Parliamentary System | Definition & Characteristics

Parliamentary system of government is a system in which the executive is an integral part of the legislature. An example of a parliamentary system is found in Britain where parliament is the supreme authority. Another method of classifying constitution is by the locus of power whether, it resides with parliament (legislature) or with the executive. By this we mean parliamentary and presidential system. Parliamentary system of government is a type of government where the head of state is different from head of government and where there is no strict separation of power between the the executive and legislative arms of government.

The prime minister who is the head of government performs the actual function of policy making and implementation as well as the head of cabinet. Countries that operates monarchical system of government like Britain, the queen performs the ceremonial role of Head of State while the Prime Minister is responsible for the direction and coordination of government policy and also make a wide variety of appointment and exercise several patronages.

The members of the cabinet in this system are colleagues of the prime minister but the prime minister is first among equals. In parliamentary system there is fusion of executive and legislative functions. The members of the cabinet are appointed from the members of the legislature. The first instance, for one to be appointed as a minister, he has to first contest and win election as a national legislature. The prime minister and his cabinet are chosen from the party that won majority seat in the legislative house.

Hence we say that all the cabinet members are members of the legislature but not all the members of the legislature are appointed a cabinet members. Those who are not chosen in the cabinet are just ordinary legislature, but those chosen as members of the cabinet are performing both legislative and executive functions. That is why we say that there is no strict separation of powers between the executive and the legislative arm of government. The system operates on collective responsibility. Collective responsibility means that all members of the cabinet are collectively responsible or accountable for all decisions and actions taken by the cabinet.

The cabinet is therefore collectively responsible to he parliament and must present and defend their actions and policies in union. All ministers must be prepared to support and defend the policies of the government. Members of the cabinet share the blames as a body for any job not done well and also equally receive praise for job well done. If the parliament passes a vote of no confidence on the cabinet which means that the cabinet has failed, all members of the cabinet including the prime minister must resign. It is as a result of the vital role played by the cabinet that the parliamentary system of government is also called cabinet system.

Characteristics of Parliamentary System of Government

  • There is fusion of power i.e. lack of separation of power. The Cabinet is the government.
  • There are two distinct executives: the Head of State is the nominal, ceremonial executive, and Head of Government (the prime minister) is the real effective executive.
  • The Head of Government being the leader of the majority party after a general election, forms the government by appointing the Cabinet Ministers from his own party’s elected legislators.
  • The Prime Minister is the head of the cabinet, though he is primus inter pares (first among equals).
  • The Cabinet is responsible for: the final determination of all policies to be submitted to parliament, the control of the executive arm of government which implements legislation by parliament, the management of state affairs through its nucleus, a small number of its prominent ministers who regularly meet informally with the prime minister.
  • The cabinet is collectively responsible to parliament. The entire cabinet stands or falls for the individual error or misdeed of any of its members.
  • There is party domination and strict party discipline (e.g. the Britain party system is disciplined; government and majority party are synonymous).
  • There is no certainty in term of office. The life of parliament in Britain is five years. But its tenure may be shortened or prolonged by: Extension of life of parliament by government, premature termination of life parliament through a snap election by the government,
  • A vote of no confidence moved by the opposition party and supported by a majority of members in parliament, which automatically leads to a fresh general election.
  • A defeat of a major government bill e.g. the budget leads to government resignation.
  • Loss of government party majority in the Lower House through death, resignation, crossing the carpet or victory of the opposition party at bye election.

Advantages of Parliamentary System of Government

  • The system is less expensive than the presidential system because the members of the executive and legislative arm are elected in only one election and also lesser people are involved since members of the executive are also members of the legislature.
  • It ensures harmony and cooperation between the executive and the legislature and this allows for efficient law making.
  • There is free flow of information as a result f the fact that members of the executive are equally members of the legislature.
  • The fear that the executive arm of government can be dismissed by the legislature through a vote of no confidence, reduces dictatorial propensities of the executive and because leadership is collective.

Difference Between Presidential System and Parliamentary System

  • There is a clear separation of powers between the executive and the legislature in the presidential system while in the parliamentary system, the two are fused.
  • In presidential system, the president is elected by the electorate, while in parliamentary system, the prime minister is chosen by the legislators in the parliament.
  • The president is both the head of state and head of government in presidential system of government while in parliamentary, the queen or the president is the head of the state and prime minister head of government.
  • The principles of collective responsibility does not apply in the presidential system but its applicable in the parliamentary system.
  • In the presidential system, the president can appoint members of his cabinet anywhere even outside his party, while in parliamentary system the prime minister only appoint from members of his party in the legislature.
  • In presidential system, tenure of office is fixed, in some countries two terms of four years each, while in parliamentary system, the prime minister stays in office as long as his party controls majority seats in the parliament.

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