What Is a Parliamentary Democracy?


SEATTLE — There are few instances in U.S. history where the president belonged to the majority party of both chambers of Congress. Full control of the executive branch may be helpful if a party wants to pass a bill that is particularly divisive, but it is both unnecessary and uncommon in a U.S. democracy. Contrastingly, in a parliamentary democracy, a majority party chosen by citizens is essential to its structure and function.

The current structure of a parliamentary democracy calls for a monarch, the head of the legislative branch, often called the Prime Minister or Chancellor, as well as two legislative houses. For instance, the British Parliament, often referred to as the “Mother of Parliaments,” consists of the sovereign or monarch, the Prime Minister, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons.

A parliamentary democracy, also known as a cabinet government, is unique for its fusion of legislative and executive branches and has quite an extensive history.

The parliamentary democracy that we are familiar with today has its origins in the early 1700s in the former Kingdom of Great Britain, partially as a result of the unpopular reign of George I. King George I decided to take a significantly less active role in government, not only minimizing the role of the monarch but leading the way for the first unofficial prime minister, Robert Walpole. Walpole was the leader of the House of Commons and the cabinet, which allowed him to obtain power as the prime minister in 1721, deeming him the actual head of British government and pushing the monarchs into a less active role as figureheads.

In a parliamentary democracy, the majority party in the legislative houses, or the party with the most government representation in the legislature, holds great power and significance. Citizens elect members of parliament, hence the term democracy, but the Prime Minister is chosen from and by the majority party of parliament. This is one of the more obvious differences from a presidential democracy where the president and congress are chosen through a democratic, citizen election. However, both the President of the United States and the Prime Minister make cabinet appointments.

In the same way that the majority party elects the Prime Minister, the party can remove the Prime Minister from power if the majority loses confidence in the leader, leaving him or her at the graces of the legislature elected by the people.

If the majority party casts a vote of no confidence, the Prime Ministers will be removed and replaced, either through the formation of a new government or a new election.

Since the Prime Minister is at the graces of the majority, a parliamentary democracy is popular among those that do not like fixed terms or the complexity of the impeachment process.

Because the Prime Minister must have the majority of the legislature in his favor, a parliamentary democracy is considered to have fewer checks and balances. As the person in charge of policy priorities and government business, the Prime Minister often leads the development and approval of legislation in the cabinet.

It is easier and faster to pass laws in parliament than in the U.S. government, because there is no threat of a presidential veto and there is a higher likelihood that the different branches of government will agree overall.

While deadlocks are still possible if a few members of parliament choose to not vote within party lines, parliamentary democracies are ideal for people who want to see less legislative resistance between the executive leadership and the legislature.

For the reasons mentioned, parliamentary democracies are popular for those that want more centralized decision and lawmaking within government rather than the more individualized lawmaking efforts of a presidential democracy.

– Danielle Poindexter

Photo: Flickr


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