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 support ("confidence") of the legislature, typically a parliament, to which it is accountable. 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, where the executive does not derive its democratic legitimacy from the legislature.
Countries with parliamentary systems may be constitutional monarchies, where a monarch is the head of state while the head of government is almost always a member of parliament, or parliamentary republics, where a mostly ceremonial president is the head of state while the head of government is regularly from the legislature. In a few parliamentary republics, 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. Eventually, these councils have slowly evolved into the modern parliamentary system.
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 and 1800 and its contemporary, the .
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 such as 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,[how?] 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.
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. Some countries such as India also require the prime minister to be a member of the legislature, though in other countries this only exists as a convention.
Furthermore, there are variations as to what conditions exist (if any) for the government to have the right to dissolve the parliament:
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 (although the parliament may still be able to dissolve itself, as in the case of Cyprus). 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, Bangladesh etc. have enacted laws which prohibit floor crossing or switching parties after the election. Under these laws, elected representatives will lose their seat in the parliament if they go against their party in votes.
In the UK parliament, a member is free to cross over to a different party. In Canada and Australia, there are no restraints on legislators switching sides.
Supporters[who?] generally claim three basic advantages for parliamentary systems:
Parliamentary systems like that found in the United Kingdom are widely considered to be more flexible, allowing rapid change in legislation and policy as long as there is a stable majority or coalition in parliament, allowing the government to have 'few legal limits on what it can do' Due to the first-past-the-post 'this system produces the classic "Westminster Model" with the twin virtues of strong but responsive party government'. This electoral system providing a strong majority in the House of Commons, paired with the fused power system results in a particularly powerful Government able to provide change and 'innovate'.
The United Kingdom's fused power system is often noted to be advantageous with regards to accountability. The centralised government allows for more transparency as to where decisions originate from, this directly contrasts with the United States' system with former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon saying "the president blames Congress, the Congress blames the president, and the public remains confused and disgusted with government in Washington". Furthermore, ministers of the U.K. cabinet are subject to weekly Question Periods in which their actions/policies are scrutinised; no such regular check on the government exists in the U.S. system.
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. 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 a shrewd 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. In any case, voters ultimately have the power to choose whether to vote for the ruling party or someone else.
According to Arturo Fontaine parliamentary systems in Europe have yielded very powerful heads of government which is rather what is often criticized about presidential systems. Fontaine compares United Kingdom's Margaret Thatcher to the United States' Ronald Reagan noting the former head of government was much powerful despite governing under a parliamentary system.
The ability for strong parliamentary governments to push legislation through with the ease of fused power systems such as in the United Kingdom, whilst positive in allowing rapid adaptation when necessary e.g. the nationalisation of services during the world wars, in the opinion of some commentators does have its drawbacks. The flip-flopping of legislation back and forth as the majority in parliament changed between the Conservatives and Labour over the period 1940–1980, contesting over the nationalisation and privatisation of the British Steel Industry resulted in major instability for the British steel sector.
In R. Kent Weaver's book Are Parliamentary Systems Better?, he writes that an advantage of presidential systems is their ability to allow and accommodate more diverse viewpoints. He states that because "legislators are not compelled to vote against their constituents on matters of local concern, parties can serve as organizational and roll-call cuing vehicles without forcing out dissidents."