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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, Poland, Germany, India and Italy). In a few parliamentary republics, such as South Africa and Botswana, the head of government is also head of state, but is elected by and is answerable to the legislature.
Prince Elector George Ludwig of Hanover, Germany acceded to the throne of Great Britain after his cousin Queen Anne died with no heirs. 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 a gradual democratization of parliament with the broadening of the voting franchise increased the parliament's role in controlling government, and in deciding who the king could ask to form a government. Towards the end of his reign, actual power was held by Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first prime minister. Later the Great Reform Act of 1832 broadened the franchise and was accompanied by increasing parliamentary dominance, with parliament always deciding who was prime minister.
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. Scholars of democracy such as Arend Lijphart distinguish two types of parliamentary democracies: the Westminster and Consensus systems.
- 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 whether the formation of government needs the explicit approval of the parliament, rather than just the absence of its disapproval, and under what conditions (if any) the government has the right to dissolve the parliament, like Jamaica and many others.
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 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 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
This table shows countries with parliament consisting of a single house.
This table shows organisations and countries with parliament consisting of two houses.
- Legal reform
- Parliamentary leader
- Rule of law
- Rule according to higher law
- List of legislatures by country
- 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
- The Council of Union is defined in the constitution of Iraq but does not currently exist.
- Lakota, Igor (2006). Sistem nepopolne dvodomnosti v slovenskem parlamentu (diplomska naloga) [The system of incomplete bicameralism in the Slovenian Parliament (diploma thesis)] (in Slovene). Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana. p. 59. Retrieved 16 December 2010.