The most commonly associated terms with the word ‘democracy’ may be liberty, equality or freedom. But democratic republics function at a deeper level. It isn’t just about having these values but ensuring efficient everyday functioning. That is where the forms of democracy play a vital role. Any nation can have free and fair elections if it chooses to, but its true success rests on how the government formed works after elections. Democracy comes in various forms but can be categorized into three types- (1) presidential (2) semi-presidential (3) parliamentary. All these variants have their pros and cons but the subsequent sections will primarily explore and support the benefits of one of these types- ‘the parliamentary form’.
This piece will look at the parliamentary form of democracy through multiple lenses such as the economy, domestic politics and foreign policy. Each of these sections will be studied in detail from the parliamentary perspective and why it works better than other forms of democracy.
Parliamentary Systems: In a Nutshell
Parliamentary democracies are usually headed by a prime minister who is the leader of the executive branch. What makes parliamentary systems unique is that the prime minister is not directly elected like in presidential systems. The Members of Parliament are directly elected, after which they appoint the prime minister. A cabinet of ministers, led by the PM is then formed to govern the nation.
It is important to note that some parliamentary systems like India or Israel have a president as well, but they only serve as a ceremonial head of state. The ultimate executive power rests with the prime minister and the cabinet, thereby making it distinct from the semi-presidential system in which the president often appoints the prime minister and has the power to dissolve the parliament. In a parliamentary system, however, government dissolution happens when the house passes a ‘vote of no confidence’, which is an easier process than a rigorous and time-consuming impeachment trial that happens in presidential systems. The next section will explore the strengths of the parliamentary form from three perspectives namely- the economy, politics and foreign policy.
The Merits of Parliamentary Democracies: Three Perspectives
Economics is perhaps the most important part of governance. The distribution of resources greatly defines how politics and other aspects of society function. A study conducted specifically to examine the effects of different forms of democracy on the economy has suggested interesting results. The study stated the following:
“By using data from 119 countries across the period 1950 to 2015 and examining an extensive set of macroeconomic data, we find that parliamentary regimes are consistently better for a country’s economy. On average, annual output growth is up to 1.2 percentage points higher, inflation is less volatile and 6 percentage points lower, and income inequality is up to 20% lower in countries governed by parliamentary systems.”
Apart from quantitative indicators, other features make a parliamentary system better for a country’s economy. A presidential or semi-presidential system has a figure of authority with executive power, backed by the legislature during policy formation. Democracies undergo frequent changes and power shifts. When a certain leader introduces a policy but then steps down for another to succeed, economic policies change as a new leader steps in. Different sections of the population are affected by different leaders.
For example, former US President Donald Trump was known for his tax-credit policies which largely benefitted the middle class and the rich while Joe Biden’s policies involve placing higher taxes on the rich, thereby shifting the economic functioning of the country. It becomes a harder task to manage affairs as the onus is on one person- the president, despite the other arms of the government playing a role. Parliamentary systems, in that way, have ‘collective responsibility’ with other cabinet members like the finance minister being just as answerable as the prime minister.
Parliamentary systems are also good for the political health of nations. While there are always exceptions to politics, there are some fundamental aspects that make a parliamentary system reliable from an administrative standpoint. Parliamentary systems are an ideal solution for countries that are highly diverse in terms of ethnicity or religion. For instance, in a country like India, the parliamentary form ensures representation in the legislature based on caste and gender through its famous ‘reservation system’, which is prevalent across the nation. While a presidential system like the US has a policy of ‘affirmative action’, nine states have banned it. The president does not possess the power to reverse these individual state policies.
Plato famously gave his critique of democracy by stating that it would lead to a tyrannical ruler, acting solely out of self-interest and most people don’t possess the intelligence to think about politics. Although the world has changed since then, his philosophy is still profound. When one deeply thinks about it, democracies, in certain forms, can lead to a rise in tight-fisted leaders. Theoretically, even then, it is a parliamentary system that is more likely to ensure stability. In presidential republics, the idea of a large portion of executive control resting in the hands of a single individual can lead to a more authoritarian style of leadership. For example, Turkey, a presidential republic is one of the few democratic and secular countries in the Middle East. But all power rests with the president. As a result, the now democratically elected president Erdogan is seen as one of the most authoritarian leaders that Turkey has had, with his fundamentalist ideals.
On the other hand, parliamentary systems have shown a stronger system of hierarchy and responsibility as the legislature and executive act in unison. In countries like India, the executive body (the PM and the cabinet) is a part of the legislature (the houses of parliament) while in a presidential system, there is a clear distinction between the executive and legislature. The interconnectedness in parliamentary systems lessens the complications involved in law-making.
A truly well-functioning government doesn’t just have effective internal policies but projects itself well on the international stage too. Drafting good foreign policy is just as important as focusing on domestic policy-making. Parliamentary systems have shown a flair in this area too. A defining feature of parliamentary democracy is the synchronization between the legislature and the executive. Foreign policy decisions are taken by keeping both the ruling and opposition parties in the loop. Since there is a collective responsibility, there is an efficient system of checks and balances in place. On the other hand, the United States, for example, has a president (Executive) and Congress (Legislature). The President has the power to sign treaties and represent the country in international fora but when it comes to serious policy decisions like declaring war or taking votes, the legislature plays a crucial role. The president has his hands tied, especially if a large part of Congress disapproves of a decision of his. This makes a parliamentary system better suited in this regard.
On an end note, it is important to remember that a large portion of this piece was written from a theoretical perspective by looking at the overall functioning of these systems. In reality, there are always exceptions to the three systems of governance as they may function differently from how they are supposed to, on paper. The goal was to provide a brief insight into the various forms of democracy from a primarily administrative viewpoint. While there was a large emphasis on the efficiency of parliamentary systems, comparisons were mostly drawn to presidential systems primarily due to the increased prevalence of the latter over semi-presidential systems. Ultimately, all three forms of democracy have their strengths and shortcomings, but it is just a matter of which one may perform better under certain circumstances.