A PARLIAMENT SYSTEM
- Countries around the world practice democracy through different types of institutions. However, most democracies in the world today use the parliamentary system as opposed to a presidential system like that used in the United States. A few examples among the many parliamentary democracies are Canada, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.
2. Defining characteristics of the parliamentary system are the supremacy of the legislative branch within the three functions of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—and blurring or merging of the executive and legislative functions. The legislative function is conducted through a unicameral (one-chamber) or bicameral (two-chamber) parliament composed of members accountable to the people they represent. A prime minister and the ministers of several executive departments of the government primarily carry out the executive function.
3. The political party or coalition of parties that make up a majority of the parliament’s membership select the prime minister and department ministers. The prime minister usually is the leader of the majority party, if there is one, or the leader of one of the parties in the ruling coalition. Some ceremonial executive duties are carried out by a symbolic head of state — a hereditary king or queen in a democratic constitutional monarchy, such as Great Britain, Japan, Norway, or Spain, or an elected president or chancellor in a democratic constitutional republic such as Germany, Italy, or Latvia. The judicial function typically is independent of the legislative and executive components of the system.
4. In a parliamentary system, laws are made by majority vote of the legislature and signed by the head of state, who does not have an effective veto power. In most parliamentary democracies, the head of state can return a bill to the legislative body to signify disagreement with it. But the parliament can override this ‘‘veto’’ with a simple majority vote.
5. In most parliamentary systems, there is a special constitutional court that can declare a law unconstitutional if it violates provisions of the supreme law of the land, the constitution. In a few parliamentary systems, such as Great Britain, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, there is no provision for constitutional or judicial review, and the people collectively possess the only check on the otherwise supreme legislature, which is to vote members of the majority party or parties out of office at the next election.
6. A parliamentary democracy is directly and immediately responsive to popular influence through the electoral process. Members of parliament may hold their positions during an established period between regularly scheduled elections. However, they can be turned out of office at any point between the periodic parliamentary elections if the government formed by the majority party loses the support of the majority of the legislative body. If the governing body, the prime minister and his cabinet of executive ministers, suffers a no confidence” vote against it in the parliament, then it is dissolved and an election may be called immediately to establish a new parliamentary membership. A new prime minister and cabinet of executive ministers may be selected by newly elected members of the parliament.
7. A few parliamentary democracies function as semi-presidential systems. They have a president, elected by direct vote of the people, who exercises significant foreign policy powers apart from the prime minister. They also have a constitutional court with strong powers of constitutional or judicial review. For example, the constitutional democracy of Lithuania is a parliamentary system with characteristics of a presidential system, such as a president of the republic who is directly elected by the people and who has significant powers regarding national defense, military command, and international relations.
8. Advocates of the parliamentary system claim it is more efficient than the presidential alternative because it is not encumbered by checks and balances among power-sharing departments, which usually slow down the operations of government and sometimes create paralyzing gridlocks. Further, in the parliamentary system, a government that has lost favor with the people can be voted out of office immediately.
9. Advocates claim that by responding more readily to the will of the people the parliamentary system is more democratic than the presidential alternative. However, both parliamentary and presidential systems can be genuine democracies so long as they conform to the essential characteristics by which a democracy is distinguished from a non-democracy, including constitutionalism, representation based on democratic elections, and guaranteed rights to liberty for all citizens. – John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide
WHAT IS A PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM?
BASICS OF A PARLIAMENT SYSTEM
In terms of the U.S. system, a country’s parliament would serve as both its legislative and executive branches. The most important thing to know about parliamentary systems is that the political parties hold the power and not individuals. When citizens vote, their ballots list party names and when a party wins, seat allotment is assigned to party members based on seniority (in most cases).
When a party wins the majority of seats, it then selects a leader to serve as the executive called a Prime Minister or, in some cases, a Chancellor. This person will most likely already be the party leader and they then select their cabinet which sets the government’s agenda. If one party does not win the majority of seats in the parliament, then it must form a coalition with other parties to form a majority.
This process may take time, but it will eventually allow for the smoother passage of legislation.
1 HOUSE OR TWO?
Many parliaments are bicameral, meaning it has two houses, while others may be unicameral, having only one house. In bicameral systems, there is a lower and an upper house, but most legislating actually takes place in the lower house.
The greatest difference between the two is the number of veto points or places where legislation can be halted within the legislative process. Unicameral systems have fewer veto points than bicameral systems making it easier and faster to pass legislation but also easier to overturn. Many parliamentary systems therefore adopt the bicameral system for stability.
PARLIAMENTARY vs. PRESIDENTIAL
Many in the United States may be aware that most Europe governments use a parliamentary system, but the question most are probably thinking is: what is a parliamentary system? More importantly, how is it different from the system used by the United States? Here are the answers to these questions and more.
In a parliamentary system, the executive is the Prime Minister while in a presidential system, the President is the executive. There are many differences between these two positions, but most notably, the Prime Minister and his/her cabinet arises from the legislature, while Presidents are directly elected by the people.
At first glance, many would then prefer a President because citizens choose him/her directly, yet many still prefer Prime Ministers.
First of all, they are beholden to their party, so their decisions are far more predictable than a President’s and voters know exactly what values they are voting for. This applies for all members of the legislature as well, not just the Prime Minister.
Parliamentary systems also entail the possibility for a vote of “no confidence” by the legislature which can remove a Prime Minister from power at any point if they lose the vote. Presidents, however, have fixed terms and cannot so easily be removed.
Citizens in the United States are very fond of the presidential system, yet in reality the success rate for parliamentary systems is far greater. The system has been a part of some European countries for centuries, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. When deciding which system to adopt, new countries must consider what is best for its country, and that may or may not be a parliamentary system.