How Does a Parliamentary Government Work?

Types of Parliamentary Governments and How They Work

British House of Commons
The British House of Commons is pictured here in 2018. The United Kingdom operates under a parliamentary constitutional monarchy.  Victoria Jones/Pool/Getty Images

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, such 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 Amendmentthere's never been a commander-in-chief forcibly removed from the White House.

Parliamentary Government as a Cure for Partisanship

Some prominent political scientists and government observers who bemoan the level of partisanship and gridlock in some systems, most notably in the United States, have suggested adopting some elements of a parliamentary government might help solve those problems. The University of California’s Richard L. Hasen raised the idea in 2013 but suggested such a change should not be undertaken lightly.

Writing in “Political Dysfunction and Constitutional Change,” Hasen stated:

“The partisanship of our political branches and mismatch with our structure of government raise this fundamental question: Is the United States political system so broken that we should change the United States Constitution to adopt a parliamentary system either a Westminster system as in the United Kingdom or a different form of parliamentary democracy? Such a move toward unified government would allow the Democratic or Republican parties to act in a unified way to pursue a rational plan on budget reform on other issues. Voters could then hold the party in power accountable if the programs it pursued were against voter preferences. It seems a more logical way to organize politics and insure that each party will have a chance to present its platform to the voters, to have that platform enacted, and to allow voters at the next election to pass on how well the party has managed the country.

Why Parliamentary Governments Can Be More Efficient

Walter Bagehot, a British journalist and essayist, argued for a parliamentary system in his 1867 work  The English Constitution. His primary point was that the separation of powers in government was not between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government but between what he called the “dignified” and the “efficient.” The dignified branch in the United Kingdom was the monarchy, the queen. The efficient branch was everyone else who did the real work, from the prime minister and his cabinet down to the House of Commons. In that sense, such a system forced the head of government and legislators to debate policy on the same, level playing field instead of holding the prime minister above the fray.

“If the persons who have to do the work are not the same as those who have to make laws, there will be a controversy between two sets of persons. The tax-imposers are sure to quarrel with tax-requirers. The executive is crippled by not getting the laws it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility; the executive becomes unfit for its name since it cannot execute what it decides on: the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of which others (and not itself) will suffer the effects.”

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. In the United States, a party can control both houses of Congress and the White House and still fail to accomplish much.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri, an international relations analyst, wrote in National Interest

"A parliamentary system of government is preferable to a presidential system. ... The fact that a prime minister is held accountable to the legislature is a very good thing for governance. First, it means that the executive and his or her government are of a like mind with the majority of legislators, because prime ministers come from the party with a majority of seats in the parliament, usually. The gridlock evident in the United States, where the president is of a different party than the majority of Congress, is far less likely in a parliamentary system."

List of Countries With Parliamentary Governments

There are 104 countries that operate under some form of parliamentary government.

AlbaniaCzechiaJerseySaint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha
AndorraDenmarkJordanSaint Kitts and Nevis
AnguillaDominicaKosovoSaint Lucia
Antigua and BarbudaEstoniaKyrgyzstanSaint Pierre and Miquelon
ArmeniaEthiopiaLatviaSaint Vincent and the Grenadines
ArubaFalkland IslandsLebanonSamoa
AustraliaFaroe IslandsLesothoSan Marino
AustriaFijiMacedoniaSerbia
The BahamasFinlandMalaysiaSingapore
BangladeshFrench PolynesiaMaltaSint Maarten
BarbadosGermanyMauritiusSlovakia
BelgiumGibraltarMoldovaSlovenia
BelizeGreenlandMontenegroSolomon Islands
BermudaGrenadaMontserratSomalia
Bosnia and HerzegovinaGuernseyMoroccoSouth Africa
BotswanaGuyanaNauruSpain
British Virgin IslandsHungaryNepalSweden
BulgariaIcelandNetherlandsTokelau
BurmaIndiaNew CaledoniaTrinidad and Tobago
Cabo VerdeIraqNew ZealandTunisia
CambodiaIrelandNiueTurkey
Canada

Isle of Man

NorwayTurks and Caicos Islands
Cayman IslandsIsraelPakistanTuvalu
Cook IslandsItalyPapua New GuineaUnited Kingdom
CroatiaJamaicaPitcairn IslandsVanuatu
CuracaoJapanPoland

Wallis and Futuna

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 serve 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 woks 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.

Further Reading