Why not parliamentarianism?” is a short and free booklet (and a follow-up blog) authored by the Brazilian diplomatist Tiago Ribeiro dos Santos. See here his proposal to turn “parlamentarianism” into an EA cause

Ribeiro dos Santos summarizes the previous research on patterns of democracy to make a compelling case for parliamentarian democracy over the presidential alternative.  I agree with the thesis and wholeheartedly recommend the book; if you have an easy pick for a royal family, a constitutional King is also an advisable anti-presidential precaution (the main rationale for a ceremonial monarchy is its role as a barrier against a substantial one).

Given that Ribeiro dos Santos book is an excellent defense of parliamentarianism, in this post I give my opinions on what kind of parliamentarianism I find better suited to produce an effective, consociational and safe democracy.

Three main elements define the pattern of a modern parliamentary democracy: i) the structure of public opinion (class and ethnic cleavages and the media ecosystem that reinforce them) ii) the voting system for parliamentary representatives and iii) the system of political parties

For the constitutional framer, the structure of organized interests and local and ethnic loyalties are given. The future of the system of political parties, on the other hand, is extremely endogenous to the constitutional choices. 

While political parties in modern democracies are well-defined institutions, historically, they were not. Very often members of Parliament were chosen for personal influence or local popularity and arrived at the capital city with limited knowledge of national politics. They were courted by different interest groups, that over time became more and more organized. The natural process of vote trading (see Casella and Mace (2020) for a formal analysis) and different political and personal affinities naturally create parties even in weakly ideological legislatures. 

From the perspective of the constitutional framer that designs a system of checks and balances to avoid power concentration, political parties are the adversary. They are (by definition) collusive organizations that permanently undermine the assumption of “independent action of public officers” on which any constitutional design is based. On the other hand, they are inevitable in democracy and their outright banishment or diminution is impossible (by definition: the framer itself is very likely an important member of a political party).  The main tool by a framer to influence the future of political parties is the electoral system. I will examine the two extreme cases: 

  • First pass the post (FPTP): [United Kingdom, United States] In that system the country is divided in electoral districts, and the most voted individual gets the only chair representing the district. FPTP systems lead to the existence of two permanent parties (voters become strategic and avoid vote wasting at the expense of preference falsification), but historically, members of different parties often “jump to the other side of the aisle” depending on common political interest, local concerns and “horse trading”. In parliamentary systems FPTP usually turns modest differences in popular vote into parliamentarian supermajorities leading to “strong governments” (this characteristic is the basis of its appeal).  Under FPTP the internal structure of the political parties and their rules become a “shadow constitution”, and any change in the system of political parties is a de facto constitutional change. 

  • Proportional representation (PR): [Denmark, Netherlands, Italy] Political parties propose lists of candidates, and the representatives are chosen proportionally from the lists depending on the popular vote. In the purest version, the list is national, and no minimum threshold exists[1] (Netherlands). Under pure PR political parties change quite often (this is called “contestability”), governments are always coalitions, and those coalitions often break-up leading to a new government or elections.  On the other hand, the feeble and changing governments often mask a very stable undelaying governance: in the Netherlands since 1945, every pair of governmental coalitions has always had a common participant party.

From a logical and long-run historical perspective it is obvious that anything that leads to the division of the country into two permanent opposing parties is a national danger. FPTP and presidentialism force binary choices and while the Anglo-Saxon experience has not been one of frequent violence, Latin American history suggest that even non-ideological criollo-borgoise parties can end up turning elections into civil wars at an alarming rate (see “Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America” for a melancholic account of the cyclical downfall of Latin American republics in the late XIX and XX centuries). 

Defenders of FPTP and presidentialism have two main arguments on their side: the “need” of a strong executive for effective governance and the United States exceptional performance. Regarding ordinary governance, the monumental “Patterns of democracy” (Lijphart, 2012) study suggests that among stable modern democracies the outcomes of the PR system are better than those of FPTP.  The American example is both considered in Ribeiro do Santos book (where it is shown to be relatively less presidentialist than the other continental democracies) and probably is not very exceptional anymore.

But while I consider that PR is better than FPTP in all historical periods, nowadays the advantage is becoming larger by day: the public interest in local politics is weakening, in line with the relevance of local media. More generally the Internet has reduced the relevance of political intermediation, making the machinery of mass political parties almost redundant, and putting all the political power inside parties in plebiscitarian primary elections, often decided on low turnovers and leading to the absolute internal power of the winner. Additionally, the classical permeability of Anglo-Saxon political parties is in decline: the proliferation of very safe seats in the US House of Representatives has moved political competition from the general election to the party primaries, leading to a proliferation of extremist representatives, that reinforce bloc voting (Kustov, Cerda et al, 2021). While polarization has delegitimized both parties, under FPTP they are not externally contestable. The old trade-off between (PR) contestability and (FPTP) bipartisanship is has collapsed, and with it, arguments for FPTP.

Beyond the electoral system I have already commented my opinions on the role and election system for the Supreme Court.  Regarding the relation between the Executive and Legislative branches, the essence of parliamentarianism is Legislative supremacy: in my view the selection of the Prime Minister shall be done by a relative majority of the Parliament avoiding the situations (so usual in several European countries) of “hung parliaments” unable to choose a Prime Minister, and governments shall be substituted when an alternative coalition obtains an absolute majority. In my view, parliamentary dissolution shall not be a prerogative of the Prime Minister: it shall be approved by the Parliament itself, in line with its sovereign supremacy, only limited by the Supreme Court.


 


[1] This is the case we discuss, while in practice often there are separate lists by province (Spain) and minimum thresholds for entering Parliament.

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This looks like a good argument for proportional representation. This might be worth bringing up when the next discussion of FPTP vs approval vs ranked choice takes place.

What is missing (imo) is what EAs can do about it. Just having the "correct" opinion is not enough, and most countries are probably reluctant to change their constitutions.

Absolutely. In my view, support for consociational democracy and institutional innovation is a more general cause, where activism can be effective. Participation in primaries, support for moderates, rank voting, welfare reform (vg. Unemployment benefits contingent on macroeconomic conditions).

PR parliamentarianism at a national level is distant goal in the context of a more comprehensive activism.

Executive summary: Parliamentarianism, particularly with proportional representation, is argued to be a superior form of democracy compared to presidential systems and first-past-the-post voting, offering more effective governance and reducing political polarization.

Key points:

  1. The author endorses Tiago Ribeiro dos Santos' argument for parliamentarianism over presidential systems.
  2. Three key elements define modern parliamentary democracies: public opinion structure, voting system, and political party system.
  3. Proportional representation (PR) is advocated over first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting, as FPTP tends to create a two-party system prone to polarization.
  4. PR systems lead to more coalition governments and party contestability, potentially resulting in more stable underlying governance.
  5. The author argues for legislative supremacy in parliamentarianism, with the Prime Minister selected by relative majority and replaced by absolute majority.
  6. The post recommends against giving the Prime Minister power to dissolve parliament, instead suggesting this power should lie with the parliament itself.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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