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A parliamentary system is a system of democratic governance of a state in which the executive branch derives its democratic legitimacy from, and is held accountable to, the legislature (parliament); the executive and legislative branches are thus interconnected. In a parliamentary system, the head of state is normally a different person from the head of government. This is in contrast to a presidential system in a democracy, where the head of state often is also the head of government, and most importantly: the executive branch does not derive its democratic legitimacy from the legislature.
Countries with parliamentary systems may be constitutional monarchies, where a monarch is the ceremonial head of state while the head of government is almost always a member of the legislature (such as United Kingdom, Sweden and Japan), or parliamentary republics, where a mostly ceremonial president is the head of state while the head of government is regularly from the legislature (such as Ireland, Germany, Pakistan, India and Italy). In a few parliamentary republics, such as Botswana, South Africa and Suriname, the head of government is also head of state, but is elected by and is answerable to the legislature.
In 1714, Prince Elector George Ludwig of Hanover, Germany, acceded to the throne of Great Britain after his cousin Queen Anne died with no heirs of her body. As King George I he chaired the cabinet and chose ministers of the government; however, he initially spoke no English. This shifted the balance of power towards the leading minister, or first minister, who de facto chaired the cabinet. During his reign, Parliament's role in controlling government and in deciding who the king could ask to form a government gradually increased. Towards the end of his reign, actual power was held by Sir Robert Walpole, who evolved as Britain's first prime minister over the years from 1721 to 1730. Later, the Great Reform Act of 1832 broadened the franchise and was accompanied by increasing parliamentary dominance, with Parliament always deciding who was prime.
A parliamentary system may be a bicameral system with two chambers of parliament (or houses): an elected lower house, and an upper house or Senate which may be appointed or elected by a different mechanism from the lower house. Another possibility is a unicameral system with just one parliamentary chamber.
- The Westminster system is usually found in the Commonwealth of Nations. These parliaments tend to have a more adversarial style of debate and the plenary session of parliament is more important than committees. Some parliaments in this model are elected using a plurality voting system (first past the post), such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and India, while others use proportional representation, such as Ireland and New Zealand. The Australian House of Representatives is elected using instant-runoff voting, while the Senate is elected using proportional representation through single transferable vote. Regardless of which system is used, the voting systems tend to allow the voter to vote for a named candidate rather than a closed list.
- The Western European parliamentary model (e.g. Spain, Germany) tends to have a more consensual debating system, and usually has semi-circular debating chambers. Consensus systems have more of a tendency to use proportional representation with open party lists than the Westminster Model legislatures. The committees of these Parliaments tend to be more important than the plenary chamber. Some West European countries' parliaments (e.g. in the Netherlands and Sweden) implement the principle of dualism as a form of separation of powers. In countries using this system, Members of Parliament have to resign their place in Parliament upon being appointed (or elected) minister. Ministers in those countries usually actively participate in parliamentary debates, but are not entitled to vote.
Implementations of the parliamentary system can also differ on the manner of how the prime minister and government are appointed and as to whether the government needs the explicit approval of the parliament, rather than just the absence of its disapproval. Some countries as India also require the prime minister to be a member of the legislature, though in other countries this only exists as a convention.
- By appointment by the head of state, without reference to parliament: While in practice most prime ministers under the Westminster system (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and the United Kingdom) are the leaders of the largest party in parliament, technically the appointment of the prime minister is a royal prerogative exercised by the monarch or the governor-general. No parliamentary vote takes place on who is forming a government, but since parliament can immediately defeat the government with a motion of no confidence, the head of state is limited by convention to choosing a candidate who can command the confidence of parliament and has little or no influence in the decision.
- Appointment by the head of state after parliament nominates a candidate: Example: Japan, where the Emperor appoints the Prime Minister on the nomination of the Diet. The Republic of Ireland where the President of Ireland appoints the Taoiseach on the nomination of the Dáil Éireann.
- The head of state nominates a candidate for prime minister who is then submitted to parliament for approval before appointment as prime minister: Example: Spain, where the King sends a nomination to parliament for approval. Also Germany where under the German Basic Law (constitution) the Bundestag votes on a candidate nominated by the federal president. In these cases, parliament can choose another candidate who then would be appointed by the head of state.
- The head of state appoints a prime minister who has a set timescale within which s/he must gain a vote of confidence: (Example: Italy, Thailand)
- The head of state appoints the leader of the largest or second-largest political party in the Parliament as Prime Minister: (Example: Greece)
- Direct election by parliament: (Example: Papua New Guinea, Pakistan. In Sweden, the Prime Minister is appointed by the Speaker of the Riksdag.)
- Direct election by popular vote: (Example: Israel, 1996–2001, where the prime minister was elected in a general election, with no regard to political affiliation.)
Furthermore, there are variations as to what conditions exist (if any) for the government to have the right to dissolve the parliament.
- In some countries like Denmark, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand, the prime minister has the de facto power to call an election at will. This was also the case in the United Kingdom until the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
- In Israel, parliament may vote in order to call an election or pass a vote of no confidence against the government.
- Other countries only permit an election to be called in the event of a vote of no confidence against the government, a supermajority vote in favour of an early election or prolonged deadlock in parliament. These requirements can still be circumvented. For example, in Germany in 2005, Gerhard Schröder deliberately allowed his government to lose a confidence motion, in order to call an early election.
- In Sweden, the government may call a snap election at will, but the newly elected Riksdag is only elected fill out the previous Riksdag's term. The last time this option was used was in 1958.
- Norway is unique among parliamentary systems in that the Storting always serves the whole of its four-year term.
The Parliamentary system can be contrasted with a presidential system which operates under a stricter separation of powers, whereby the executive does not form part of, nor is appointed by, the parliamentary or legislative body. In such a system, congresses do not select or dismiss heads of governments, and governments cannot request an early dissolution as may be the case for parliaments. There also exists the semi-presidential system that draws on both presidential systems and parliamentary systems by combining a powerful president with an executive responsible to parliament, as for example the French Fifth Republic.
Advantages and disadvantages of parliamentary systems
One of the commonly attributed advantages to parliamentary systems is that it is faster and easier to pass legislation, as the executive branch is dependent on the direct or indirect support of the legislative branch and often includes members of the legislature. Thus the executive (as the majority party or coalition of parties in the legislature) has a majority of the votes, enabling them to pass legislation. In a presidential system, the executive is often chosen independently from the legislature. If the executive and the majority of the legislature are from different political parties, then stalemate can occur. Thus the executive might not be able to implement their legislative proposals. An executive in any system (be it parliamentary, presidential or semi-presidential) is chiefly voted into office on the basis of his or her party's platform/manifesto, and the same is also true of the legislative branch.
In addition to quicker legislative action, Parliamentarianism has attractive features for nations that are ethnically, racially, or ideologically divided. In a presidential system, all executive power is vested in one person: the president. In a parliamentary system, with a collegial executive, power is more divided. In the 1989 Lebanese Taif Agreement, in order to give Muslims greater political power, Lebanon moved from a semi-presidential system with a strong president to a system more structurally similar to classical parliamentarianism. Iraq similarly disdained a presidential system out of fears that such a system would be tantamount to Shiite domination; Afghanistan's minorities refused to go along with a presidency as strong as the Pashtuns desired.
It can also be argued that power is more evenly spread out in the power structure of parliamentarianism. The prime minister is seldom as important as a ruling president, and there tends to be a higher focus on voting for a party and its political ideas than voting for an actual person.
In his 1867 book The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot praised parliamentarianism for producing serious debates, for allowing change in power without an election, and for allowing elections at any time. Bagehot considered the four-year election rule of the United States to be unnatural.
Some scholars like Juan Linz, Fred Riggs, Bruce Ackerman, and Robert Dahl claim that parliamentarianism is less prone to authoritarian collapse. These scholars point out that since World War II, two-thirds of Third World countries establishing parliamentary governments successfully made the transition to democracy. By contrast, no Third World presidential system successfully made the transition to democracy without experiencing coups and other constitutional breakdowns.
Some constituencies may have a popular local candidate under an unpopular leader (or the reverse), forcing a difficult choice on the electorate. Mixed-member proportional representation (where voters cast two ballots) can make this choice easier by allowing voters to cast one vote for the local candidate but also cast a second vote for another party.
Although Walter Bagehot praised parliamentarianism for allowing an election to take place at any time, the lack of a definite election calendar can be abused. Previously under some systems, such as the British, a ruling party could schedule elections when it felt that it was likely to retain power, and so avoid elections at times of unpopularity. (Election timing in the UK, however, is now partly fixed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.) Thus, by wise timing of elections, in a parliamentary system a party can extend its rule for longer than is feasible in a functioning presidential system. This problem can be alleviated somewhat by setting fixed dates for parliamentary elections, as is the case in several of Australia's state parliaments. In other systems, such as the Dutch and the Belgian, the ruling party or coalition has some flexibility in determining the election date. Conversely, flexibility in the timing of parliamentary elections can avoid periods of legislative gridlock that can occur in a fixed period presidential system.
Critics of the Westminster parliamentary system point out that people with significant popular support in the community are prevented from becoming prime minister if they cannot get elected to parliament since there is no option to "run for prime minister" as one can run for president under a presidential system. Additionally, prime ministers may lose their positions if they lose their seats in parliament, even though they may still be popular nationally. Supporters of parliamentarianism respond by saying that as members of parliament, prime ministers are elected first to represent their electoral constituents and if they lose their support then consequently they are no longer entitled to be prime minister. This is, however, a moot point if proportional representation is used.
Countries with a parliamentary system of government
|Country||Connection between legislative and executive branch|
|Botswana||Parliament of Botswana elects the President who appoints the Cabinet|
|Ethiopia||Federal Parliamentary Assembly appoints the Council of Ministers|
|Libya||General National Congress approves the Cabinet of Libya|
|Mauritius||National Assembly appoints the Cabinet of Mauritius|
|South Africa||Parliament of South Africa elects the President who appoints the Cabinet of South Africa|
|Country||Connection between legislative and executive branch|
|Australia||Parliament of Australia appoints the Cabinet of Australia|
|New Zealand||Parliament of New Zealand appoints the Cabinet of New Zealand|
|Papua New Guinea||National Parliament appoints the Cabinet of Papua New Guinea|
|Samoa||Legislative Assembly appoints the Cabinet of Samoa|
|Vanuatu||Parliament of Vanuatu appoints the Cabinet of Vanuatu|
- Westminster system
- Presidential system
- List of countries by system of government
- List of legislatures by country
- Parliamentary leader
- Rule according to higher law
- Rule of law
- Law reform
- Lijphart, Arend (1999). Patterns of democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- T. St. John N. Bates (1986), "Parliament, Policy and Delegated Power", Statute Law Review (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
- SSRN-Accountability and Corruption: Political Institutions Matter by Daniel Lederman, Norman Loayza, Rodrigo Soares