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A parliamentary system, or parliamentarism, is distinguished by the executive branch of government being dependent on the direct or indirect support of the parliament, often expressed through a vote of confidence. Hence, there is no clear-cut separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, leading to criticism from some that they lack checks and balances found in a presidential republic. Parliamentarism is praised, relative to presidentialism, for its flexibility and responsiveness to the public. It is faulted for its tendency to sometimes lead to unstable governments, as in the German Weimar Republic and the French Fourth Republic. Parliamentary systems usually have a clear differentiation between the head of government and the head of state, with the head of government being the prime minister or premier, and the head of state often being an appointed figurehead with only minor or ceremonial powers. However, some parliamentary systems also have an elected president with many reserve powers as the head of state, providing some balance to these systems.The term parliamentary system does not mean that a country is ruled by different parties in coalition with each other. Such multi-party arrangements are usually the product of an electoral system known as proportional representation. Parliamentary countries that use first past the post voting usually have governments composed of one party. The United Kingdom, for instance, has had only one coalition government since World War II. However, parliamentary systems of continental Europe do use proportional representation, so, outside the Commonwealth of Nations, it can be said that PR voting systems and parliamentarism go together.Parliamentarism may also be heeded for governance in local governments. An example is the city of Oslo, which has an executive council as a part of the parliamentary system.

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The features of a parliamentary system
Advantages of a parliamentary system
Criticisms of parliamentarianism
Parliamentarism and Party Formation
Countries with a parliamentary system of government

History - Contents

The modern parliamentary system has its roots in the Roman Republic's senate, which was essentially a ruling council made up of the elite of society. Even after the Republic became the Roman Empire, the senate still had immense influence and power. However, as time went on, the autocratic nature of later emperors eventually reduced the senate's prestige and power, and ushered in centuries of relative autocratic rule by monarchs. Under feudalism in the Middle Ages, all members of a kingdom were technically under the protection of a ruling monarch (and the Church), who gave land to nobles in exchange for support. However, nobles would occasionally challenge the ruling monarch ( as would the Church). Under the customs of Feudalism, groups of nobles would meet to decide on whether they would support the monarch on important issues. These groups sometimes clashed with the autocratic nature of some monarchs. The most important clash, in the evolution of the nation state and Constitutional rule of law, came with Magna Carta of 1215—it was the first true challenge to the unrestrained powers of a king, attempting to constitutionally limit King John after he committed a series of debacles. The kingdom of England had become too big, the groups of nobles believed, for any one man as crazy as John to make decisions. The statements made by Magna Carta were a direct challenge to the Divine Right of Kings, a philosophy held by convention at the time, and led to many civil wars, perhaps the most famous of which was the English Civil War.Parliaments throughout Europe systematically replaced the powers of the monarch, often holding complete financial control of the state. In many cases the monarchs finally signed over all actual power, and became ceremonial figureheads. In others, the entire monarchy fell, and were replaced by the parliaments. As time went on, most states began to give suffrage to decide the makeup of the parliament, often with two houses. One was hereditary and made up of nobles, and the other made up of elected officials, for example the House of Lords and House of Commons in the United Kingdom. Initially, the house of the elite, or upper house, held most of the power, but most parliaments now invest almost complete power in the elected or lower house. Some parliaments have abolished the upper house completely, while others have altered them to be elected as well. The parliamentary system has come full circle from its ancient beginnings.

The features of a parliamentary system - Contents

The executive is typically a cabinet, and headed by a prime minister who is considered the head of government, but parliamentarism has also been practised with privy councils. The prime minister and the ministers of the cabinet typically have their background in the parliament and may remain members thereof while serving in cabinet. The leader of the leading party, or group of parties, in the parliament is often appointed as the prime minister. In many countries, the cabinet, or single members thereof, can be removed by the parliament through a vote of no confidence. In addition, the executive can often dissolve the parliament and call extra-ordinary elections. Under the parliamentary system the roles of head of state and head of government are more or less separated. In most parliamentary systems, the head of state is primarily a ceremonial position, often a monarch or president, retaining duties that aren't politically divisive, such as appointments of civil service. In many parliamentary systems, the head of state may have reserve powers which are usable in a crisis. In most cases however, such powers are (either by convention or by constitutional rule) only exercised upon the advice and approval of the head of government.Because the executive is directly related to the legislature, some argue the executive is actually more accountable than many fixed term presidential systems, as the executive, being linked to the legislative, can face an early election in the face of the aforementioned 'vote of confidence'. In addition, because the executive is beholden to the legislature, he or she faces more direct questioning by opposition politicians than an executive would in a presidential system. It can also be argued that it's relatively easier to pass legislation within a parliamentary system since the executive and the legislature are always controlled by the same party and since the executive has a greater ability to "snap the whip" and force wavering party members into alignment. Within presidential systems, the executive is often chosen independently from the legislature. If the executive is of a different party from those leading the legislature, then stalemate can occur.Parliamentary systems vary as to the degree to which they have a formal written constitution and the degree to which that constitution describes the day to day working of the government. Also, depending upon the voting system, they vary as to the number of parties within the system and the dynamics between the parties. Relations between the central government and local governments vary in parliamentary systems; they may be federal or unitary states.

Advantages of a parliamentary system - Contents

Some believe that it is easier to pass legislation within a parliamentary system. This is because the executive branch is dependent upon the direct or indirect support of the legislative branch and is often comprised of members of the legislature. In a presidential system, the executive is often chosen independently from the legislature. If the executive and legislature in such a system are comprised of members from different political parties, then stalemate can occur. Former US President Bill Clinton often faced problems in this regard, since the Republicans controlled Congress for much of his tenure as President. Presidents often face problems from their own parties as Jimmy Carter did.Parliamentarianism also has attractive features for nations that are ethnically & racially divided. In a unipersonal presidential system, all executive power is concentrated in 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 something that was more like a classical parliamentary system. Iraq similarly disdained a presidential system out of fears that such a system would be equivalent to Shiite domination; Afghanistan's minorities refused to go along with a presidency as strong as the Pashtuns desired.In the English Constitution, Walter Bagehot praised parliamentarianism for producing serious debates, for allowing the 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.There is also a body of scholarship, associated with Juan Linz, Fred Riggs, Bruce Ackerman, and Robert Dahl that claims 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 transitioned to democracy. By contrast, no Third World presidential system successfully transitioned to democracy without experiencing coups and other constitutional breakdowns. As Bruce Ackerman says of the thirty countries to have experimented with American checks and balances, “All of them, without exception, have succumbed to the nightmare [of breakdown] one time or another, often repeatedly.”

Criticisms of parliamentarianism - Contents

A main criticism of many parliamentary systems is that the head of government cannot be directly voted on. Often, an electorate will be surprised just by who is elevated to the premiership, as Indians were surprised in 2004 when Manmohan Singh was named prime minister and not Sonia Gandhi. In a presidential system, the president is directly chosen by the people, or by a set of electors directly chosen by the people, but in a parliamentary system the prime minister is elected by the party leadership.Another major criticism comes from the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. Because there is a lack of obvious separation of power, some believe that a parliamentary system can place too much power in the executive entity, leading to the feeling that the legislature or judiciary have little scope to administer checks or balances on the executive.In the United Kingdom, the prime minister is traditionally thought of as the " first among equals" of the cabinet. It has been alleged in The Economist and by former MP Graham Allen that the prime minister's power has grown so much in recent years that he or she is now dominant over the government and that collegiality is no more. Rather than being "first among equals," the modern British prime minister is "like the moon among the stars," as The Economist once put it. "Instead of a healthy balance we have an executive [the prime minister] who stands like an 800 lb. gorilla alongside a wizened legislature and judiciary." (Allen, 12)Although it is possible to have a powerful prime minister, as Britain has, or even a dominant party system, as Japan has, parliamentary systems are also sometimes unstable. Critics point to Israel, Italy, the French Fourth Republic, and Weimar Germany as examples of parliamentary systems where unstable coalitions, demanding minority parties, no confidence votes, and threats of no confidence votes, make or have made effective governance impossible. Defenders of parliamentarianism say that parliamentary instability is the result of proportional representation, political culture, and highly polarised electorates.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. In some systems, such as the British, a ruling party can schedule elections when it feels that it is likely to do well, and so avoid elections at times of unpopularity. 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. In other systems, such as the Dutch, the ruling party or coalition has some flexibility in determining the election date.

Parliamentarism and Party Formation - Contents

Traditionally, parties in parliamentary systems have had much tighter ideological cohesiveness than parties in presidential systems. It would be difficult for a parliamentary system to have a party like the United States Democratic Party, which was a directionless coalition of Southern, conservative, Protestants and urban, liberal, white ethnics until the 1980s. A parliamentary system's party must support a government, if a party in a parliamentary system had wildly divergent wings, its goal of government support would be highly problematic.In parliaments, legislators are claimed by some people not to have the freedom to vote against their party leadership. An individual legislator in a parliamentary system is usually a creature of his party machine, not an independent spokesman for a district. A parliamentarian can criticize his party’s leadership, but continued disloyalty against the party leadership may lead to the person not being slated to stand in the next election under the party's banner. He may even be expelled.Parliamentary systems with tight party discipline have less of an ability to accommodate dissent than parties in loose discipline systems. Thus, there is an incentive to channel dissent through new parties, not through intra-party conflict. Thus, parliamentary systems – even ones that vote by first-past-the-post, will see a proliferation of alternative parties.

Countries with a parliamentary system of government - Contents

States currently utilising parliamentary systems are denoted in red
States currently utilising parliamentary systems are denoted in red
Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Republic of Ireland, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Malta , Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, United Kingdom.
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