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Erik Moberg ã:
A Theory of Democratic Politics
 
 

5.3 - PARLIAMENTARISM

The parliamentary principle, requiring that the executive enjoys a continous confidence from the legislature, may take slightly different forms. First there is a distinction between positive and negative parliamentarism, the former meaning that the executive must be actively supported by a majority of the legislature, the latter that it is enough for the executive not to be actively opposed by a majority of legislators. It may also be stipulated that the incumbent executive cannot be dismissed without the simultaneous appointment of a new one. This is usually referred to as a constructive vote of no confidence. The parliamentary principle can thus be varied within certain limits. For all of these varieties it is, however, for their proper functioning, of crucial importance that the political partygroups in the legislature are stable, centralised and cohesive.

This condition is, as far as I know, universally acknowledged. Some authors express it quite distinctly and I am not aware of anyone who objects. Sartori says (1994, p 94, his italics), for example, that " ... parliamentary democracy cannot perform - in any of its varieties - unless it is served by parliamentary fit parties, that is to say, parties that have been socialized (by failure, duration, and appropriate incentives) into being relatively cohesive and/or disciplined bodies. ... indeed, disciplined parties are a necessary condition for the ‘working’ of parliamentary systems."

But even if this is so it is hardly obvious why. The basic reason for the necessity of stable, disciplined, parties, is, I think, that the parliamentary confidence, in order to be reliable and lasting, cannot be anonymous. The confidence has to be expressed by a few stable and identifiable actors, which, in effect, means political parties. In such a case there are also substantial organisational links between the part of the legislature supporting the executive and the executive itself, which, of course, facilitates, the confidence problem. The relevant part of the legislature may even to some extent control the executive, should the need appear. All of this is, in fact, implicit in the concept fusion of power, which was introduced by Walter Bagehot (1826-77) (see, for instance, Cox, 1987, p 5).

If, on the other hand, no political parties are present things become quite different. If, under such conditions, an executive gets a declaration of confidence from a majority of the assembly, that majority will necessarily be an ad hoc-majority which may perish at any moment, and because of any kind of dissatisfaction with the executive. This, in fact, means that the country really does not have an executive at all. Rather, the executive's functions are, in a sense, performed by ad hoc-majorities in the assembly, which is hardly in accordance with the ideas of parliamentarism.

In a parliamentary democracy it is thus important that political parties exist, and that they are stable, cohesive and disciplined enough, since otherwise a stable executive cannot be formed, and the system will not function as intended. This, by itself, does however not imply that such parties are likely to exist. There is no guarantee that a system, such as a parliamentarian one, automatically will function as intended. A system may obviously fail to work. What seems to be required therefore is that the properties which the parties acquire, when their functionaries and other supporters try to fulfil their ambitions, coincide with the properties required for the system's functioning. This may or may not be the case. I will return to this important topic in the following.

Here I will just finish by saying that the distinction between what parliamentarism requires for its functioning, and what in fact it brings about, is often disregarded. Peter Esaiasson, for instance, says (2000, p 51) that legislators in a parliamentary system may be looked upon "as more or less anonymous members of a cohesive party collective, and thus best analyzed as a group", and that the "main argument" for this position "of course, is that parliamentary systems require cohesive parties in order to function." Here, what is, and what is needed, is obvioulsy treated as one and the same thing. But there are also authors who honor the distinction. Michael Laver and Kenneth Shepsle thus write (1996, p 29 f, my italics) that "The effective operation of parliamentary democracy, in short, both depends upon and encourages disciplined behavior by political parties in the government formation process."