The Parliamentary System of Government: Meaning and Features


The Parliamentary System of Government: Meaning and Features

The previous article examined the meaning and features of the presidential system of government. It also elucidated its merits and demerits.

In this article, our discussions shall focus on the parliamentary system of government. We shall clearly highlight its major characteristics as well as the dual nature of its executive and the balancing role it is meant to serve.


The Meaning of the Parliamentary System of Government

The parliamentary system of government is a system of democratic governance of a country, wherein the executive branch is derived from the legislative body, i.e. the Parliament. Here, the executive is divided into two parts, the Head of the State, i.e. President, who is only the nominal executive and the Head of the Government, i.e. Prime Minister, who is the real executive, performs the real and executive functions.

In a parliamentary system, the political party that wins the maximum number of seats during federal elections, in the Parliament, forms the government.

The party elects a member, as a leader, who is appointed as the prime minister by the president. After the appointment of the prime minister, the cabinet is formed by him, whose members should be out of the parliament, the executive body, i.e. the cabinet is accountable to the legislative body, i.e. parliament.

In Britain, a good example of a country operating the parliamentary system of government, the prime minister, who is the head of government, performs the substantive executive functions. The prime minister is usually appointed by the head of state from the party that controls majority seats in the legislature.

The head of state, like the Queen in Great Britain, performs ceremonial duties like welcoming foreign dignitaries, presiding over important national functions or ceremonies, signing bills into law in the parliament and addressing the parliament at the beginning and the end of parliamentary life. Nigeria practiced the parliamentary system of government in the First Republic.


Collective Responsibility

In the parliamentary system of government, members of the government are collectively responsible for the successes/failures of the government and all ministers, not just departmental ministers concerned, must collectively share moral responsibility for its policies.

Implicit in this is the notion that all ministers are bound to support government decisions before the public, parliament and the party, and at the very least, must refrain from openly criticizing government policy.

This doctrine also implies that a minister who dislikes a particular government policy must reconcile his differences or resign from the government. Sometimes resignation comes immediately, as Mr Christopher May how did when he resigned over defense policy in 1966.

Alternatively, the ministers may remain for a time in the cabinet hoping to convert its views as with Mr Frank Cousins who was known to be hostile to the prices and incomes policy of the then Labour government long before he eventually resigned


A similar lack of cabinet solidarity on a fundamental issue was revealed in 1974 when both Michael Foot (Secretary of State for Employment) and Eric Heffer (Minister of State for Industry) openly disagreed with the Labour Government’s decision to supply arms to the then new anti- Communist regime in Chile.

The maintenance of a united government front is an essential prerequisite for the preservation of party discipline in the Commons and to the answering of opposition and public criticism of government policy.

In this respect collective responsibility also serves as a means of suppressing differences of opinion within the government itself. The doctrine applies to all ministers, from senior cabinet ministers to junior ministers.

Features of Parliamentary System of Government

The major features of the parliamentary system of government, which markedly differ from the features of the presidential system discussed in the preceding unit, include:

1) Dual Executive: In the cabinet system of government, the head to state is different from the head of government; the Queen performs the ceremonial functions while the Prime Minister performs the executive functions (as it operates in Great Britain).

2) Fusion of Powers: The theory of separation of power is not strictly observed in the cabinet system of government since there is no separation of powers between the executive and legislature, the cabinet members are also members of the legislature; they both take part in drafting bills (The minister in Britain is also a member of the legislature which makes it possible for him to combine an executive and legislature functions).

In the cabinet system of government, the executive depends on the legislature for its existence since there is a fusion of power.

3) Tenure not guaranteed: In the cabinet system of government, the head of government, prime minister will lose his position while the government he heads will resign when a vote of no confidence is passed against him in parliament.

This implies that the prime minister can only remain in office for as long as his parties still control the majority of seats in parliament.

4) Power of Attainment: Another difference between these two systems of government is the power of attainment, which can throw up an elected member of the legislature into the position of a prime minister, on the strength of his ability to command the loyalty of his former colleagues.

In Britain, the then Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron was initially an elected member of House of Commons on the ticket of the Conservative Party before he rose to become the British Prime Minister. His party then led a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party while the Labour Party was the official opposition party.

5) Official Opposition: In the parliamentary system of government, the opposition party is officially recognized, i.e. the party that is strongly recognized with the majority seats in the legislature forms the government while the other party constitutes the opposition.

The leader of the opposition party forms the shadow cabinet and is ever ready to form a new government on the collapse of the ruling party.

6) Parliamentary Supremacy: The parliamentary system of government is characterized by parliamentary supremacy. The constitution is not supreme, rather the primacy lies with the legislature, or the parliament as it is called in Britain. The legislature can re-write or edit the written parts of the constitution and also dissolve the cabinet at any time.

In Great Britain, the Queen can dissolve the parliament when advised to do so by the prime minister.

7) Party Discipline: In the parliamentary system of government, there is the existence of party discipline (adherence to party ideals and proposal) if the party discipline is weak the party in power would find it difficult to maintain a majority in the legislature and so some of its policies may be defeated. It is also essential that ministers must come from the same party with the prime minister in the cabinet.

Read on: Presidential System of Government: Merits and Demerits


Applications of the Parliamentary System of Government

Britain is one country in the world that is foremost in its adoption and practice of the parliamentary system of government.

In Britain, there is a separation between the head of state (the Queen) and the head of government (the prime minister). Under this system which is also referred to as a cabinet government, the parliament is the supreme legislative body in Britain.

The parliamentary system after centuries of its operation in Britain has remained, to a reasonable extent, a success story.

Nigeria operated the parliamentary system of government in the First Republic, and like Britain, its Parliament was bicameral (the Senate and House of Representatives). But unlike the British model, Nigeria had a written constitution. Before Nigeria became a republic in 1963, the head of state was designated a Governor-General, then a titular head just like the Queen he represented.

But after 1963 when Nigeria became a republic the post of head of state was renamed the President. The title of Prime Minister for the head of government was retained in 1963, as it was in 1960 when Nigeria became independent.

Nigeria, however, discarded the parliamentary system in 1979 after the return to democratic government, because the ills and consequent failure of the First Republic were partly blamed on the parliamentary system of government.

Conclusion on the Parliamentary System of Government: Meaning and Features

The parliamentary system of government is one of the democratic ways of organizing a government. Its practice in Britain has been so successful that countries outside the Commonwealth of Nations are craving to adopt it.

Indeed, Canada, despite its proximity to the United States and its readiness to always collaborate with the latter in other areas continues to retain its parliamentary system while its leaders regard it as near sacrosanct.

Although the parliamentary system is not without its drawbacks, when compared with the presidential model, on balance, it is seen by some as a preferable system of government.

Our discussions in this post have focused on the meaning and features of the parliamentary system of government.

We noted that the parliament is the hub of the parliamentary system while the cabinet is its caucus, where the operators of the system regularly meet to shape public policies.

And we cited the example of Britain as one country in which the culture of Westminster parliamentary system is fully developed and thriving.

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