Major Parliamentary Governments and How They Work

British House of Commons
The United Kingdom operates under a parliamentary constitutional monarchy.

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A parliamentary government is a system in which the powers of the executive and legislative branches are intertwined as opposed to being held separate as a check against each other's power, as the Founding Fathers of the United States demanded in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the executive branch in a parliamentary government draws its power directly from the legislative branch. That's because the top government official and members of his cabinet are chosen not by voters, as is the case in the presidential system in the United States, but by members of the legislature. Parliamentary governments are common in Europe and the Caribbean; they are also more common worldwide than presidential forms of government.

What Makes a Parliamentary Government Different

The method by which the head of government is chosen is the primary distinction between a parliamentary government and a presidential system. The head of a parliamentary government is chosen by the legislative branch and typically holds the title of Prime Minister, as is the case in the United Kingdom and Canada. In the United Kingdom, voters elect members of the British House of Commons every five years; the party that secures a majority of seats then chooses members of the executive branch cabinet and prime minister. The prime minister and his cabinet serve as long as the legislature has confidence in them. In Canada, the lead of the political party that wins the most seats in parliament becomes the prime minister.

By comparison, in a presidential system such as the one in place in the United States, voters elect members of Congress to serve in the legislative branch of government and choose the head of the government, the president, separately. The president and members of Congress serve fixed terms that are not dependent on the confidence of voters. Presidents are limited to serving two terms, but there are no terms limits for members of Congress. In fact, there is no mechanism for removal of a member of Congress, and while there are provisions in the U.S. Constitution to remove a sitting president—impeachment and the 25th Amendment—there's never been a commander-in-chief forcibly removed from the White House.

Elections in Parliamentary Systems

A parliamentary system is basically a representative form of government in which individual members of a legislative body are elected, and the results of those elections determine the executive (who must then maintain the confidence of the legislature or risk removal). The actual methods of voting may vary from country to country.

Some parliamentary systems use a plurality system (colloquially known as "first past the post"), in which a voter can vote for a single candidate, and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. Others use some variation of proportional representation, which can take several forms - voting based on party lists and proportions of votes for each party, ranked-choice voting, or a mix of both. Party-list voting also has its own variations: some systems allow for voters to be the ones who prioritize the order in which party candidates are elected, while others reserve that power for party officials.

The elections then determine who the executive will be. Technically, there are several different methods that a parliamentary system may utilize to select its executive, but in practice, they all boil down to the selection of the "leader" of the party who wins a working majority of seats in the parliament.

There's one situation that can occur with these elections that does not happen in presidential systems. A hung parliament happens when the results of an election do not provide any one party with an absolute majority (that is, more than half the seats). In these cases, no party is assumed to have a mandate to take up governance and install its leader as the executive. In general, two outcomes are then available:

  1. The party with the most votes convinces a minor party and/or independent legislators to support them, thus forming a coalition that gets them past the absolute majority threshold. In some cases, especially close elections, it is possible for the "runner-up" party to gain power this way, by convincing enough of those "swing" legislators to join them (formally or informally) instead and gaining the majority if the first-place party fails to do so.
  2. A minority government is formed, typically when option 1 fails. This means that the "winning" party does not have an absolute majority, but is nonetheless permitted to form a government, but a precarious one that has more official opponents than it does loyalists and thus may struggle to pass legislation or even stay in power at all.

The Role of Parties in a Parliamentary Government

The party in power in a parliamentary government controls the office of the prime minister and all members of the cabinet, in addition to holding enough seats in the legislative branch to pass legislation, even on the most controversial issues. The opposition party, or the minority party, is expected to be vociferous in its objection to almost everything the majority party does, and yet it has little power to impede the progress of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle. Parties tend to be much stricter about keeping their elected legislators in line with the party's platform; it's rarer for an individual member of parliament to break with their party in this type of system, though not unheard-of.

In contrast, in a system such as that of the United States, a party can control the legislature and the executive and still fail to accomplish much, due to a variety of rules that can halt proposed legislation in its tracks, as well as the looser ties that bind a party together.

For instance, the United States Senate has a filibuster rule, in which any legislation can be delayed indefinitely unless 60 members out of 100 vote to invoke cloture. In theory, a party only needs to hold 51 seats (or 50 seats plus the vice presidency) to pass legislation with a simple majority. In practice, however, legislation that might otherwise pass on a narrow vote never gets that far because at least ten members of the opposition party must agree to allow a vote that they know they're likely to lose.

Different Kinds of Parliamentary Governments

There are more than half a dozen different kinds of parliamentary governments. They operate similarly but often have different organizational charts or names for positions. 

  • Parliamentary republic: In a parliamentary republic, there is both a president and a prime minister, and a parliament acting as the highest legislative body. Finland operates under a parliamentary republic. The prime minister is chosen by parliament and acts as the head of government, a position responsible for directing the activities of the many federal agencies and departments. The president is elected by voters and oversees foreign policy and the national defense; he serves as the head of state.
  • Parliamentary democracy: In this form of government, voters choose representatives in regular elections. One of the largest parliamentary democracies is Australia, though its position is unique. While Australia is an independent nation, it shares a monarchy with the United Kingdom. Queen Elizabeth II serves as the head of state, and she appoints a governor-general. Australia also has a prime minister.
  • Federal parliamentary republic: In this form of government, the prime minister serves as the head of government; he is chosen by the parliaments at the national and state levels, such as the system in Ethiopia.
  • Federal parliamentary democracy: In this form of government, the party with the greatest representation controls the government and the office of prime minister. In Canada, for example, the Parliament is made up of three parts: the Crown, the Senate and the House of Commons. For a bill to become law, it must go through three readings followed by Royal Assent. 
  • Self-governing parliamentary democracy: This is similar to a parliamentary democracy; the difference is that the nations using this form of government are often colonies of another, larger country. The Cook Islands, for example, operate under a self-governing parliamentary democracy; the Cook Islands were a colony of New Zealand and now have what is called a "free association" with the larger nation.
  • Parliamentary constitutional monarchy: In this form of government, a monarch serves as a ceremonial head of state. Their powers are limited; the real power in a parliamentary constitutional monarchy rests with the prime minister. The United Kingdom is the best example of this form of government. The monarch and head of state in the United Kingdom is Queen Elizabeth II.
  • Federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy: In the only instance of this government, Malaysia, a monarch serves as the head of state and a prime minister serves as the head of government. The monarch is a king who serves as the "paramount ruler" of the land. The two houses of the parliament consist of one that is elected and one that is non-elected.
  • Parliamentary democratic dependency: In this form of government, the head of state appoints a governor to oversee the executive branch of a country that is dependent on the homeland. The governor is the head of government and works with a cabinet appointed by a premier. A legislature is elected by voters. Bermuda is one example of a parliamentary democratic dependency. Its governor is not elected by voters but appointed by the queen of England. Bermuda is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom.
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Murse, Tom. "Major Parliamentary Governments and How They Work." ThoughtCo, Apr. 22, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, April 22). Major Parliamentary Governments and How They Work. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "Major Parliamentary Governments and How They Work." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).