Why can't the government become more efficient?

Parliamentary democracy

Suzanne S. Schüttemeyer

To person

Dipl. Pol., Dr. rer. pol., is professor for government and policy research at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. Since 2003 she has been editor-in-chief of the magazine for parliamentary questions, since 2006 chairwoman of the German Association for Political Science and member of the commission for the history of parliamentarism and political parties. Her research and work focus are representation and parliamentarism in Germany and in international comparison.

Contact: [email protected]

Parliamentary and presidential systems differ in a number of systematically determinable and plausibly justified criteria. The relationship between legislative and executive power is central to this.

The swearing-in of the former Federal President Christian Wulff. (& copy picture-alliance, SVEN SIMON)


Democracy is based on the citizens who live in it recognizing and supporting it. That does not mean that they have to approve everything that the political institutions and actors do - on the contrary: Democratic systems will only be stable and successful if they remain capable of learning, i.e. if they are able to process criticism of the existing openly and productively. This criticism in detail is just as much the elixir of democracy as the recognition and support of its principles on the part of the citizens. Discomfort, dissatisfaction, and even displeasure with the current performance of parties and politicians are consequently harmless or can even contribute to improvement and progress in politics as long as they do not turn into a fundamental rejection of the values, norms and rules of the game of democracy.

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Satisfied with the system, dissatisfied with politics

If you are looking for numbers to sound the alarm, you will easily find it. 82 percent of Germans believe that the people have nothing to say politically. More than half are dissatisfied with democracy. Two out of five East Germans think there is another form of government that is better. Hardly a week goes by without new figures. But what do they say? As always when dealing with the public opinion poll, you have to look carefully: Who asked? What was asked for? And how exactly were the questions formulated?

The Allensbach Institute for Demoscopy has been asking the same question for more than 30 years: "Would you say that democracy has by and large proven itself in our country, or do you think that an authoritarian form of government with a strong man at the top would be better for Germany ? " In 1975, 78 percent of West Germans answered that democracy had proven itself. In 1994, in reunified Germany, it was 73 percent. And in August 2005 the value was 72 percent, in the meantime it had even climbed to 83 percent (March 1999). More recent surveys by other research institutes come to similar results. Approval for democracy is always above 70 percent.
The answers are different if the question is not about democracy in general but about its results - that is, about the functioning of democracy. Only a few weeks ago Infratest dimap reported a new low here. For the first time since the polling institute asked about it in 1998, a majority of Germans (51 percent) said they were "less" or "not at all satisfied" with the "way in which democracy works in Germany". Even if the numbers fluctuate in detail, other surveys confirm the trend.
Three years ago, the Wahlen research group wrote an extensive study on political participation in Germany for the Bertelsmann Foundation. Even then, the number of dissatisfied people averaged 48 percent for the year, lower than ever in the previous 25 years.
However, the authors of the study, including Dieter Roth, warned against jumping to conclusions: "Despite all dissatisfaction, democracy as the optimal form of government is not being questioned." Even of those who complained about the results of democracy, two thirds answered yes to the question of whether they consider democracy to be the best form of government in Germany. [...]

Matthias Krupa, "Democracy in Numbers", in: Die Zeit No. 4 of January 18, 2007



In order to prevent this, the citizens must have standards for their judgment that are appropriate to the reality of the institutions, their options for action and their limits. If, on the other hand, there are serious misunderstandings about the fundamentals and functional conditions of the political order or if knowledge is lacking, either the necessary ability to criticize will suffer, or ideals and stereotypes will be developed that political reality cannot at all correspond to.

Four factors are of decisive importance for a realistic picture of parliamentary democracy as a form of political order:
  • the demarcation from presidentialism;
  • a specific form of separation of powers;
  • the weighting of parliamentary functions and
  • the dialectic of responsiveness and political leadership inherent in parliamentary representation, i.e. the tension between the willingness of politicians, the interests and attitudes of citizens to act accordingly, and the need to occasionally disregard them with political decisions and to advance them in terms of content.

Parliamentary and presidential system of government

The development of parliaments in Great Britain since the 15th century and in the United States of America since the 18th century forms the basis for the historical differentiation of political system types. After that, institutions emerged in London and Washington, DC, that can serve as prime examples of two very different ways of shaping a democratic political system: the Westminster model of parliamentarism and presidentialism. This distinction can also be made in a systematic way by defining criteria and providing plausible reasons. The relationship between legislative and executive, i.e. between legislative and executive power, is central to this.

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On the history of a fascinating type of institution

Parliaments have now spread all over the world. You can find them in undoubtedly democratic states like Germany and the USA as well as in those authoritarian Islamic or anti-Islamist regimes that exist between the Maghreb and the Indian Ocean, even in dictatorships like Belarus or China. Looking back in history, however, the ranks of parliamentary institutions are thinning: Parliamentary bodies that we identify as such at first glance and that are not of federal origin are unlikely to be found in Asia and Africa before the 20th century , in America hardly before the 17th century. The easily recognizable parliamentary tradition of Europe extends much further into the past: Before the democratic parliamentarism of the - above all - 20th century there was the "early parliamentarism" of the first half of the 19th century, and it was preceded by the period of class representation that lasted into the late Middle Ages . [...]

Specifically, they arose from initially often implicit, later mostly also notarized agreements between the class leaders and a sovereign recognized by them, in which mutual rights and obligations were laid down. [...] The sovereign [...] provided for collective protection to the outside world and among one another and, as far as he was able, for the maintenance of the estate order in general; and vice versa, the sovereign could, if necessary, have access to those resources which the estates or their leaders had in addition to their own personnel, material and financial resources, if they worked together successfully with the assembly of his estates. It was therefore advisable, often indispensable, for the sovereign to seek a good way of getting along with the estates; and these in turn were able to gain influence on his political and legislative measures in return for the ruler's service in return for the personnel, material and financial resources made available to him on a case-by-case basis.
As an institutional form of this, corporations emerged in which monarchs or rulers in rank below them worked together with the leaders of the most important estates or with those representatives who were appointed by the estates as representatives who were more or less bound by instructions. At the meetings of the estates they could appear on the one hand as representatives of corporations such as the knighthood or the universities, but on the other hand also as representatives of territories. [...] Otherwise, the assemblies of the estates differed according to whether they could be convened and dismissed on a case-by-case basis or at the monarch's own discretion, or whether they - once convened - enjoyed a kind of guarantee of existence for a certain period of time [...]. Furthermore, it was momentous whether an assembly of estates faced the sovereign as a corporate body, which is referred to in German constitutional history as a "dualistic corporate state", or whether - as in England - the idea prevailed that the monarch and the assembly of estates jointly represented the "body politic" of the country or A rich political system entrusted to common management. From this idea, brought to the formula "king in parliament" in England, the parliamentary system of government could later develop comparatively easily.
In Europe, since the 13th century, the interaction of monarchs or sovereigns with estates became the normal form of political organization. Under the name of estates and diets, of provincial and imperial estates, of estates and general states, not only in the German Empire also under the name of the Reichstag, estates represented bodies shaped the western history of government at least up to the 17th century. [...] Wherever the monarchs succeeded in developing their position of power by developing their own tax sources, establishing an effective central administration and building an army under the monarch's personal control, the political role of the assemblies of the estates could be reduced in this way. In France, the crown managed to dispense with convening a meeting of the estates of the empire from 1614 to 1789. After such a long time, due to public financial difficulties, the chamber of the bourgeoisie declared itself a national assembly and - based on Rousseau's democratic thinking - not only withdrew the basis of legitimation from the institutional form of class representation, but also from the king in real terms. In England, on the other hand, the representation of the "Houses of Parliament" changed rather seamlessly to the today largely democratically legitimized bearer of a parliamentary system of government. However, the military assertion of parliamentary power during the civil war and the Glorious Revolution made a major contribution to this. In Germany, on the other hand, assemblies of the estates continued to exist, for example in the two Mecklenburg duchies, until the revolution of 1918, albeit quite isolated in terms of the concept of order that supported them in the midst of a now democratic parliamentarianism embodied by the Reichstag.

Werner J. Patzelt, "Outline of a Morphology of Parliaments", in: ders. (Ed.), Evolutorischer Institutionalismus, Würzburg 2007, pp. 483-564, here pp. 483 and 526f.



Removability of the government

In the parliamentary system of government, parliament has the right and the duty to ensure a government that is capable of acting. This responsibility essentially justifies the functioning of this system of government, explains numerous forms of action of its actors and is constitutive for its logic. The government is therefore dependent on parliament - and not only for the implementation of its projects, but for its very existence. Without the continued confidence of the parliamentary majority, expressed in their willingness not to remove the incumbent government or to replace it with another, there would be no government in the parliamentary system of government.

The fact that the Prime Minister or Chancellor and, in fact, mostly indirectly, his cabinet as well, through parliament, or more precisely: through the parliamentary majority, creates a special relationship between executive and legislative branches. The government must constantly assure itself of the support of "its" majority, must not overstrain their willingness to follow and should at most occasionally disregard their will if it does not want to endanger its continued existence.

This right of the parliamentary majority goes hand in hand with the task of constantly monitoring the functioning of the government; If this is no longer guaranteed, it is up to the majority to replace all or part of the executive. It is parliament - and only parliament - that owes the voters direct political accountability - also and especially for the quality of government.

How central this structural principle is becomes particularly clear in the distinction to the presidential system of government. There the executive and legislative branches exist independently of one another. The former does not require the trust of a majority in order to remain in office for a full electoral term (impeachment proceedings for conduct relevant to criminal law do not belong in this context). As a consequence, the executive cannot or does not have to rely on a fixed majority in presidentialism; it can or must, on a case-by-case basis, obtain majority votes for its projects. Correspondingly, from the perspective of the legislature, it can be argued: it is not responsible for the government towards the voters, because it has no power over the term of office of the executive. This existential independence of the two powers from one another is usually reinforced by the fact that the people create a government for themselves under presidentialism through the direct election of the head of state. Democratic legitimacy of the government arises here through direct election, which is legally regulated or in fact appears to be (such as in the USA, where an electoral body formally elects the president). Parliament can claim the same legitimacy for itself, because this too is directly elected by the people.

The fact whether a parliament can recall the government or not sets basic conditions for which actors have what influence and how they deal with each other in everyday political business. On the basis of this one overriding criterion, essential characteristics of the political process in a country become immediately apparent.

Order of the government
The constitutional system of Switzerland
According to the political scientist Winfried Steffani, the ability to recall the government is the most important criterion for differentiating between a parliamentary and a presidential system of government. On the other hand, the question of whether the parliament elects the executive, in particular the prime minister, is of secondary importance. Only the possibility of parliament to replace the government creates the special dependency that exists in the parliamentary system between the executive and legislative branches. There are also presidential systems in which the government is elected by parliament.

The US constitutional system
One example would be Switzerland, where the two chambers of the Federal Parliament, the National Council and the Council of States, elect a seven-member executive for four years according to the so-called magic formula, which ensures the specific Swiss party proportion. This executive, which consists of several people of equal rank and is therefore referred to as a collegial government, cannot be voted out, so that in Switzerland the logic of presidentialism described above determines the relationship between the legislature and the executive (in addition to the mechanisms of direct democracy). In the US, on the other hand, if no presidential candidate receives an absolute majority in the electoral college, the constitution stipulates that the House of Representatives will elect a president from the three candidates with the highest number of votes. This happened only once (1825).

Relationship between parliament and government
In the political practice of parliamentary systems of government, in addition to the fact that the government can be recalled, it is often appointed by parliament. Either a formal election is planned, which usually only refers to the prime minister, or a vote is taken on the prime minister's political program or on his government declaration. Or informal rules govern the formation of a government as well as the recruitment and selection of government personnel from the parliamentary groups.

The mechanisms of recall and appointment produce two units of action that shape parliamentarism: the government majority and the opposition. The former consists of the parliamentary majority and the government it supports, the latter of the parliamentary groups that do not support this government. The glue that holds the government majority together at heart is the interest in political success - and success here ultimately means: maintaining government power.For this, the majority and their cabinet are indispensably dependent on each other: because the majority only remains a majority as long as it can win over the electorate through convincing performance in solving problems. It employs its management team as the government for these services. This, for its part, can only be successful if it retains the support of the parliamentary majority.

The opposition
Ultimately, the opposition pursues the same goal, namely government and thus political power. In the classic Westminster model of parliamentarism, it functions as a "fleet in being", as a government in waiting, and works towards becoming the government majority itself in the next election through constant clarification of personal and political alternatives. Even where this competitive relationship is traditionally not so pronounced and minority governments are common, for example in Scandinavia, governments have "their" parties in parliament, and at least one other (large) party or faction seeks to take over government responsibility - with otherwise rather cooperative dealings with one another in day-to-day political business.

Dissolution of parliament

As a countermeasure to parliament's power to recall the government, many constitutions of parliamentary systems of government give it the right to dissolve parliament and call new elections. At first glance, this may appear to be a schematic balancing of powers. From this perspective, it is only logical that under presidentialism the - non-recallable - executive branch cannot dissolve parliament either. On closer inspection, the right of dissolution is above all the consistent continuation of the structural principle of making parliament responsible for the government's ability to act. If it cannot achieve this, i.e. if it cannot mobilize a majority to support the incumbent government, but just as little can establish a majority for a new one, the government must be able to act: the way out of such a crisis is to dissolve parliament in order to restore a viable one To establish a government majority.

The end of the first social-liberal government under Chancellor Willy Brandt in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1972 provides a vivid example of this: the coalition of SPD and FDP had gradually lost its majority in the Bundestag as part of its new Ostpolitik by withdrawing from parliamentary groups. The constructive vote of no confidence with which the opposition leader, the chairman of the Union parliamentary group and CDU party chairman Rainer Barzel wanted to replace Chancellor Brandt, failed extremely narrowly, but the coalition no longer had the necessary votes to pass laws and in particular the budget. In this situation of political incapacity to act, Chancellor Brandt made use of the option provided for in the Basic Law (Art. 68) to have the Federal President dissolve the Bundestag via a vote of confidence.

Compatibility of office and mandate

The question of whether a member of parliament is allowed to be a member of the government at the same time can be used as a criterion for differentiating between parliamentary and presidential systems of government. However, like the appointment of the government and the dissolution of parliament, it only designates a supplementary feature, not a definition required. In presidentialism we usually find the incompatibility of mandate and government office, the so-called incompatibility. In the United States, for example, the president cannot belong to the House of Representatives or the Senate. Conversely, in most parliamentary democracies in Europe, office and mandate are compatible. In the UK, the Prime Minister even has to be a Member of Parliament.

There are, however, exceptions: in France, the Netherlands and Norway, for example, MPs have to resign if they take up a government office.

This still reflects the tradition of the classic separation of powers - the dualistic front position of parliament and government ("old dualism"). In contrast, the basic rule of the compatibility of office and mandate in parliamentarism illustrates the structurally intended and functional, close connection between parliamentary majority and government, which the parliamentary opposition faces ("new dualism"). If the prime minister or chancellor and minister are "meat of the flesh" of parliament, i.e. if they remain members of the parliamentary group (s) that support them as government, the simultaneity of political cooperation and mutual control is much better guaranteed.

Design of the executive

A further differentiation between the types of parliamentary and presidential system of government arises from the question of whether the executive is "closed" or "double". This distinction is based on two fundamentally different functions: first, the executive has the tasks of (party) political governance, and second, those of representing the entire state, both internally and externally. In terms of constitutional law and personnel, this differentiation is divided between the head of government and the head of state.

If both functions are performed by a single body (not necessarily by a single person, see the example of the seven-member Federal Council, the government in Switzerland), as is the case with presidentialism, one speaks of a closed executive. If there are two organs that share these tasks, for example a Chancellor and a Federal President as in Germany or a Prime Minister and a Queen as in Great Britain, it is a double executive. This is typical of parliamentary systems of government that historically emerged from monarchies in which political leadership gradually or through revolutionary acts passed to bourgeois, later democratically legitimized forces. It is obvious that such a double executive harbors the problem of competition. This is particularly the case when the respective constitution provides the head of state with powers, for which the demarcation from the political sphere of the government is difficult and requires interpretation.

Presidential and parliamentary system of government
If one combines the feature of the executive form with the primary criterion of the revocability of the government, there are four sub-types to which countries with their political systems and in certain phases of their development can be assigned, as the diagram shows.

With the help of such typologies, the observer of a country can quickly understand the logic and basic patterns according to which the political actors act there and how the interplay between the institutions works there.

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Mixed systems of parliamentarism and presidentialism

The observation that certain elements that are typical of parliamentarism are combined in a political system with those that usually characterize presidentialism, prompted political scientists to construct so-called mixed types. Particularly noteworthy here is "semi-presidentialism" (Maurice Duverger), which was conceived against the background of French government practice and received special attention in the course of the democratic transformation processes in East Central and Eastern Europe, where some states leaned on this model.

Semi-presidentialism describes a political system in which the constitution provides that the head of state is directly elected by the people and has considerable powers, while at the same time a prime minister (with his cabinet) who is dependent on parliamentary trust holds the power to govern. Although General de Gaulle's administration suggests that the French system should be viewed as "almost presidential", the first appearance of cohabitation in the 1980s, i.e. the meeting of a president and a head of government with different party affiliations, made it clear that the constitution was also designed The logic of parliamentarism is inherent in semi-presidentialism: the ability to act politically cannot be ensured without or against the trust of the parliamentary majority. Their emphasis is semi-presidentialism - depending on the framework - once more with the president and once more with the prime minister. Therefore, semi-presidentialism is only about the changing characteristics of (French) parliamentary democracy under the changeable conditions of party majorities.
The Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart combines the fact that the government can be withdrawn from office with its design as a multi-person or one-man body and its election by the legislature or the people. This gives him eight combinations of characteristics, six of which - in addition to the pure forms of parliamentarism and presidentialism - represent mixed types. In doing so, however, he cannot fill three with empirical examples, and the other three with only one each.
Other mixed types (for example by Matthew Soberg Shugart and John M. Carey or Wolfgang Merkel) do not determine an either-or criterion that allows a case to be assigned immediately, but characteristics are combined and constructed into types in different mixing ratios. These cannot necessarily have the same selectivity; In addition, they have the disadvantage that for their application it is not necessary to determine the basic structures of a political system, but rather its specific practice at the respective point in time, if one wants to obtain substantial information about the logic of action of the actors and institutions.

Suzanne S. Schüttemeyer