What You Need to Know About Parliamentary Democracy

Photo of the British House of Parliament

What is a Parliamentary Democracy?

Parliamentary democracy is a type of government in which the citizens elect representatives to parliament. These representatives then vote on laws that affect the country. This type of government is different from a presidential democracy, in which the citizens vote directly for the president.

Photo of the British House of Parliament

How is a Parliamentary Democracy Different from a Presidential Democracy?

  1. In a parliamentary democracy, the citizens elect representatives to parliament rather than voting on laws directly. In a presidential democracy, the citizens vote directly for the president.
  2. Presidential democracies can also be different from parliamentary democracies because, in a presidential democracy, the role of the prime minister might not exist.
  3. In a parliamentary democracy, there is no set term limit as to how long elected officials can serve as prime ministers or other members of parliament. In a presidential democracy, there are set term limits as to how long elected officials can serve as presidents or governors.

What is an Example of a Parliamentary Democracy?

An example of a country with a parliamentary democracy would be India, where the people vote in an election for members of parliament. Then those members vote in the legislature on legislation that affects the public.

How do we Know What is Happening During Elections for This Kind of Government?

Parliamentary democracies generally have leaders who talk about what they want to do once elected and how their policies will affect the country and its people. Then there are political parties who support these ideas and principles and campaign for their candidates.

Roles of Parliamentary Democracy

The Head of State

The leader or monarch of the country. They are not involved in the government, but they represent their nation at home and abroad and review legislation passed by parliament before giving assent to it.

Photo of the Queen England
In the UK the sitting monarch must give assent to legislation passed in parliament.

Parliament

Parliament comprises the members elected by the people to make laws on their behalf. It can be split into two houses: the House of Commons (the lower house) and the House of Lords (upper house).

Prime Minister

The prime minister is often seen as equivalent to a president under a presidential system because they are elected directly by voters who then have confidence that this person will lead, rather than being selected by party leaders through an electoral college.

Photo of British PM Boris Johnson with President Trump
The prime minister’s role is the equivalent of that of a president.

Government

The government comprises the prime minister and their cabinet. They are in charge of proposing new legislation to be introduced by members of parliament to deal with different issues.

The Opposition

The party or parties who oppose a sitting government and attempt to gain power when an election is called.

Courts

Courts decide if legislation is practicable, constitutional, or illegal. Courts can also overturn legislation that they feel should not have been passed in the first place.

Public Opinion

Public opinion can affect how well a law affects society because citizens will either agree or disagree with it depending on what it concerns. This depends on factors such as media coverage and political pressure groups.

What are Some Examples of Ways This Kind of Democracy is Different From Others?

  1. Parliamentary democracy is often considered a representative democracy, meaning that its politicians are elected to represent their constituents rather than the people voting on legislation. It differs from direct democracy, where citizens vote directly on legislation initiated by themselves or through referendums.
  2. Presidential democracies usually have first past the post elections for representatives. While parliamentary systems do not need to use this system, they can use proportional representation instead.
  3. Cabinet members within governments operate differently depending on whether it’s a presidential or parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system, the cabinet is selected by the prime minister. It can be changed at any time, while presidents often have to follow the rules about hiring and firing senators in presidential systems.

Pros of Parliamentary Democracy

  1. They can be very stable because only one party is in power, so they do not need to worry about the government falling due to elections dramatically shifting the balance of power.
  2. Parliament can check executive power, allowing for more control over how long governments last and ensuring regular changes.
  3. MPs hold different positions within their parties, so cabinet ministers reflect views from across the political spectrum, considering what everybody wants them to draft up before it’s presented.
  4. Due to having two houses of parliament, bills have to go through both before being passed, this makes it harder for faulty legislation to make its way onto the law books meaning that it gets better quality legislation passed.
  5. Parliamentary systems are good at managing and maintaining the economy, and they make it easier for international treaties to be ratified.
  6. Flexibility is built into parliamentary democracies because there is not only one political system. When there is a coalition between Conservatives and Liberals in the UK, one can also change laws relatively quickly when in power. This makes it easier to adapt to changes within society, such as new technology or social behavior.
  7. The government gets more support from citizens because they can vote them out if they do not like what they’re doing.
  8. It’s easy for people with different views and ideas on how their country should work to get involved in politics because there is less focus on one person. Most people can find a party that reflects their views, and they do not need to worry about the whole country voting for somebody who disagrees with them.

Cons of Parliamentary Democracy

  1. They can be unstable due to short terms. There is regular change in power, meaning it’s difficult to make long-term policies or plans. There are usually only two main parties, which means coalitions are extremely common. 
  2. Because of the necessity for coalition politics, it often ends up with weak governments unwilling or unable to pass legislation. This is because the coalition has to have an agreement before being elected, so they cannot truly represent what their party stands for.
  3. When there is no clear majority in parliament, governments can fall or be toppled, dramatically increasing political instability within a country.
  4. t’s difficult to predict the outcome of elections due to coalition politics. Governments may change who they’re in coalition with, meaning that it changes everything about what they stand for and could make them less popular if voters disapprove of this decision.
  5. Parliamentary systems are less accountable than presidential democracies because, technically speaking, executive power is divided between the cabinet and the PM, which means there isn’t someone to hold accountable.
  6. The lower house has much more power than it should, meaning they’re able to obstruct what the government wants to do, e.g., filibuster (US). This leads to governments having difficulty getting anything done because they may lack majority support in parliament.
  7. Legislators don’t represent their constituents directly, making them less likely to think of problems on a local level even though they may affect them personally.
  8. There are no strict rules on how long people can serve, which means that some MPs end up serving for way longer than anybody would want them to. For example, Peter Mandelson is still a significant political figure despite not being in the House of Commons for over ten years now.
  9. In most countries, voting classes are usually divided into age groups meaning that older people have more power than younger people even though they may not have as many interests. This is because older generations are more likely to vote, and thus their votes can outweigh those of younger people.
  10. There’s no clear separation between executive and legislative powers like there is in America, which means that you can end up with somebody acting as both head of state and head of government; e.g., the French president is both head of state and head of government, thus blurring these essential roles in politics
  11. It can create two classes of MPs, with some being elected through constituency votes and others only by party lists which means their power isn’t always equal when voting on legislation. When constituency MPs vote, they represent voters’ interests in their area. 
  12. High rates of political participation do not necessarily lead to good results in parliamentary democracies. People who aren’t politically active or informed don’t know how to register to vote or don’t bother, which favors more politically active people.
  13. Parliaments cannot address complex political agendas because MPs get overwhelmed with the number of issues that are meant to be dealt with, which means they can’t get around to dealing with them all, resulting in weak policies being put into place. For example, the Brexit vote where nobody knew what sort of Brexit would happen or how long it would take so that the government couldn’t plan for it properly.
  14. It’s believed that parliamentary systems don’t work well when it comes to public policymaking, which is because MPs don’t spend enough time learning about an issue, drafting legislation, and researching before voting on laws meaning there are a lot of unintended consequences. 
Photo of Westminster in London
The Brexit debacle is an example of the limitations of a parliamentary democracy.

Parliamentary systems are less democratic than presidential ones because they place too much power in the hands of their politicians, who can use it to stay in power for a long time. This results in less accountability, and voters don’t always get what they want from their governments. 

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