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Comparing/Contrasting Roles and Functions of the Parliament in Different Types of Government

Updated: Feb 9

This article compares and contrasts the role of parliament as a legislative body in parliamentary, presidential, and semi-presidential governance systems. To that end, it first identifies the general roles that a legislative body is expected to play in a functioning democracy, referring to the principle of separation of powers and how such roles are described in the text of a specific constitution. The paper then situates the parliament and its activities within the context of the operation of political regimes and administration in the three types of government, with the goal of emphasizing the overlaps between these regimes in terms of the functions that the parliament performs. The piece's overall discussion then moves on to an elaboration of the differences in how the parliament interacts with other bodies, i.e., the executive and judicial branches, under various types of political systems, in order to gain a better understanding of the nature of the relationship between the parliament and other state organs. Finally, the paper discusses the findings to highlight the differences and similarities between the parliamentary, presidential, and semi-presidential systems, with a focus on the role of parliament and its relationship with the other major bodies of the constitutional structure.

It should be noted, however, that there is no direct relationship or correlation between regime type and the democratic nature of government. In other words, any government can be considered democratic, regardless of whether it is parliamentary, presidential, or semi-presidential. In general, what makes a regime more democratic is the content of the constitution and the scope of the state's relationships with its constituents. As the state becomes more responsive to popular demands and allows for greater political participation by the people in political processes, the regime can be described as democratic and participatory.

The literature, which primarily draws on Montesquieu's writings, agrees that separation of powers is a necessary condition for a democratic state. As a result, in addition to other material requirements (free periodic elections and the ability to run multiple parties), a constitution must properly set boundaries to effectively separate the spheres of authority attributed to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Only when these conditions are met does a democratic state emerge. In other words, an examination of the parliament as a constitutional body in a democratic state to clarify its roles and relationships with other institutions is predicated on the assumption that separation of powers is effectively implemented and maintained for the purpose of establishing and preserving a democratic political order.

Second, it is important to note that a hierarchy between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches is not required for a regime to be considered democratic. There is no rule that best explains the preference for granting supremacy to a specific power in parliamentary, presidential, or semi-presidential governments. The Turkish constitution, for example, emphasizes that legislative, judicial, and executive powers are separate and that there is no inherent hierarchy between them. On the contrary, the British constitutional structure recognizes parliament's supremacy and provides the upper legislative body with certain supervisory powers.

Regardless of the form of government, the parliament performs some identical or similar roles and functions in a democratic system. The parliament's obvious and inherent role is to make laws, a power reserved exclusively for the legislative body in all forms of democratic governments. Constitutions in democracies specify the roles of the parliament relevant to lawmaking and provide specific protections for this role, implying and emphasizing that these powers belong solely to the parliament and cannot be shared with or delegated to other institutions or bodies. In other words, the autonomy of parliament in the field of lawmaking in democratic states is reinforced by monopolized power. However, in practice, this monopoly is occasionally broken, particularly in presidential systems where the head of state is allowed to exercise executive powers. When American presidents decided to deploy military forces in covert operations, they crossed the line of lawmaking and hijacked legislative authority.

The parliament's second role and function, which is shared by parliamentary, semi-presidential, and presidential forms of government, is that of supervision, albeit to varying degrees. Constitutions in democratic regimes frequently prescribe rules and mechanisms for the parliament to oversee the executive branch's actions and policies in an effort to check it. The most extreme example of this supervisory role is the removal and dissolution of the government. Even in presidential systems where the executive branch enjoys broad autonomy and immunity from parliamentary control, the legislative body has the authority to remove the president from office under certain conditions.

Finally, regardless of the form of government, the parliament has control over the use of the state budget in a democratic regime. In other words, in parliamentary, presidential, and semi-presidential governments, tax money collected from constituents is spent only with the approval and authorization of the parliament. This does not necessarily imply that the parliament makes the final decisions on where and when the budget is to be implemented. The executive body frequently drafts the budget, taking into account the public's priorities and needs; however, parliamentary approval is required to officially begin the process of using budgetary funds. Even though the legislative body typically authorizes the executive branch's budgetary action, in some cases, the use of tax funds may be delayed or even canceled entirely by parliament. This is known as a government shutdown in the United States, and it refers to a situation in which the government is unable to spend tax dollars simply because Congress refuses to approve the budget proposed by the political administration.

Despite these similarities and common traits, the roles and functions of parliament in a democratic state can vary depending on the form of government. The degree and nature of power separation are the most obvious differences. Even though separation of powers is one of the most important characteristics of a democratic regime, its implementation is more visible in the presidential system, which is frequently distinguished by a strong separation of powers, implying that the legislative and executive branches' domains are clearly defined. In this system of government, the head of state is elected by popular vote and does not report to parliament. In other words, in this type of government, the president cannot be held accountable to the legislative body; however, the president cannot dissolve the parliament either.

In contrast to the presidential system, the semi-presidential and parliamentary forms of government have a legislative body capable of holding the political administration accountable for its actions. In other words, in these two forms, both the president and the cabinet report to parliament. The distinction between semi-presidential and parliamentary systems is that the president is elected by popular vote in the former, while the head of state is elected by parliament in the latter, as required by the constitution. This is why the principle of separation of powers takes the form of soft separation in semi-presidential and parliamentary systems, where the legislative and executive branches interact strongly, limiting their autonomy.

It should be noted that bicameralism is not a distinguishing feature of a political system. In other words, a presidential system's constitution may specify whether the political structure is unicameral or bicameral. The same holds true for the parliamentary and semi-presidential systems. The United States, for example, is a presidential democracy with a bicameral system (a Senate and a House of Representatives), whereas Turkey, also a presidential democracy, operates on a unicameral basis. In contrast, the United Kingdom operates under a parliamentary system with a bicameral parliament.

This also applies to the type of regime in a democratic state. In a republican democracy, the head of state is referred to as the president, whereas in a constitutional monarchy, he or she is known as the monarch. However, because monarchies are hereditary, a presidential or semi-presidential system, in which presidents are elected by popular vote, may not be a monarchy. In a parliamentary form of government, the constitution determines the scope of the powers that the president or monarch is entitled to; however, it is very likely that the president or monarch has only ceremonial powers in a parliamentary regime, whereas the president has more discretion in the remaining two because he or she is elected by popular vote. Elected presidents have the broadest powers in a presidential government, which can lead to conflict with the legislative body.

The second significant difference between the roles and functions prescribed for parliament in a constitutional and electoral democracy can be seen in how the legislature checks and balances the executive branch. As noted earlier, recognition of the parliamentary power of checking the executive body’s activities and policies is a common trait to all three forms of government. However, how this power is defined in the constitutional setting and exercised by the parliament varies depending on the government type.

The parliamentary democracy appears to be the political system in which the parliament is vested with the broadest powers and opportunities to check the executive branch. To begin with, the parliament is formed by popular vote and the government is not in the parliamentary system. In other words, the parliament’s tutelage over the executive branch is derived from the fact that its legitimacy is based on the authorization provided by the majority of the constituents. As a result, in a parliamentary form of government, the executive branch is endorsed by a vote of confidence that can only be taken by the parliament as the only elected body. In other words, without a vote of confidence, a political administration cannot be officially authorized to take action no matter how articulate its policies are.

Similarly, the parliament may any time, subject to fulfilment of the requirements as spelled out in the constitution and the laws, withdraw its support from the executive branch, thereby dissolving the government. This creates a strong sense of parliamentary supervision over the executive body, formed by the prime minister and the ministers. This only means that the cabinet has to consider the potential reaction of the parliament in its policy choices and actions.

The scope and nature of the parliamentary auditing and supervision is a little bit more complicated in the semi-presidential form of government. The president and the government form the executive branch (comprised of the prime minister and the cabinet) in this system. As noted earlier, the president is elected by popular vote, and therefore, politically responsible to the constituents and not to the parliament. On the other hand, the government (the prime minister plus the cabinet) responds to the parliament and relies on its vote of confidence. An extended form of parliamentary check also becomes a corollary to the execution of the system, referred to in the literature as cohabitation.

In case the president, elected by popular party, comes from a party that is different from the one that holds the majority in the parliament, he/she and the government have to openly or tacitly reach an agreement or consensus so that they would be able to run the executive branch efficiently. In such a case, the parliament has a direct impact upon the government as the latter relies on the parliament’s vote of confidence, and an indirect one upon the president since he/she may feel compelled to work with the government in order to exercise his/her powers. Cohabitation does not mean a divided government; and when this happens, an effective mechanism of checks and balances is maintained in a semi-presidential system in which the parliament plays a major role.

The role and function of the parliament in the presidential system as a source of checks and balances is less significant and less accentuated. In this form of government, characterized by a strong separation of power, the legislative branch has little influence over the executive branch simply because of the inherent features of the system. The constitution in this system provides that the legislative body should not be allowed to interfere with the sphere of the political administration, and vice versa. However, despite this clear and strong division of powers, the presidential system still introduces some forms of checks and balances to make the system run smoothly.

Above all, the non-interference clauses in the constitution seek to ensure that the parliament sustains its legislative autonomy. In other words, as opposed to the two other forms of government, the presidential system basically aims to extend direct protections to the legislative and executive branches so that they would be able to play their respective roles and functions. Additionally, in an attempt to ensure that the executive body does not go so far as to violate the constitution, the presidential system equips the legislative body with some powers. In the United States, for example, the Congress, under certain circumstances and subject to certain preconditions, may impeach the President. Although a lengthy and complicated process, the impeachment may result in the removal of the president from the office in cases of blatant breach of the constitution.

Similarly, however, the president may concurrently exercise some semi-legislative powers with the Congress in the United States. Even though they are not clearly spelled out in the constitution, the President may, for instance, ratify international agreements without the consent of the Congress, and approve deployment of troops in form of policing mission in foreign lands despite that both are Congressional authorities (declaration of war and ratification of international conventions).

This brief review above suggests that the parliament holds a central place in a democratic state, regardless of its form of government. The roles and functions that the parliament would assume in a democracy ensure a smooth operation of the regime and administration, with reference to, inter alia, the principle of separation of powers. Hence, the parliament assumes and exercises its powers in conjunction and interaction with other branches.

The ways these roles and functions are implemented may vary depending on the type of government in a democratic regime. The separation of power is in its strongest form in a presidential system, allowing the parliament to stay immune to the influence of the executive branch. In the parliamentary and semi-presidential systems, on the other hand, the parliament may take an active stance and role in reviewing the actions and policies of the executive branch, thereby playing a role of checking and balancing.

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