Parliamentary Democracy Research Paper

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1. Development Of Parliamentary Regimes And Democracy

Parliamentary democracy is the product of the twentieth century and in many countries developed only after 1918. There were some attempts to create such a system during the European revolutions of 1848 without leading to consolidated systems. What Huntington has called the first long wave of democratization (1828–1926) in the light of research on parliamentary systems was only parliamentarization. Parliamentary government is characterized by a government responsible to the majority in parliament. Democracy was added to the parliamentary regimes only later. The minimal criterion of democracy is universal suffrage. In most countries with a regime of constitutional monarchy, such as Britain, Scandinavia, or the Benelux countries, democracy was introduced later than parliamentary regime. Only in some rather authoritarian monarchies was democratic universal suffrage introduced or preserved without granting a parliamentary regime with responsible government (France 1851 in the Second Empire, Germany 1871 in the Empire of Bismarck) (see Table 1). Only in a few countries (France, Finland, Sweden) was the process of parliamentarization and democratization synchronized. A continuously democratic parliamentary regime existed only in France. Even Britain—the mother of ‘parliamentary government’—in the nineteenth century could not be called a ‘parliamentary democracy’ (cf. Table 1). There was a divergence of parliamentarization (mostly implemented by liberal majorities which were reluctant to add universal suffrage to the system) and democratization (frequently introduced under the pressure of radicals and socialists). These groups were initially unwilling to accept the checks and balance of the liberal parliamentary regime and advocated a democratic regime with many features of plebiscitarian instead of representative democracy. Only when they came to power did they slowly accept the rules of the game which were mostly developed in former constitutional monarchies.

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Parliamentary Democracy Research Paper Table 1

Democratization in some countries has ruined the parliamentary system (Italy, Austria, Germany, Spain) when counter-regime forces gained power. In other established parliamentary systems the regime in the 1930s came to the brink of a collapse (Belgium, France) under the pressure of right-wing extremism. Only after 1945 and the disastrous experiences with authoritarian or even totalitarian dictatorship, were parliamentary government and democracy combined in peaceful co-existence. Some countries (such as the Federal Republic of Germany) even then, however, showed a tendency to emphasize the legal state and representative parliamentary government much stronger than democratic participation. The theory of constitutional and representative government did not easily accept parliamentary democracy but interpreted the preponderance of the parliamentary majority in terms of a rather mechanistic system of checks and balances and ‘mixed government.’ Because responsible cabinet government developed first in Britain and Belgium, the jurists for quite a time used the term ‘Coburg government style.’ Only since the 1830s was the term ‘parliamentary government’ accepted in Britain and France and the regime was recognized not only as a mode of governance but as a regime sui generis which made the old typologies of regime types according to the number of rulers rather obsolete.

2. Types And Criteria Of Parliamentary Democracy

There are many types of parliamentary government, but most of them have developed common institutional criteria.

(a) Compatibility of parliamentary mandate and ministerial office (exceptions are the French Fifth Republic, Luxembourg and The Netherlands) in order to guarantee close cooperation between the parliamentary majority and the executive.

(b) Prime ministers are normally members of parliament.

(c) The government has to have the confidence of the parliamentary majority. Ministerial responsibility is not defined in terms of legal responsibility as in dualistic constitutional monarchies. The government has to resign in the event of a vote of no-confidence unless it chooses to ask the head of the state to dissolve parliament in order to give the electorate the opportunity to resolve the conflict.

(d) Parliament controls the government by raising questions, exercises the right to interpellate and set up committees of enquiry, which facilitates the decision about whether the strongest sanction or a vote of noconfidence should be used. This right is shared by dualistic presidential systems, apart from the possibility of toppling the head of government and his or her cabinet.

(e) Some analysts have postulated as an essential feature a formal vote of the government at its first meeting with parliament (investiture), as in the French system under the Third and Fourth Republic and in Italy, or even demanded the formal election of the prime minister, which was developed in the German Basic Law of 1949. Most parliamentary regimes do not accept this condition.

(f ) More widespread is acceptance that parliament should be dissolved if the prime minister has lost the confidence of the parliamentary majority. Sometimes this has not been instituted, for example in Norway and Israel. In other cases the legal possibility of dissolution has become inapplicable because it has been abused by unparliamentary presidents, as in the Third French Republic (when President MacMahon dissolved the Chamber of Deputies in 1877).

Besides the minimal institutional criteria, certain social structural features are essential for the consolidation of parliamentary government:

(a) Organized parties to facilitate the building of parliamentary majorities.

(b) Party-building to facilitate the development of cabinet solidarity.

(c) Development of the office of prime minister. In early systems where the estates dominated, and even in certain absolutist monarchies, the power centers—the estates or the crown—impeded the activities of first minister. A certain hierarchization of the ministerial council also strengthens cabinet solidarity.

(d) Development of a political culture favorable to appropriate parliamentary behavior and alternating government.

Not all these institutional criteria can be found in every type of parliamentary system. Therefore sub- types have been proposed. Most ideological is the distinction between authentic British parliamentarism and the allegedly inauthentic parliamentary system of the French type—close to revolutionary government. Latecomers to parliamentarization, such as Germany (1918) and Sweden (1917), have often denounced the dangers of the French type, especially the German school of Redslob.

Oddly enough, France itself has reacted strongly against the shortcomings of the parliamentary system of the Third and Fourth Republics. De Gaulle’s constitutional ideas, close to those of Carre de Malberg and later developed by Michel Debre were first pronounced in 1946 in the famous speech of Bayeux but failed to obtain majority when the Fourth French Republic was developed in 1946 47. But De Gaulle got his revenge when the Fourth Republic collapsed and he was able to shape the institutions of the Fifth Republic according to his ideas. A new system was born that since Duverger has been called the semipresidential system.

In spite of its name this was clearly a subtype of parliamentary government though the double responsibility before parliament and the head of the state— which existed in constitutional monarchies such as that of Louis Philippe—re-emerged. But in the long run the dominance of parliament in executive-legislative relations is re-established. De Gaulle’s new system was not new at all: it had developed as a Republican type of constitutional regime from 1848 (the Second French Republic, 1848–51) and reemerged in the Weimar Republic (1919) and Finland. Semipresidential systems are not a mixed type, not even the ‘three-quarter presidential system’ that Yeltsin tried to develop. The backlash of a humiliated legislature was felt in Russia in 1998 when Yeltsin was forced to renounce Chernomyrdin as prime minister and accept the parliamentary candidate Primakov.

3. Functions And Performance In Parliamentary Democracy

Parliaments were more powerful in times of parliamentary sovereignty without universal manhood suffrage than in modern parliamentary democracies. The main actor in parliamentary democracy is no longer parliament or government, but the two powers are linked together. This linkage has strengthened the prime minister in most parliamentary regimes, unless high party fragmentation and consociational practices of conflict resolution have weakened the head of the government. Parliamentary democracy seems to be misnamed because of much discussion on the ‘decline of parliament.’ Therefore, cabinet government, prime ministerial government, or chancellor’s democracy became more popular to characterize the bigger parliamentary regimes.

Parliamentary systems have to perform various functions. There is no general decline of parliament but rather a change of the main functions of the system. Parliamentary control is weakened in systems with close relations of parliament and government, interlaced by party government. The controlling functions declined or shifted to other institutions from constitutional courts and courts of account to the mass media. Representation and articulation of interests in the systems has changed over time. The legislative function is still important because more social problems are regulated in modern democracies than in old constitutional regimes. The recruiting function of the system, however, is strengthened after democratization of the parliamentary regimes.

Parliamentarians have become less removed from their voters in terms of social structure. What has been called virtual representation in early parliaments for those not eligible to vote in postparliamentarism is true of the social ties between deputies and voters. But people have adapted to this development and demand less strongly to be represented by members of the same region, the same sex, the same profession, or the same social class. The influence of voters on the selection of representatives is still mediated by the parties and their formal members. Primary elections can undermine the selecting function of the parties among other disadvantages, such as a lower voter turnout in the general election. Modern democracies are not ruled according to President Lincoln’s Gettysburg formula of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The distance of the representatives is compensated for by increasing responsiveness and sensibility to the wishes of the voters. Government for the people in the modern democracy of fluctuation of mass public moods has increased rather than decreased.

Nonetheless the departliamentarization of democracy is lamented. This has a domestic political side. At the stage of policy formulation, the practice of expert committees working together with the government is growing stronger. In the decision-making arena, the government is the most important initiator of legislation. Informal initiatives behind the formal initiatives of advisory boards, constitutional courts, or international organizations are further undermining the part played by parliamentarians in legislation. The penetration of interest groups into the work of ministers and parliament has shifted the preparatary work to a round tables of extraparliamentary committees and working teams. But parliament is not just a rubber stamp to ratify the decisions of networks outside parliament. Parliaments, formally the institutional seat of the people’s sovereignty, represent the framework for the coordination of networks of actors from parliamentarians, party strategists, interest groups, ministry officials and in federate states the federate units. The cosy triangles of early American parliamentary studies, composed of parliamentarians, bureaucrats, and interest groups, have become uncosy squares, since party steering was rediscovered in the ‘legislative Leviathan.’ In federal states such as Germany, deparliamentarization at the Lander level has led to greater participation of the Lander in the national decision-making process via intergovernmental decision-making. This further actor has been added, making an uncosy pentagon. The Maastricht Treaty has increased the number of areas that are subject to EU rules and legislation. With growing competence at the EU level, lobbying at that level is likewise growing. Meanwhile, national parliaments— more than the executive—have been downgraded to the position of lobbyists. Paradoxically the democratization of the European Union has led to deparliamentarization at the national level. Until 1979, Members of the European Parliament were tied to the national parliaments, but since the introduction of direct elections this has no longer been the case. However, the European Parliament does not yet pose a real threat to the national parliaments as it can only draw up laws when asked to do so by the Commission. Formally, EU legal acts are passed by the Council of Ministers and not by the European Parliament.

There are three threats to parliamentary democracy:

(a) In the Process of regionalization, regional assemblies will try to strengthen themselves via regional politics at the cost of national parliaments.

(b) In the process of Europeanization, more and more domains of the national parliaments will be regulated by the EU. This process will be supported by the activities of the European Court and the gradual standardization of the national legal systems.

(c) In the process of globalization, a consolation at the national level is the fact that worldwide organizations such as the World Trade Organisation and GATT are starting to retaliate to the EU for what it did to the national decision-makers because the room for maneuver of the European organizations is increasingly limited by the global level, although still strongly limited in some arenas.


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