in Western Europe crumbled therefore as a consequence of external military pressure, the relatively smooth way in which this happened betrayed the profound discredit into which parliamentary institutions had fallen. Even in countries with deep-rooted parliamentary traditions, broad segments of public opinion welcomed the disappearance of parliamentary institutions as an opportunity for national regeneration, while retaining a certain distance from Nazi Germany. This sentiment allowed for the success of Pétainism in France and of the Dutch Union (Nederlandse Unie) and Queen Wilhelmina in the Netherlands, as well as for the broad sympathy that King Leopold III of Belgium aroused in his conflict with the democratic government that had decided to continue the struggle at the side of the Allied Powers. Only during the second half of World War II—when the final defeat of the Axis Powers came in sight—did a positive appreciation of parliamentary institutions become generalized all over Europe.

After World War II, the prewar institutions were restored nearly intact in Western European countries, with their prewar political personnel. Attempts fundamentally to reform these institutions by strengthening the power of the executive and weakening that of the political parties (for example, the attempts by General de Gaulle in France, by Winston Churchill in the United Kingdom, and by the Nederlandse Volksbeweging in the Netherlands) failed. Only in West Germany, where the experience of the Weimar Republic served as a negative example, were constitutional innovations introduced in 1949 in order to prevent parliamentary instability from discrediting democratic institutions. Governments were to be overthrown only when alternative coalitions could be created (the constructive motion of distrust), and the position of the chancellor was strengthened. With the strong figure of Konrad Adenauer embodying this constitutional system, West Germany evolved rapidly into a stable democracy. The difference from the other main country with a fascist heritage, Italy, was important. According to the Italian constitution of 1948, presidents were elected by the parliament, which remained the most crucial political institution of the country. Italy would remain notorious for its political instability well into the 1990s. In the other Western European country long famous for its political instability, France, the role of parliament was firmly reduced in 1958, when de Gaulle succeeded in passing his new constitution, which gave birth to the Fifth Republic.

The antifascist consensus after World War II not only guaranteed the further existence of parliamentary institutions, it also contributed to their rapid democratization. Most notable in that regard was the extension of the vote to women in some countries with strong parliamentary traditions (France, 1944; Belgium, 1948). In the United Kingdom, moreover, the ancient principle of multiple voting for certain categories (graduates from Oxford and Cambridge, for example, got to vote for both a geographical representative and a representative of their university) was abolished in 1948. Another way of democratizing parliamentary institutions, the abolition of the aristocratic "First Chambers" (Senate, House of Lords), was advocated in many countries but carried through only in very few (Denmark, 1953; Greece since 1830). Bicameralism remained the norm.

In the countries that were liberated by the Soviet Union, the hope to found parliamentary institutions on a radically democratic basis was manifest in the years immediately after the war, when "people's democracies" were installed, in which communist leaders appeared to accept electoral procedures. From late 1946 onward, however, the totalitarian Stalinist model was imposed on these countries, leaving no room whatsoever for genuinely functioning representative institutions. In these Cold War circumstances, parliamentary institutions became more than ever symbols of the freedom of the capitalist world.

This symbolism notwithstanding, parliamentary democracy moved further away from its liberal bases in the decades after World War II. All over western and northern Europe, the prevention and management of social conflict were handed over to bilateral deliberations between the social partners (syndicates of laborers and of patrons), thus strengthening the corporative basis of the welfare state and reducing the role of parliaments. The grip of political parties and interest groups on parliamentary life grew stronger, turning liberal democracy into what has been called "consociational democracy," where political conflicts are settled less through majority voting than through extraparliamentary deliberations between the political elites of different ideological groups. Moreover, the prestige of the national parliaments suffered from the loss of sovereignty of the nation-states, on the one hand to regional entities, on the other hand to new transnational constructions. These evolutions did not, however, fundamentally discredit the parliamentary model as such. In the construction of these subnational and transnational entities, the creation of directly elected representative bodies turned out to be crucial and highly symbolic moments. Significantly, these new parliaments (e.g., Europe, 1979; Catalonia, 1980; Flanders, Brussels, and Wallonia, 1994; Scotland, 1998) all opted from the start for universal suffrage and for unicameralism. But unlike the subnational parliaments, the European Parliament experienced difficulties from the start in legitimizing itself in the eyes of public opinion. This seems to indicate that parliaments can hardly fulfill their representational function in a context where no national sense of community exists.


In spite of their structural loss of political influence, the symbolic power of parliaments remained important. That was proved in the 1970s, when the two remaining right-wing dictatorships of the prewar period were replaced with a constitutional monarchy (Spain) and a democratic republic (Portugal). In both of them, a freely elected parliament (bicameral in Spain, unicameral in Portugal) functioned as the central legislative and representative institution. In Greece, too, the end of the regime of the colonels in 1975 heralded the restart of parliamentary democracy, with a unicameral parliament as the cornerstone.

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s seemed to seal the final triumph of parliamentary democracy. Indeed, in nearly all the formerly communist countries, regimes were installed that responded to the formal criteria of parliamentary democracies (moreover in Finland, the presidential "emergency system" was abandoned in 2000 in favor of a more truly parliamentary regime after the Soviet threat had disappeared). Their actual functioning, however, remained far removed from the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century ideal of parliamentary democracy. This ideal appeared to be threatened less by the specter of dictatorship (although the presidential regimes in Russia and Belarus come very close to it) than by the lack of enthusiasm of the electorate. Indeed, time and again, the turnouts at elections in these new democracies proved to be disappointing. The repeated failure to reach the quorum necessary for valid presidential elections in Serbia between 2002 and 2004 can be seen as the most extreme illustration of this more general feature.

The Eastern European experience of the 1990s thus seems to reveal in a very significant and condensed way the central paradox that characterized the history of parliamentary democracy in Europe throughout the twentieth century. On the one hand, parliamentary institutions with a broad democratic basis have always been seen as necessary bulwarks against tyranny and (civil) war, which has rendered their existence ever more undisputed—even extreme right-wing parties at the end of the twentieth century spoke out in favor of parliamentary institutions. On the other hand, the consciousness that parliamentary institutions are unsatisfactory tools to cope with the complexity of modern society has only increased. The disbelief in the effectiveness of parliamentary politics, the continuing suspicion about the complacency of the political elites, and the growing autonomy of voters in respect to their parties have caused low turnouts in nearly all European countries. The responses to this evolution by the political elites have been various. Compulsory voting as a strategy to enhance citizens' participation in political life has been hotly debated but only rarely introduced. While Greece adopted this system in its 1975 constitution, the Netherlands and Austria repealed their long-standing tradition of compulsory voting. In Belgium and Luxembourg, where the vote was made compulsory in 1919, the system still exists but is severely under attack. According to its opponents, it does guarantee high turnouts at elections, but it does not necessarily imply political consciousness. On the contrary, these opponents consider compulsory voting to be one of the causes of the tremendous success of right-wing populism in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, because it would lend a political voice to antipolitical feelings.

The introduction of referendums as legislative tools is another strategy that has been advocated by many, mainly liberal, political actors and commentators who wanted to enhance citizens' involvement with politics. Apart from Switzerland, however, truly binding forms of referendum have nowhere been constitutionally consecrated so far. The resistance against it has been inspired by the fear that direct and binding consultation of the people would fundamentally undermine the foundations of representative democracy and would open the door for populist manipulation of the people. In this context, Charles de Gaulle's use of plebiscites—although itself not based on binding referendums—was often invoked as an excess to be avoided. In spite of these objections, however, the organization of nonbinding referendums at a national level became a relatively common practice in several countries. In the Netherlands, for example, the nonbinding, corrective referendum (a referendum on the validity of laws voted in parliament) became a legal tool of national politics in 2002. Even where popular consultations did not enter into the legal or constitutional framework, citizens gained ever more means to express their opinion on specific political topics through public opinion polls in the media. While engaging citizens' political awareness, this evolution further reduced the autonomy of national parliaments. Even less than at the beginning of the twentieth century are national parliaments in the early twenty-first century the center of gravity of political life in Europe. Insofar as European democracies still deserve the adjective parliamentary, it is mostly at a nominal and symbolic level.

See alsoCitizenship; European Parliament.


Best, Heinrich, and Maurizio Cotta. Parliamentary Representatives in Europe 1848–2000: Legislative Recruitment and Careers in Eleven European Countries. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Dunn, John, ed. Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 b.c. to a.d. 1993. 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K., 1994.

Eley, Geoff. Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1950–2000. Oxford, U.K., 2002.

Held, David. Models of Democracy. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991. New York, 1994.

Norton, Philip. Parliaments in Contemporary Western Europe. 3 vols. London, 1998–2002.

Marnix Beyen