Holding on to power in a parliamentary democracy
EI SUN OH
The Manila Times
KOTA KINABALU: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it quits recently. There could be many political and personal reasons for her doing so. I tend to surmise that at least one political reason could be the increasing difficulty nowadays — and not just in New Zealand alone but in many other parliamentary democracies worldwide — of “holding” the government together, both in terms of holding her parliamentary party as well as her ruling coalition majority together. In a typical parliamentary democracy, the legislative and executive branches of government could be said to be fused. This is because in such a governance system the head of government (usually called the prime minister or the premier) who is vested with the real political power, is typically appointed by a largely ceremonial head of state (a president, a constitutional ruler such as a monarch, or a governor-general representing the monarch) from among the members of the popularly elected parliament (more specifically the lower, more numerous house of a bicameral parliament, but it could be unicameral too) who, in the opinion of the head of state, is most likely to command the confidence and support of the majority of the members of parliament. In other words, the prime minister in a parliamentary democracy is not popularly elected at large in his or her own right by the whole of the electorate of a country, but usually by only the voters in his or her electoral district (variously called riding or precinct too). In some jurisdictions, such as New Zealand, where parliamentary seats are allocated according to the proportion of votes won by political parties (although election by district is still incorporated), a prime minister at least in principle may not have been elected from an electoral district at all, but was “elected” by having been placed high up on a party list submitted by his or her (typically major) political party for the purpose of the parliamentary proportional representation. It could be argued that such a proportionally “elected” prime minister, having been placed “safe” on the party list by his or her party, has not faced the “real” test of his or her own electoral popularity, even just in the context of a single electoral district. But some would also argue that the supposedly high enough percentage of votes won by the party concerned should at least indirectly confer electoral legitimacy to such a prime minister and by extension the government he or she forms. Ardern, for example, began her electoral political career by having “won” a proportional parliamentary seat. It was only a few months before becoming prime minister that she won an electoral district seat for the first time. In any case, to form a government, a prime minister who sees his or her party having won more than half the parliamentary seats would still have to somehow emerge, either beforehand or after a general election, as the undisputed parliamentary party (comprising elected party members) leader to be elected. That usually means he would have to mollycoddle or awe, or both, his fellow party parliamentarians into supporting him or her for the prime ministerial post. If the prime minister’s party did not win a majority or even a plurality of parliamentary seats, then the political game becomes even testier, as the prime ministerial wannabe would have to somehow cobble together a functioning ruling coalition with the various other parties and even personalities with parliamentary seats, such that a coalition government would enjoy the confidence and support of a parliamentary majority to obtain ruling legitimacy. There are occasions, such as in Malaysia before the latest general election, when even the coalition government does not command a parliamentary majority, but pegs its ruling survival on confidence and supply agreements with other parties that did not enter into the ruling coalition but were willing to vote for the coalition government to attain a parliamentary majority. But in either of these cases, the prime minister thus appointed could remain in office only so long as he or she could still command the confidence and support of the parliamentary majority. If he or she loses such majority, then he or she must either resign or call for a new general election, even if the last one was held but months or even weeks before. Israel, for example, has seen an election almost every year, and sometimes two elections in a year, over the past few years, as its ruling coalitions formed and disintegrated fast. In practical terms, this requirement means that the prime minister would have his or her hands full having to entertain and satisfy the myriad demands of at least his parliamentary party colleagues, if not the reasonable or unreasonable demands of coalition partners with often similar but sometimes contradictory ideological leanings (such as the case with Malaysia at present), in order to stay in office. This could often be an ardent and tedious political task for a prime minister, as sometimes, especially when a government enjoys a slim parliamentary majority, the defection of but a handful or even a single member could bring about the downfall of a government. Never mind the supposedly more lofty task of formulating policies for the development of the country. But going back to the “fused” nature of the legislative and executive branches of government in a parliamentary democracy, one might wonder whether the much vaunted principle of checks and balances against abuse of governmental power operates in such a system. This question is especially pertinent when members of the judicial branch are typically appointed by the executive branch and not vetted by the legislative branch, so the three branches of government are essentially all fused. In contrast, in a presidential system where the legislative and executive branches are separately and popularly elected with fixed terms, and judges are typically nominated by the executive branch but confirmed by the legislative branch, the check and balance are carried among these three branches for all to see. Some would argue that the need for the head of government in a parliamentary democracy to constantly tackle his or her parliamentary colleagues, whether from his own party, coalition partner parties or opposition parties, would suffice for this purpose. It remains to be seen if this would still be the case in the context of increasingly fragmented political landscapes worldwide, with the winner-takes-all mentality on the rise.