Parliamentary Systems

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Parliamentary Systems

Democracies usually incorporate a structure that divides governmental power. Some states—the United States is a frequent example—use presidential systems that have three separate centers of power: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Most other democracies (according to the CIA's World Factbook there are 53) use some variation of the parliamentary systems. Parliamentary systems embed primary governmental responsibility in the national assembly or legislature, the place where representatives "parler" or talk. In general, however, parliaments offer a way of organizing governmental power that does not separate the executive from the legislative body, that is, the executive and legislature branches are "fused." This means that these branches cannot check each other as in presidential systems. This may lead to these branches working cooperatively, enhancing effectiveness in policy creation and implementation.

The context within which parliamentary systems function, especially whether in two-party or multiparty states, greatly affects operations. In two-party, or majoritarian, states, one of two major parties typically wins a majority of legislative seats. This describes the British state, which many use to illustrate such a model. Conversely, in multiparty states such as Belgium, often no party wins more than a plurality of seats. Frequently, this results from the use of proportional representation (PR) voting. Under PR, parties gain seats based on the percentage of the total votes cast that each has won. This differs from "winner takes all" or first past the post voting, familiar to those in the United States, in which the candidate who gains the most votes wins the office. With PR voting, even parties with relatively few votes may win one or more legislative seats. If no party wins a legislative majority, members of two or more parties in the assembly with enough policy preferences in common to be able to compromise might agree to work in coalition to form a majority. The Italian state illustrates this well, regularly relying on coalitions in its national legislature. Which form of party politics states use greatly can affect parliamentary operations and legislative outcomes.

Another variation in parliamentary systems derives from whether the legislature has one house (unicameral), as does Sweden, or two houses (bicameral), as does the Netherlands. Generally, in bicameral structures, the houses represent different interests with one serving as an upper, the other as a lower, house. Often, upper houses represent a particular class (Britain's House of Lords) or political interest (Germany's Bundesrat, which gives subnational states direct representation). Lower houses generally represent a state's voters as a whole. Obviously, unicameral parliaments require less bargaining and negotiation than does obtaining the agreement of two legislative houses.

Structures of national leadership also may create variation. In many cases, leadership divides into two offices: head of state and head of government (generally, "government" refers to the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers). Often, heads of state are monarchs (Spain) or presidents (Germany). Typically, heads of state have little real authority and serve a symbolic function. In such cases as France, however, the head of state has important powers and functions. The influence of the president in France leads most to classify it as a semipresidential rather than a parliamentary state.

Selection of the head of government clearly illustrates differences with presidential models. In presidential systems, the voters elect the executive—who generally serves both leadership functions. Conversely, in parliamentary systems elected legislators select or validate elevation of one of their number to the executive office of prime minister (PM). In majoritarian states, PMs most often lead the political party that holds a legislative majority. In coalition states, generally executives serve as head of the largest political faction in the coalition, based on number of parliamentary seats. In a few cases, PMs lead a minority group within the legislature, but this is unusual, often reflecting the desire of nongoverning parties to avoid new elections. In such situations, parties outside a government support it through its election (vote of investiture).

As noted, parliaments (generally the lower house if bicameral) approve and install heads of government through votes of investiture. Such votes elevate a member of parliament to lead government. In two-party systems, votes of investiture are almost a formality. In multiparty systems, votes of investiture often follow intense bargaining among coalition members about the division of policy responsibilities in the new government. If unhappy with a PM, or his or her policy decisions, a coalition party may withdraw from the government to force a new round of bargaining or new elections. In such cases, governments seek another parliamentary party to serve in coalition and ensure a majority or, less commonly, seek the support of parties that remains outside of a formal coalition. If neither is possible, the head of government dissolves parliament and calls for new elections, hoping to win enough additional seats to ensure a legislative majority.

role of the prime minister

Differing roles for prime ministers create another variation in parliamentary systems. PMs usually lead a majority political party or the largest faction within a coalition. In cases of bicameral parliaments, generally this refers to political divisions in the lower houses, as upper houses do not represent the voters directly.

Traditionally, PMs are primary or first cabinet ministers. In such cases, holders of the office serve simply as especially powerful members of a group of influential ministers. These other ministers, the senior members of government, often represent powerful interests, even competing factions, within a PM's party or coalition, which the executive must satisfy.

More commonly, however, prime ministers now enjoy influence and clout no other cabinet ministers have. Leading both the government and the majority political party or faction, PMs hold numerous formal and informal powers. As the country's dominant political figure, a head of government commands significant authority and attention. The executive representing the country at meetings abroad enhances this role. Further, as most legislation comes from the government (versus the legislature in presidential systems), the executive maintains a high profile announcing and building support for proposed policies. Some prime ministers submit to regular parliamentary sessions to explain and defend policies to the political opposition and to voters (e.g., both Britain and Australia televise their PMs' "question time"). Additionally, as party head, the PM shapes party platforms and policy preferences and can rely on members to advocate these choices. Finally, in most parliamentary systems the executive can schedule elections early, that is, before the expiration of the government's term. Usually, when a PM calls early elections, it is to take advantage of a surge in favorable public opinion. This was Margaret Thatcher's (b. 1925) strategy following Britain's victory in the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas conflict with Argentina in 1983. First elected in 1979, Thatcher remained Britain's prime minister until 1990. Through election timing, the PM may enhance a party's political fortunes. In all, prime ministers enjoy significant traditional and new powers other ministers do not.

At the same time, continuing reliance on party support limits executives' ability to act single-handedly. As political parties, rather than voters, indirectly select PMs through party leadership elections, party members hold great power. Further, unlike in presidential systems, a PM's party, acting alone—even against the wishes of voters—can replace the country's executive if members decide to replace their party head. In such cases, party members (rather than voters) elect a new leader and, thus, a new national executive. For example, at its 1990 leadership election, Britain's Conservative Party failed to reelect Prime Minister Thatcher on the first ballot. She stepped aside and the party eventually elected John Major (b. 1943). By this leadership vote, Major replaced Thatcher as head of government as the Tories still enjoyed a majority (no parliamentary election took place).

Party members may limit executives in another way: If enough of the members of parliament from a PM's party refuse to vote for a major policy bill or any legislation the PM deemed a "vote of confidence," the government may fall. (Germany has a slightly different system, a so-called constructive vote of no-confidence, which brings down a government only by "investing" a new one.) Finally, with multiparty coalitions, members may decide that another political group should lead the government and can force change by ending support for the current executive.

role of the cabinet

In parliamentary systems, heads of government usually make cabinet-level or ministerial appointments. This is unlike presidential systems, in which executives often share appointment power with legislatures (usually, presidents nominate and legislatures ratify—or refuse to ratify—nominations). Also, in parliamentary states, cabinet appointees, often known as ministers or secretaries, usually come from legislatures and retain their parliamentary seats while simultaneously holding executive (ministerial) appointments. These dual roles reinforce the fusion of executive and legislature power.

Similar to presidential systems, ministers in parliamentary systems usually are responsible for specific portfolios, for example, the defense, treasury, or interior. Ministers not only serve as the PM's policy advisors in their areas, they also serve as chief administrators for their ministries. As do appointees in presidential systems, parliamentary ministers may find their freedom of action limited by long-term, professional civil servants within their ministries. These

bureaucrats may have a longer view, a great investment in the status quo, and a remarkable ability to control the information available to their political heads. Depending on this relationship, unelected senior civil servants may limit governments' overall ability to create change.

Outsiders rarely understand the exact process of cabinet decision making. When PMs are limited to a "first among equals" role, collective decision making probably best captures the cabinet dynamic. In states with more presidential executives, many suppose that PMs, by chairing cabinet meetings and offering summaries of group decisions, can direct cabinet outcomes without exercising raw power. Even these leaders, however, seem to rely on the counsel of at least senior cabinet members. At the same time, PMs expect ministers to support any proposal the government advances. This doctrine of collective or cabinet responsibility means that any minister who wants to disagree publicly with the government must resign his or her executive post (but retains any parliamentary seat).

In many cabinets, some ministries are more powerful than others. "Power ministers" generally include defense, finance or treasury, state or foreign affairs, and interior. Those named to these posts often make up an elite subset within cabinets. Their opinions carry greater weight, and executives may rely on and meet with them more frequently than other ministers. In some states, holders of these positions may be political rivals of the executive, either leading competing factions within their shared party or competing parties within the coalition. In such situations, ministers may become obstructionist, seeking to prevent outcomes they believe voters oppose and for which they wish to bear no responsibility.

As parliamentary systems concentrate power in governments, governments logically use that power to legislate. Thus, the vast majority of bills originate in cabinets and legislatures' contribution is granting approval. In majoritarian states particularly, governments reference a party platform, party papers, and campaign promises in drafting legislation. Since governments and senior ministry staff are main sources of legislation, they are also major targets for lobbyists. As a bill's proposal by the cabinet, especially in two-party systems, usually leads to routine approval by the parliament, the government is a valuable source of influence. The fusion of executive and legislative power and the absence of legislative checks found in presidential systems have led to situations in which those seeking specific outcomes have bribed members of government to propose legislation whose passage is almost then assured. Japan's Recruit scandal, in which legislators received stock for favors and which led to Prime Minister Noboru Takshita's 1989 resignation, exemplifies this. With coalition governments, membership of ministers from competing parties may limit such opportunities.

fast facts

Iceland has the oldest parliament in the world. The Althingi was created in C.E. 930.

margaret thatcher

Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925), who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925. She studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, and entered politics in 1950. She married Denis Thatcher, a businessman, in 1951 and gave birth to twins, Carol and Mark, in 1953. Elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 1959, Thatcher became secretary of state for Education and Science in 1970. She became Britain's first female prime minister in 1979.

Thatcher was first nicknamed "the Iron Lady" by a Soviet newspaper in 1976, and the phrase quickly became part of her public image. Her policies included reduction of the power of labor, reduction in government spending, privatization of government-owned industries, shrinking of social provision (the welfare state) and lowered taxation. She maintained Britain's historically close relationship with the United States—she was personally very close to President Ronald Reagan—and sent the Royal Navy to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982. She won three successive general elections, becoming the longest-serving British prime minister in the twentieth century. Motivated by conservative market ideology, her overall goal, in which she was largely successful, was to change British political culture. In the process she became one of the most divisive figures in recent British politics; late in her term of service she became highly unpopular, and her leadership was eventually challenged from within the Conservative Party. She was forced to resign in favor of John Major in 1990.

Thatcher was titled Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven by the queen in 1992 and entered the House of Lords. In late 2001 she suffered a series of minor strokes. Her husband died in June 2003.

role of members of parliament

Usually, members of parliament (MPs) not in the cabinet have a reduced role compared to what they might enjoy in more adversarial, presidential systems. This is true even if they belong to the governing party. Further, MPs overall enjoy less independence than their counterparts in presidential states as parliamentary systems foster rigid party discipline. This is especially true in majoritarian states, as in multiparty systems MPs have additional options, which reduce any party's control.

Reflecting this power, parties expect all MP party members to support all proposals. Failure to provide such support can lead to either expulsion from the party or exclusion from its candidate list for the next election. This gives parties the means for enforcing significant discipline, which they argue benefits all members by allowing parties to effectively promote their policies.

As noted earlier, most legislation, certainly all major policy, originates in governments and then moves to parliaments for approval. Governing party control, especially in two-party systems, means that parliamentary passage usually is pro forma. Parliamentary debate may be fiery; party discipline, however, ensures limited effects on outcomes. Even if legislatures hold hearings, their inability to amend bills in any significant way means that they have little reason to investigate topics deeply, interview witnesses or take testimony, common practices in more adversarial, presidential states. In many cases, this discipline extends to actual voting. In Britain, for example, "whips" alert MPs to the time and subject of votes, as well as to the party's position. Receipt of "three-line" whips (so called for the message's three underlines indicating its importance) obligates MPs to attend votes and endorses the party's preferences or suffer its discipline.

Another facet of party discipline derives from PMs' ability to reward loyalty with appointment to government. In return for members' loyalty, they may win governmental office. This increases discipline as a failure to support the government may lead to an MP's removal from executive position or even, in the case of a vote of confidence, to the government's fall. Both these scenarios individually punish errant MPs.

Further highlighting the weakness of legislatures in parliamentary systems, MPs in the minority have little ability to block governmental proposals as long as executives maintain majorities. Instead, the opposition uses parliamentary debates to explain to how it would handle issues and shape policy differently. In some cases, leaders of the opposition create "shadow" governments assigning cabinet positions. This allows the opposition to demonstrate differences. Additionally, through parliamentary debate the opposition can press governments about their choices, although it has little hope, ultimately, of halting passage of legislation.


Many who are accustomed to presidential states may see parliamentary systems as lacking the safeguarding checks and balances between executive and legislative branches. They might also question the democratic nature of a system that reduces the policy-making role of most of those whom voters have elected to assemblies. Alternately, those living under parliamentary systems often find that governments can act decisively and coherently, without the compromises and trade-offs required by presidential systems. Supporters of parliamentary systems also may see the primary role granted to majority parties as reflective of the will of the majority of voters. Voters elect parties based on their campaign platforms and policy pledges; under parliamentary systems, governments have few excuses for failure to fulfill those promises, ensuring greater accountability to the voters.

This discussion of parliamentary states, however, relies on a majoritarian model. With coalitions, the need for compromise may lead to situations of governmental stalemate and inaction as, to maintain coalitions, PMs must make decisions that satisfy all members. Thus, while coalition governments in parliamentary systems may most accurately reflect the will of the voters, they reduce member parties' ability to enact their campaign pledges. Finally, advocates of parliamentary systems note that they promise the ultimate check: Legislators can bring down governments at any time. This offers protections against abusive governments that presidential systems, with only periodically scheduled elections, cannot.

See also: Bicameral Parliamentary Systems; Majoritarian Party Systems; United Kingdom.


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Janet Adamski