The term “democracy” is not new to the modern world. We know that the first democracy was established in Greece about five hundred years Before the Common Era. Democracy has gone a long way of development to find its modern form and to introduce its principles into the modern society. According to Beetham (2006), “As an ideal, it expresses two very simple principles: first is that the members of any group or association should have the determining influence and control over its rules and policies, through their participation in deliberations about the common interest; second, that in doing so they should treat each other, and be treated, as equals. These principles are applicable from the smallest group up to the largest state; how effectively they realized in practice is the touchstone of how democratic any association can claim to be.”
Today in most countries of the world the democratic model of governance is the well-established and efficient form of government. Nowadays the parliaments, as the central institution of democracy, are the main tool of ruling the state. “They embody the will of the people in government, and carry all their expectations that democracy will be truly responsive to their needs and help solve the most pressing problems that confront them in their daily lives.” (Beetham, 2006). But what makes the parliament or legislature itself democratic? What is the parliamentary contribution to modern democracy and how does it work in practice?
Despite the great idea and strong principles, the democratic model of governance has a lot of imperfections and weaknesses. And one of the main flaws of this kind of system is a contrast between what was promised and what came as a result. “The early years of the twenty-first century have witnessed a marked paradox. On the one hand democracy, both as an ideal and as a set of political institutions and practices has triumphed in most countries of the world. On the other hand, these years have also seen a considerable disillusionment developing with the results of democracy in practice, one that is shared by citizens of the ‘old’ democracies as much as by those of the ‘new and emerging’ ones.” (Beetham, 2006). There are several varieties of democracy and, as we can see on the examples of many different countries, not all of them guarantee direct execution of people’s will. Methods of legislature’s influence on the process of ruling the country depend directly on the system of government, whether it is parliamentary, presidential or semi-presidential. Let’s have a closer look on each of these systems and try to compare them.
The presidential system is the least oriented on legislature’s voice. In presidential system an executive branch exists and presides separately from the legislature, to which it is not responsible and which cannot, in normal circumstances, dismiss it. However, the head of state is usually elected directly by the people. But since the authority is given to a president, the legislature has no right to dispute the decisions of the head of government and cannot remove him from the post until the end of the presidential term. “When it comes to the difficult process of removing a President, often the only legal way is through an impeachment process that is undertaken in the legislative branch.” (Macasaquit, 2006). Supporters of the presidential system claim the separation of powers as one of the advantages of this system. A presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures, which allows each structure to monitor and check the other, preventing abuses. Stability is the other advantage of the presidential government. The president may provide more stability due to the fixed term of his governance, than the prime minister, who can be dismissed at any time. But there are disadvantages along with the advantages. In addition to a low activity of legislature in matters of governance, the other major threat of the presidential system is a tendency towards authoritarianism. This question can be explored on the examples of such countries as Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and others. There are many examples of states with the presidential system. Let’s focus on the United States, as it has the presidential system of governance too, and have a more detailed view on the political system of this country.
In the United States, there are several parties, but only two of them are really capable to compete, the Democrats, and the Republicans. There are two stages of the presidential election, the Primary election, and the General election. On the first stage, each state chooses delegates from the main parties to send them to the national convention that is held for each party separately. The main goal of this convention is for the delegates from the states to choose the candidate for president. The General election is held the next year. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes. The candidate with the most votes in that state from the general election wins the electoral votes for that state. The one with the most electoral overall votes wins the presidency. The president is not elected by direct vote, but by an indirect Electoral College system in which the determining votes are apportioned to the states. The elected president is the commander-in-chief of the military, can veto legislative bills before they become law, and appoints the members of the Cabinet (subject to Senate approval) and other officers, who administer and enforce federal laws and policies.
As we can see from this example, the head of state is elected not directly by the electorate and all the executive power is concentrated in president’s hands. This fact decreases the ability of the legislature to control and affect the process of state’s governance. Thus, the presidential system cannot guarantee decision-making by a popular vote.
The semi-presidential system is a system of government in which both, a president and a prime minister, take active participation in a governance of the state. “From a juridical and political or de facto viewpoint, this system is dominated by an enduring principle: a balance between three bodies, a Head of State, a Government and a Parliament. The principle is different from that of parliamentary and presidential systems. But how is such balance achieved? Evidently through the creation (constitutional, legal or other) and functioning of dynamic relations of mutual interaction between these three political bodies.” (Canas, 2004). The division of the powers between the president and prime minister vary between countries. “This is why Shugart and Carey (1992) proposed a further subdivision of the concept into premier-presidential and president-parliamentary subtypes: Under premier-presidentialism, the prime minister and cabinet are exclusively accountable to the assembly majority, while under president-parliamentarism, the prime minister and cabinet are dually accountable to the president and the assembly majority.” (Shugart, 2005). The major obstacle in an effective functioning of the semi-presidential system is a situation that is called “cohabitation”, which happens when the president and the majority of the members of parliament are from the different political parties. It means that cohabitation occurs due to the duality of an executive, because this system of the governance forces the president to name a prime minister that is acceptable to the majority party within parliament. This is a rare event; there have been only three periods of cohabitation, but each is notable for illustrating the oscillation of powers between the President and Prime Minister. The most demonstrative example of the country with a semi-presidential political system is France. I will try to present it in detail in the next paragraph.
The executive branch of France has two leaders: the President of the Republic, who is the head of state and is elected directly by universal adult suffrage for a five-year term, and the Government, led by the president-appointed Prime Minister. “The French Parliament is bicameral and is made up of the National Assembly, a Chamber elected by direct universal suffrage, and the Senate, elected by indirect universal suffrage and empowered by the Constitution with representing the territorial units of the Republic.” (Cavana, 2011). The National Assembly can dismiss the cabinet, so the majority in the Assembly determines the choice of government. Senators are chosen by the Electoral College. The Senate’s legislative powers are limited, and, in case of disagreement between two chambers of the Senate, the final decision is after the National Assembly. There are two major opposed parties in French politics: the French Socialist Party and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). The current executive branch consists mostly of members of the Union for the Popular Movement.
We can see that in France executive and legislative powers are closely connected with each other. Authorities are accurately distributed among the branches and decision-making process depends on a popular vote, not just the choice of the head of state like in presidential system. Even though the cabinet is named by the president, it is responsible to the legislature, thus both branches, the executive, and the legislative, can control each other’s work, not making confusion in the separation of powers.
The closest to the ideals of democracy and based the most on a popular vote are the countries with a parliamentary system of governance. In this system, the ministers of the executive branch get their democratic legitimacy from the legislature and are accountable to it. The executive and legislative branches are interconnected; the executive branch often includes members of the legislature. Parliaments may consist of chambers or houses and are either bicameral or unicameral. Prime minister of the state is almost always the leader of the majority political party in the lower house of parliament. “The first criterion of a democratic parliament is that it should be representative of the people. In the first instance, this means that parliament should reflect the popular will as expressed in the choices electors make for their representatives and for the political parties in whose name they stand.” (Beetham et al., 2005). The most important role in promoting and establishing democracy all over the world plays Europe. Such structures as the European Parliament, Council of the European Union, and the Commission perform the legislative function of the European Union and form one of the most powerful legislatures in the world. According to Hix, Noury, and Roland (2005), “the European Parliament has developed significant independent legislative amendment and agenda-setting powers. In fact, because the majority in the European Parliament is not forced to support everything the Commission or the Council proposes, it is not unreasonable to say that the European Parliament is one of the most powerful legislative chambers in the world in terms of legislative powers.” “The Parliament also has a great deal of indirect influence, through non-binding resolutions and committee hearings, as a “pan-European soapbox” with the ear of thousands of Brussels-based journalists. There is also an indirect effect on foreign policy; the Parliament must approve all development grants, including those overseas. For example, the support for post-war Iraq reconstruction, or incentives for the cessation of Iranian nuclear development, must be supported by the Parliament. Parliamentary support was also required for the transatlantic passenger data-sharing deal with the United States.” (Schnabel, Rocca, 2005). As we can see, the parliament takes an active part not only in domestic policy but also in foreign policy.
Comparing presidential, semi-presidential and parliamentary political systems, I can conclude that parliamentary system is the most organized structure of governance. Parliaments perform a function of legislative authorities and play an important role in the decision-making process. Parliaments’ contribution to the development of democracy in many different countries is very significant. Today democracy is the only effective political system and parliaments are the most important tool of the legislative system. Smoothly running parliament is a guarantee of the order in a state’s governance and support of citizens’ rights. The rising number of countries that use a parliamentary system of governance proves effectiveness and reasonability of this system. Parliaments help to work out democracy’s ideas in practice and consolidate the international relationships. The whole idea of democracy rests upon parliaments and their functions, and that is why they play the most meaningful role in modern politics.
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