Parliaments And Parliamentary Systems
Parliaments And Parliamentary Systems
Parliaments are representative institutions that link political decision makers with citizens affected by the decisions taken. Representative institutions have a variety of names in different countries—Parliament (a term usually associated with the United Kingdom and often adopted in its former colonies, for example, in Australia, Canada, and India); Congress (for example, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico); Assembly (for example, Cuba, Slovenia, and the Russian Federation); Cortes (Spain); Diet (Japan); Folketing (Denmark); Sejm (Poland); and Storting (Norway)—and are often subsumed under the generic term “legislature.” In total, throughout the world in 2006, the Inter-Parliamentary Union listed 189 national parliaments with over 44,000 members. These ranged in size from the 2,980 members in the Chinese National People’s Congress to 15 members in the Parliament of the Tuvalu Islands in the South Pacific. Seventy-five parliaments were bicameral, having an upper house or a senate alongside a lower house or representative assembly. In addition, there are also a large number of regional or subnational parliaments, with seventy-four in western Europe, thirty in India, and fifty in the United States. At a supranational level the European Parliament, after January 1, 2007, had 785 members representing over 375 million voters from twenty-seven member states in the European Union.
Yet not all parliaments in the twenty-first century are democratic institutions—in the sense that their members are chosen through the processes of free and competitive elections. In 2006, the United Nations Development Programme identified only 140 countries in which competitive multiparty elections were held for national parliaments.
The Icelandic Althingi has a claim to be the oldest parliament, as it met for the first time around 930 CE and served as a general assembly of the most powerful leaders, where legislative acts were made and justice was dispensed. Other parliaments emerged in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when monarchs convened meetings of representatives of the most powerful sections of feudal society to authorize specific royal policies and taxes. The English Parliament, the Spanish Cortes, the French States-General or Estates-General, and the Scandinavian parliaments all trace their roots back to such medieval advisory bodies. Although the subsequent institutional trajectories of these parliaments differed markedly, and while most parliaments were in abeyance for long periods, nonetheless, the principles of authorization and representation marked the common and continuing hallmarks of parliamentary institutions. By the beginning of the twentieth century most western European countries had parliamentary systems, and such systems proved to be resilient. Even those countries that endured authoritarian regimes at some stage in that century (Germany, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain) subsequently reestablished parliamentary systems.
In their contemporary forms, parliaments still institutionalize the principles of representation and authorization, but now these ideas are normally associated also with the electoral principle and notions of accountability. In turn, elections and accountability invoke ideas of “representative and responsible” government—where decision makers are representative of those for whom decisions are to be made and are responsible to those affected by the decisions. In this sense, parliaments occupy pivotal institutional positions in the linkage between citizens and governors. Indeed, parliaments face in two directions: first, toward the “people,” the “represented,” or the “governed”; and, second, toward the “government” or the “political executive.” In this pivotal position, parliaments can be seen as part of an institutional nexus of government—as a “parliamentary system.”
Like any other system, a parliamentary system is a complex whole that comprises of a set of connected parts. Frequently, parliamentary systems are defined in contrast to presidential systems and categorized by the distinctive institutional configurations that link the electorate, the legislature, and the executive. In a parliamentary system the electorate votes for representatives who, when assembled together, collectively constitute the representative institution of parliament. In turn, the political executive, or government, is then derived from the representative institution. Viewed as an ideal-typical process of delegation, a parliamentary system thus enables citizens to delegate decision-making capacity, through the medium of elections, to their representatives. In this process representatives, as the “agents” of electors, are authorized to act on behalf of citizens as “principals” (in the terminology of delegation theory). From this single direct act of delegation to representatives in parliament flows a sequential and serial process of delegation, whereby representatives in parliament then delegate the routines of decision making to a related institution—the political executive— which acts as the agent of the “principal” of parliament. In turn, the political executive (whether termed “cabinet” or “government” and normally headed by a chief executive known as a “prime minister”) delegates further to other “agents” in the institutional form of the bureaucracy or civil service. In contrast, in a presidential system, citizens elect and directly authorize both a political executive, either through elections or through an electoral college, and representatives in a legislature. In presidential systems, therefore, the electorate has two agents. Moreover, in presidential systems there is a separation of powers between the legislature and the executive, whereas in parliamentary systems there is a fundamental fusion of parliamentary and executive institutions.
In a parliamentary system political executives are authorized by parliaments. This can take the form of a formal investiture vote before an executive takes office (Germany, Hungary, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) or immediately after an executive assumes office (Belgium, Italy, and Luxembourg). The outcomes of such votes are heavily dependent upon bargaining among political parties. In other parliamentary systems, executives are deemed to be authorized tacitly unless the executive loses the confidence of parliament (for example, in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom). Using the concept “authorization” avoids using notions of the “selection” or “emergence” of executives from parliaments. In practice, few parliaments actively select leaders from their ranks, and in several states membership of the executive is incompatible with membership in parliament (for example, Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden). Only in the UK and Ireland, among western European parliaments, are cabinet members required to be members of parliament.
In a parliamentary system executives are also accountable to parliament; in turn, parliaments are accountable to citizens. In the twenty-first century, ideas of parliamentary accountability are rooted predominantly in free competitive elections. In the strongest sense, executives are accountable to parliaments insofar as there are “no-confidence” procedures by which cabinets or governments can be collectively dismissed by parliament. In a weaker sense, executives may be held to account in terms of “informing” parliament and “explaining” their actions through oversight procedures such as questions, debates, and statements and by providing evidence to parliamentary committees. In an intermediate sense, executives may also be accountable where ministers are prompted by parliamentary scrutiny to accept culpability and to consider remedial action or redress.
The reciprocal relationship of accountability finds further reflection in the dissolution powers normally conferred upon prime ministers individually or cabinets collectively. In most countries the no-confidence procedures in parliament are counterbalanced by the executive’s capacity to invoke a confidence vote or to dissolve parliament directly. In all western European states since 1945 (as well as, for example, in Japan and Canada) executives have, on at least one occasion, dissolved parliaments before completion of the full electoral term. In Denmark, Greece, and Ireland some two-thirds of modern parliaments have been dissolved early. Upon dissolution, parliaments and political executives then face their ultimate accountability to the electorate.
As noted earlier, the terms parliament and legislature tend to be used synonymously and interchangeably. Yet few parliaments are legislatures in the literal sense of “lawmaker” (derived from the Latin words legis, meaning “law,” and lator, meaning “carrier” or “proposer”). The formulation of legislative proposals in most parliamentary systems is conducted largely beyond parliaments, in executives operating in broader institutional networks of organized interests and political parties. In this case, the prime role of parliaments in the legislative process is the authorization of laws. Legislative outputs are legitimated through procedures of parliamentary deliberation, scrutiny, amendment, assent, and, ultimately, monitoring. Through processes of representation, the opinions and interests of wider civil society—variously in the form of individual constituents, territorial electoral districts or constituencies, political parties, or civil society associations—are brought to bear in the parliamentary processing of legislation. And, through these processes, popular authorization and legitimation of legislative outputs is secured. Indeed, in some systems, supreme legislative authority is deemed to reside in parliament (as in the concept of “parliamentary sovereignty” in the UK). In most parliamentary systems, however, the people are held to be “sovereign”—with authority delegated temporarily and contingently to representatives in parliament.
Much has been made in academic writings of a distinction between “deliberative assemblies”—with an emphasis on debate (linguistically the term parliament derives from the French verb parler, meaning “to talk”)— and “working assemblies”—with the emphasis on legislative functions. The former type of assembly is commonly associated with parliamentary systems and the latter with presidential systems. In practice, however, such distinctions are of restricted value. A more effective way of identifying and categorizing parliaments is encapsulated in the notions of “representation,” “authorization,” “accountability,” and “legitimation.” In linking citizens with their government, parliaments serve, in the first instance, to represent “the people” (however constituted in different countries) and also, indirectly, to authorize executive action. In the second instance, however, parliaments hold executives accountable for their actions and so provide an institutional mechanism for the public control, and ultimately, the legitimation, of government.
SEE ALSO Authority; Bicameralism; Democracy; Democracy, Representative; Elections; Government; Knesset, The; Parliament, United Kingdom; Participation, Political; Political Parties; Voting
Beetham, David. 2006. Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century: A Guide to Good Practice. Geneva, Switzerland: Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Norton, Philip, ed. 1990. Legislatures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Strøm, Kaare, Wolfgang C. Müller, and Torbjörn Bergman, eds. 2003. Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.