Parliamentary system of government is defined as a system of government in which the head of state is distinct from the head of government. Both offices and functions attached to them are in the hands of two individuals, unlike the presidential system where the two offices (head of state and government) are fused.
The head of state exercises ceremonial functions. The prime minister is the head of government and he exercises executive functions. The prime minister and his cabinet are drawn from the parliament, making them members of the executive as well as the parliament. The prime minister is the chairman in all cabinet meetings.
In Britain, for example, the head of state is the Monarch (Queen). In a country that is not a Monarchy, the head of state is the president.
Britain has a cabinet or parliamentary system of government. The First Republic in Nigeria (1963 – 66) operated a parliamentary system.
Features or Characteristics of a Parliamentary system of government
- The head of state: The head of state is either the queen or president.
- The head of government: The prime minister is the head of government and he exercises executive functions.
- Not popularly elected: The prime minister is not popularly elected. He is appointed by the president or queen, if his party wins the majority of seats in the parliament.
- Ministerial appointment: The prime minister can only choose his ministers from his party men in the legislature.
- Fusion of power: The prime minister and his ministers, forming part of the executive, are also part of the legislature, so there is fusion of power between the executive and the legislature.
- Collective responsibility: It implies that members of the executive are collectively responsible for any decision taken by them.
- Existence of opposition party: This is legally and officially recognised. The party that has the second highest number of seats in the parliament forms the opposition party.
- A vote of no confidence: The executive can be removed from office by the legislature. This could happen if the legislature passes a vote of no confidence in the executive.
- Shadow cabinet: This is done by the opposition party by forming their own executive in readiness to take control of the government, if the government in power fails.
- Obedience to party directives: Members of the ruling party are expected to obey party directives once they have been decided upon.
- Ministers: All cabinet members are ministers, but not all ministers are cabinet members.
- Ceremonial functions: The head of state exercises ceremonial functions.
- Control: The prime minister is controlled by the party and is expected to obey party directives.
- Cabinet meetings: The prime minister presides over cabinet meetings.
- Dismissal of ministers: The prime minister can dismiss any minister from the cabinet.
- Coalition government: This could be formed or made possible, if no party had an absolute victory in the general election. For example, in Nigeria (1963 – 66) NPC and NCNC formed a coalition government.
- Head of Government: He is appointed by the head of state, usually the leader of the majority party after a general election.
- Supremacy of Parliament: There is supremacy of parliament e.g. Britain.
- Bi-Cameral Parliament: In a bicameral parliament, all bills are first introduced in the lower house.
Merits of a cabinet system of government
- Collective responsibility: Members of cabinet take joint decision and they are collectively responsible for all the actions taken. This ensures efficiency.
- Mutual understanding: This exists between the legislature and the executive.
- In defence of policies: The system allows ministers to defend their policies in parliament since they are also members of the parliament,
- Watchdog: There is opposition party which becomes a very effective watchdog since it sees itself as an alternative government.
- Dedication and efficiency: The ruling party should be dedicated and efficient in the administration of the country. Failure to abide by this measure may result in their removal by the opposition party in parliament, especially when a vote of no confidence is passed in the executive.
- Absence of conflict: Fusion of power in this system has helped to reduce conflict among the organs, for example, the executive and the legislature are fused and complementary to each other.
- Obedience to party’s directives: The ruling party in government has to obey party’s directives and this makes for party allegiance and unity of purpose.
- No room for arbitrary rule: This is because issues about the country are collectively taken. No individual can exercise power arbitrarily.
- Decisions are taken faster: The reason is because members of the executive are equally members of the legislature. Consensus are easily reached on issues of the state.
- Close monitoring: Activities of the ruling party are closely monitored by the opposition party in parliament.
Demerits of a Cabinet system of government
- Removal of the executive: The executive can be removed from office anytime the legislature passes a vote of no confidence in the executive.
- Disaffection: The system is capable of causing disaffection between the head of state and head of government. For example, the head of state may refuse to appoint a prime minister after a general election.
- Restriction to ministerial appointment: The best people may not be in government since the prime minister is restricted to appoint ministers into his cabinet from his party only.
- Collective responsibility: The poor performance of a minister can cause the fall of the government since ministers are collectively responsible for government policies.
- Not popularly elected: In presidential system of government, the executive president is popularly elected but in parliamentary, the prime minister is appointed by the head of state.
- Fusion of power: It is a negation to the principle of separation of powers which states that each organ should function separately. For example, in Britain, the Lord Chancellor, is a member of the three organs of government. Not only that, members of the executive are also members of the legislature.
- Weak government: A coalition government is an indication of no clear majority winner from any party in the general election, a weak government could result from such formation.
- Ill-motivated: A vote of no confidence initiated against the executive could be ill-motivated and uncalled for in this system.
Powers and functions of the Prime Minister
- Head of government: The prime minister is the head of government and the chief executive of the state.
- Administration of the country: The administration of the country is done by the prime minister and his cabinet.
- Leader of his party: He is the leader of the party that won the highest number of seats in parliament.
- Chairman of all cabinet meetings: He is the chairman of all cabinet meetings.
- Ministerial appointment: He appoints his ministers from his party members in parliament.
- Removal of a minister: The prime minister can remove or dismiss a minister from his cabinet.
- Conferences: He attends and represents his country in most of the international conferences and organizations, e.g. U.N.O ., Commonwealth and economic groupings.
- Supervision of other departments: Activities of other departments are coordinated and supervised by the prime minister and his cabinet.
Functions of the Cabinet in a Parliamentary System
Members of the cabinet are drawn from the parliament, making them also part of the parliament. The prime minister chooses members of his cabinet from his party men in the legislature.
The prime minister and the cabinet are therefore, members of the executive and legislature. Policy and law making are therefore part of their functions in government. Responsibilities of the cabinet are collective.
However, the following are their functions:
- Determination of policy: The cabinet has the final determination of the policy to be submitted to the parliament and is also involved with the preparation and approval of the legislative programme for each session of parliament.
- Decision-making: The cabinet members usually put heads together for a realistic policy – making for the country.
- Presentation and defence of government policies: Measures taken by the government on issues are introduced, explained and defended on the floor of the parliament by members of the cabinet. This shows a kind of effective leadership of the parliament in legislation.
- Executive authority vested in the crown: The cabinet determines how the executive authority vested in the crown in respect of appointments, foreign affairs etc should be exercised.
- Coordination and control: It is also involved in a general control and coordination of the work of the several departments of the government.
- Implementation of laws: The cabinet ensures that laws made by the parliament are properly maintained. This is done through the various departments of government.
- Body of royal advisers: The cabinet is also involved in advising the crown on major issues.
- The cabinet will have complete power: This borders on how to carry out the wishes of parliament.
- Policy for discussion: The cabinet will decide on the policy to put before parliament for discussion.
- Formulation and application of rules: The cabinet has to formulate and apply rules for the polity, according to what is known and agreed upon as party policy.
- Conversion of group pressure into action: The cabinet is an important element in the conversion of public pressure into action. It is the cabinet which decides whether or not to listen to public pressure and interest.
- Government bills: The cabinet initiates government’s bills to the parliament.
Functions of the Opposition Party in a Cabinet System
The existence of opposition party in a cabinet system of government is legal and officially recognised. It is the party that has the second highest number of seats in the parliament.
However, it has the following as its functions:
- Corrective party: Opposition party is a corrective party in government.
- Watchdog: The opposition party legally acts as a watchdog especially in the areas of programmes, actions of the government.
- Criticism: It criticises constructively actions of the ruling party.
- Alive to its responsibilities: The position of the opposition party in parliament makes the government in power to be alive to its responsibilities.
- Shadow cabinet: This is constituted by the opposition party by forming their own executive in readiness to take control of the government, if the government in power fails.
- Acting as a check: It checks the activities of those in government, making sure that they are in conformity with the laid down rules of the state.
Collective responsibility is a feature of parliamentary system of government. Cabinet meetings are held regularly and decisions taken are not published. It would be a breach of the official secret act of a minister to reveal what was discussed at any of the meetings. Although discussion is private, decisions are made plain on the actions of the government. For these decisions, all members of the cabinet are responsible. This is part of the “doctrine of collective responsibility”, the policies of every department affect one another. Any member opposing government policy is expected to either withdraw what he has said or resigns.
The decisions of the government are binding on every member. Each member must also defend such decisions in the public and in the parliament. Again, if a minister has presented the government in a bad light, the parliament will pass a vote of no confidence and all cabinet ministers must resign. Similarly, if the prime minister, who is always the chairman at the meetings, dies or resigns, the whole members of the council of ministers must resign with him and the government automatically ceases to be in power while the Queen or President is called upon to formally dissolve the parliament for a fresh election.
The principle of individual responsibility
This is a popular principle in a presidential system of government. A minister appointed by the president is individually held responsible for any decision made or taken in his department or ministry. Therefore, the minister has both constitutional and political responsibilities for the department he or she is in charge of.
The president appoints a minister after the approval from the parliament, making him or her responsible to both the president and the parliament on issues pertaining to his ministry. The president has the power to dismiss or remove any erring minister from office.
Relationship between the legislature and the cabinet in the law-making process in a Parliamentary system
- Initiates public bills: The executive initiates public bills which may eventually be passed into laws by the legislature.
- Scrutinizing of the bill: The legislature scrutinizes the bill and the minister defends it during the debate stage in the parliament.
- At the committee stage: A representative of the cabinet will see to it that the fundamental principles of the bill are strictly adhered to.
- Private member bill: This bill may be passed into law by the legislature if it is opposed by the cabinet.
- Legislative approval: The legislature empowers the cabinet to make subordinate legislation and when made, it will be tabled before the legislature for approval.
- Rejection of a major bill: In the parliamentary system, a rejection of a major bill initiated by the cabinet may lead to the resignation of the cabinet e.g appropriation bill.
The differences between the cabinet or parliamentary and the Presidential system of government
- The executive president is both head of state and government.
- The people elect the executive president through popular ballot.
- The principle of separation of power is more pronounced.
- Individual responsibility of ministers is applicable.
- The president can appoint his ministers not only from his party,
- The president and his ministers are not part of the legislature.
- The president can be removed from office by the legislature. through the process called impeachment.
- There is no official and legal recognition of opposition party.
- There is supremacy of the constitution.
- There are effective checks and balances among the three organs of government.
- U.S.A. is a good example of a country operating this system.
- Ministers could remain in office if the president is impeached or removed, from office.
- The Queen/president is head of state while a prime minister is head of government.
- The leader of the party that won the election is appointed as the prime minister.
- The principle of separation of powers is not well pronounced.
- Collective responsibility of ministers is applicable.
- Ministers are chosen by the prime minister from his party men in the legislature.
- The prime minister and his ministers are part of the legislature.
- The prime minister and his cabinet can be removed from office if a vote of no confidence is passed in the executive.
- Opposition party is legally and officially recognised.
- There is parliamentary supremacy, not the constitution.
- Powers are fused and so there is no effective checks and balances among the organs of government.
- Britain is a good example of a country operating cabinet system of government.
- If the prime minister is removed through a vote of no confidence, his ministers have to go with him.