A parliamentary system or parliamentary democracy is a system of democratic governance of a state (or subordinate entity) where the executive derives its democratic legitimacy from its ability to command the confidence of the legislature, typically a parliament, and is also held accountable to that parliament. In a parliamentary system, the head of state is usually a person distinct from the head of government. This is in contrast to a presidential system, where the head of state often is also the head of government and, most importantly, the executive does not derive its democratic legitimacy from the legislature.
Countries with parliamentary democracies may be constitutional monarchies, where a monarch is the head of state while the head of government is almost always a member of parliament (such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, 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, India, and Italy). In a few parliamentary republics, such as Botswana, South Africa, and Suriname, among some others, the head of government is also head of state, but is elected by and is answerable to parliament. In bicameral parliaments, the head of government is generally, though not always, a member of the lower house.
Parliamentarianism is the dominant form of government in Europe, with 32 of its 50 sovereign states being parliamentarian. It is also common in the Caribbean, being the form of government of 10 of its 13 island states, and in Oceania. Elsewhere in the world, parliamentary countries are less common, but they are distributed through all continents, most often in former colonies of the British Empire that subscribe to a particular brand of parliamentarianism known as the Westminster system.
Since ancient times, when societies were tribal, there were councils or a headman whose decisions were assessed by village elders.
The first parliaments date back to Europe in the Middle Ages: specifically in 1188 Alfonso IX, King of Leon (Spain) convened the three states in the Cortes of León. An early example of parliamentary government developed in today's Netherlands and Belgium during the Dutch revolt (1581), when the sovereign, legislative and executive powers were taken over by the States General of the Netherlands from the monarch, King Philip II of Spain. The modern concept of parliamentary government emerged in the Kingdom of Great Britain between 1707–1800 and its contemporary, the Parliamentary System in Sweden between 1721–1772.
In England, Simon de Montfort is remembered as one of the fathers of representative government for convening two famous parliaments. The first, in 1258, stripped the king of unlimited authority and the second, in 1265, included ordinary citizens from the towns. Later, in the 17th century, the Parliament of England pioneered some of the ideas and systems of liberal democracy culminating in the Glorious Revolution and passage of the Bill of Rights 1689.
In the Kingdom of Great Britain, the monarch, in theory, chaired cabinet and chose ministers. In practice, King George I's inability to speak English led the responsibility for chairing cabinet to go to the leading minister, literally the prime or first minister, Robert Walpole. The gradual democratisation of parliament with the broadening of the voting franchise increased parliament's role in controlling government, and in deciding whom the king could ask to form a government. By the 19th century, the Great Reform Act of 1832 led to parliamentary dominance, with its choice invariably deciding who was prime minister and the complexion of the government.
Other countries gradually adopted what came to be called the Westminster Model of government, with an executive answerable to parliament, and exercising, in the name of the head of state, powers nominally vested in the head of state. Hence the use of phrases like Her Majesty's government or His Excellency's government. Such a system became particularly prevalent in older British dominions, many of which had their constitutions enacted by the British parliament; such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Irish Free State and the Union of South Africa. Some of these parliaments were reformed from, or were initially developed as distinct from their original British model: the Australian Senate, for instance, has since its inception more closely reflected the US Senate than the British House of Lords; whereas since 1950 there is no upper house in New Zealand.
Democracy and parliamentarianism became increasingly prevalent in Europe in the years after World War I, partially imposed by the democratic victors, the United States, Great Britain and France, on the defeated countries and their successors, notably Germany's Weimar Republic and the new Austrian Republic. Nineteenth-century urbanisation, the Industrial Revolution and modernism had already fuelled the political left's struggle for democracy and parliamentarianism for a long time. In the radicalised times at the end of World War I, democratic reforms were often seen as a means to counter popular revolutionary currents.
A parliamentary system may be either bicameral, with two chambers of parliament (or houses) or unicameral, with just one parliamentary chamber. A bicameral parliament usually consists of a directly elected lower house with the power to determine the executive government, and an upper house which may be appointed or elected through a different mechanism from the lower house.
- The Westminster system is usually found in the Commonwealth of Nations and countries which were influenced by the British political tradition. 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 some form of 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.
Implementations of the parliamentary system can also differ as to how the prime minister and government are appointed and whether the government needs the explicit approval of the parliament, rather than just the absence of its disapproval.
- The head of state appoints a prime minister who will likely have majority support in parliament. While in practice most prime ministers under the Westminster system (including Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) are the leaders of the largest party in parliament, technically the appointment of the prime minister is a prerogative exercised by the monarch, the governor-general, or the president. 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 thus has little or no influence in the decision.
- The head of state appoints a prime minister who must gain a vote of confidence within a set time. Examples: Italy, Thailand.
- The head of state appoints the leader of the political party holding a plurality of seats in parliament as prime minister. For example, in Greece, if no party has a majority, the leader of the party with a plurality of seats is given an exploratory mandate to receive the confidence of the parliament within three days. If this is not possible, then the leader of the party with the second highest seat number is given the exploratory mandate. If this fails, then the leader of the third largest party is given it and so on.
- nominates Example: Spain, where the King sends a proposal to the Congress of Deputies 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.
- nominates Example: Japan, where the Emperor appoints the Prime Minister on the nomination of the National Diet. Also, Ireland where the President of Ireland appoints the Taoiseach on the nomination of the Dáil Éireann.
- nominates Example: Under the Swedish Instrument of Government (1974), the power to appoint someone to form a government has been moved from the monarch to the Speaker of Parliament and the parliament itself. The speaker nominates a candidate, who is then elected to prime minister (statsminister) by the parliament if an absolute majority of the members of parliament does not vote no (i.e. they can be elected even if more members of parliament vote No than Yes).
- 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, and whose procedure can also be described as of a semi-parliamentary system.
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, such as 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 to 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.
- Since 2011 in the United Kingdom, the House of Commons may be dissolved early only by a vote of two-thirds of its members, or if a vote of non-confidence passes and no alternative government is formed in the next fourteen days.
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, parliaments or 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: for example, the French Fifth Republic.
A few parliamentary democratic nations such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, have enacted an anti-defection law, which prohibits a member of the legislature from switching to another party after being elected. With this law, elected representatives lose their seats in parliament if they vote contrary to the directions of their party.
Advantages and disadvantages
One of the advantages commonly attributed to parliamentary systems is that it is faster and easier to pass legislation, as the executive branch is formed by the direct or indirect support of the legislative branch and often includes members of the legislature.
Some constituencies may have a popular local candidate under an unpopular leader (or the reverse), forcing a difficult choice on the electorate.
It has been observed that the rankings of top-performing countries according to performance indices such as list of countries by GDP (nominal) per capita, Human Development Index, Global Competitiveness Report, Corruption Perceptions Index, and many more performance indexes feature most best-performing countries having parliamentary systems, while most worst-performing countries have presidential systems or strong-president semi-presidential systems. Furthermore, most of the countries that dominate top ranks of lists like the Global Liveability Ranking, the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, the Henley Passsport Index, and many such ranking lists use parliamentary systems. In contrast, the list of cities by murder rate shows an overwhelming number of cities found in countries that use presidential systems. In 2017, a paper by the University of York's economics department argued that "presidential regimes consistently produce less favourable outcomes as compared with parliamentary ones with lower output growth, higher and more volatile inflation and greater income inequality. Moreover, the magnitude of this effect is sizable."
Parliamentary government 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, whereas power is more divided in a parliamentary system with its collegial executive. In the 1989 Lebanese Taif Agreement, in order to give Muslims greater political power, Lebanon moved from a semi-presidential system with a powerful president to a system more structurally similar to classical parliamentary government. Iraq similarly disdained a presidential system out of fears that such a system would be tantamount to Shiite domination of the large Sunni minority. 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 parliamentary government, as the government and prime minister do not have the power to make unilateral decisions, as the entire government cabinet is answerable and accountable to parliament.
Some scholars like Juan Linz, Fred Riggs, Bruce Ackerman, and Robert Dahl have found that parliamentary government 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. A 2001 World Bank study found that parliamentary systems are associated with less corruption, which is supported by a separate study that arrived at the same conclusions.
In his 1867 book The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot praised parliamentary governments for producing serious debates, for allowing for a 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, as it can potentially allow a president who has disappointed the public with a dismal performance in the second year of his term to continue on until the end of his four-year term. Under a parliamentary system, a prime minister that has lost support in the middle of his term can be easily replaced by his own peers.
Although Bagehot praised parliamentary governments for allowing an election to take place at any time, the lack of a definite election calendar can be abused.