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Representative Government

  In politics representatives ‘stand for’, ‘act for’, or symbolically represent others who are not, or cannot be, present: that is the root meaning of the Latin word. Representative government developed in most agrarian empires and kingdoms where estates, classes, castes and religious clergy were ‘represented’ by selected or elected agents. The election of agents lays the foundations for the modern idea of representative government, which has become a synonym for the systems of indirect democracy through which all advanced industrial societies are governed.

Under modern systems of representative government elected officials ‘represent the people’, who, though sovereign, cannot be in continuous assembly deliberating over public policy. Aside from specific arrangements enabling popular initiatives to mandate referendums, or specific procedures requiring referendums before constitutional change, citizens do not directly determine the law or public policy under systems of representative government. In effect representative government applies the principle of the division of labour to democracy. Specialists in politics make policy, and the people reject their services if they prove incompetent.

The idea of representative government has always been variously interpreted. Conservative thinkers, suspicious of the capabilities of the mob, like Edmund Burke, emphasize the benefits of autonomous representatives who, once elected, are required only to do what they think is best for their constituents: representatives are not, and should not be, delegates. By contrast, radical democrats, like Rousseau and Karl Marx, argue that representatives should be delegates, subject to a right of recall by their constituents, otherwise, as Rousseau remarked, the people are free only on the day they elect their representatives.

There are two basic forms of representative government in the contemporary world: parliamentary and presidential government. Under parliamentary government executive and legislative powers are held by the members of a representative assembly. The Westminster parliament was the earliest and prototypical form of parliamentary government, though considerable variations have subsequently emerged in continental European and Commonwealth governmental systems. The executive in a parliamentary system is chosen either by the majority party, or through negotiation among minority parties when no majority party exists. The executive consists of a prime minister (or chancellor) and a cabinet of ministers responsible for individual departments or ministries. Strong executive powers to form public policies and shape legislation are granted to the cabinet through the customs of parliamentary privilege, privacy and collective cabinet responsibility. These apparently arbitrary powers are counterbalanced by the principle of responsible government which requires individual ministers to be fully accountable for the performance of their ministries, and mandates that failure in the performance of duties should lead to the resignation of the responsible minister (a principle now more honoured in the breach than the observance). According to the same principle of responsible government the failure of the executive to maintain the confidence of a majority of the members of parliament usually leads to the government\'s resignation.

Parliamentary assemblies are either one chamber (unicameral) or bicameral, composed of an upper and a lower house. The form of representation varies from one system to another. The members of the upper house may be appointed by the lower house (in systems where the upper house is limited to residual and supervisory powers) or they may be elected representatives (where the upper house is responsible for the passage of legislation). Members of the lower house are traditionally meant to be representative of ‘the people’; members of the upper house are normally representatives of regions, states or provinces though in the eccentric British case the descendants of aristocrats sit in the House of Lords. The primary functions of a parliamentary assembly are to choose the government, provide a forum for public debate, to create and pass legislation, to authorize the collection and allocation of public finances, and to act as a means through which citizens\' grievances can be raised and remedied. Legislation is normally created in committees and then presented to the whole house for debate before a vote is taken to pass or reject it.

Parliamentary government is often contrasted with presidential government, in which executive and legislative powers are more sharply separated, and the executive is directly elected by the people rather than by an elected assembly. Presidential government is necessarily found in a republic. The president is the head of state, and may also be the head of the executive. However, it is only in the latter case that most people speak of presidential government. Republics with parliamentary systems, like India, Ireland, Italy, and Germany, have presidents whose duties and powers are largely ceremonial. Under a dual executive system, like that in France, the president has considerable potential power in foreign affairs and domestic policies, but day-to-day conduct of the government is under the authority of the prime minister: such systems are often called ‘semi-presidential’. The most common form of presidential government, found especially in the US and in Latin America, is the limited presidential executive who is simultaneously the head of state and the head of government. Such presidents are directly elected, and independent of a separately elected congressional assembly (consisting of one or two houses). They are checked and balanced by that assembly, and by judicial review. The president can veto congressional legislation, but such a veto can be overturned by an extraordinary congressional majority. Such presidents usually require congressional approval for declaring war, making foreign treaties, and appointing cabinet members and supreme court justices. (There is also a considerable number of states which operate with an ‘unlimited’ presidential executive, i.e. dictatorships, which are not authentic systems of representative government.)

Presidential systems of government are usually criticized for three reasons: (1) temporal rigidity, (2) majoritarianism, and (3) creating crises of dual legitimacy. The first criticism focuses on the fact that a presidential term is usually fixed. Such provisions may make a president insensitive to public opinion (especially because impeachment is difficult). Conversely, presidents nearing the end of their terms of office lose much of their authority, and the limits on presidential terms (two in the US) seem inflexible when there is a highly popular and competent president. The second criticism is based on the fact that a presidential system appears to be necessarily majoritarian: the winner must get 50% + 1. It is argued that this trait makes presidents less likely to be sensitive to minorities and makes electoral contests into divisive ‘winner takes all’ disputes. (However, this criticism depends on the idea that presidentialism requires one president. This is the normal case, but there can be collective presidencies). Finally, presidents and assemblies have dual legitimacies, which can create political crises if there is a deadlock. Both can claim to be representatives of the people, even though they are elected in different ways. For these reasons, among others, many have argued that presidentialism is inferior to parliamentary government, and more likely to lead to a breakdown of a democratic system. Defenders of presidentialism argue that if we look at the breakdown of democratic régimes (in states of more than 200,000 people) in the 20th century the evidence is mixed: 50% of presidential systems have broken down compared with 44% of parliamentary systems. They also argue that presidentialism, by contrast with parliamentary government, assists accountability, enables the electorate to identify clearly who will be responsible for executive government, creates a useful system of checks and balances which promotes consensual government, and establishes an institution with the capacity to arbitrate conflict.

In all systems of representative government political parties have become the primary indirect mechanism of representation: literally representing ‘parts’ of society. Political parties are formal voluntary organizations which attempt to gain control of government to represent the ideas and interests of one or more groups within society. Formal political parties emerged in Europe and North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries when social processes associated with industrialization led to the enlargement of electorates, greater democratization, and then to the development of formal organizations to represent the ideas and interests of those electorates.

In modern democracies political parties may organize around social cleavages, ideas and ideologies, or they may attempt to be ‘catch-all’ parties which, in principle, can appeal to everybody. In most political systems there is a left-right, conservative-liberal, or conservative-liberal-socialist spectrum of parties, but this left-right spectrum may not be the defining or dominant feature of the party system. Other cleavages and ideas, singly and in combination, also play important roles in the formation of parties (for example, religion, ethnicity, nationalism, language, and region); while more mundane factors, like faction-fights and clientelism, may lead to the fragmentation of leftist, centrist and rightist political parties. In countries which are relatively religiously, linguistically and ethnically homogeneous it is common to find catch-all parties which represent a wide range of diverse interests. In states with election systems based on proportional representation it is more common to find small, single-issue parties, or parties which seek to represent ‘communities of belonging’ rather than appealing to as many people as possible.

Party systems in representative democracies are distinguished primarily by the size and effective number of parties which compete in elections. Political scientists and politicians regularly debate the merits of two-party systems and multi-party systems. The advantages of the two-party system are alleged to include: a clearer choice for the electorate; alternation between two dominant parties which guarantees accountability of the party in office and prevents one-party dominance; a guaranteed majority which leads to effective government; and incentives for parties to be responsive and pragmatic rather than ideological. Each of these claims is contested: two-party systems may create centrist parties which fail to represent non-mainstream views; neither pragmatism nor alternation are guaranteed by a two-party system (as exemplified by continuous Conservative rule in the UK since 1979); a two-party presidential system may lead to stalemate between the executive and the congress if one party each has control of one institution (as in the US from 1980 until 1992). The advantages of multi-party systems are said to include: a wider array of political opinion being represented in parliament or congress; the absence of a majority party obliges the leaders of minority parties and coalitions to explore fully the merits and pitfalls of diverse policies; and the stable representation of non-mainstream or minority views discourages extra-constitutional challenges to the political order. However, critics argue that multi-party systems may be less stable and less effective because coalition governments must accommodate diverse political interests; in the limiting case of postwar Italy the average life span of a government has been less than 10 months. But other multi-party systems are more stable. In the Scandinavian countries and Germany where multi-party systems are comprised of one dominant party and two or three minor parties, stable and effective government has been achieved through varying coalitions, thus combining effectiveness and stability with continued representation for minor parties. Consociationalism represents a form of multi-party representative government in societies which are linguistically, religiously or ethnically divided, and, where it works, shows that the engineering skills involved in designing effective representative government are some of the most important social tools of our world. BO\'L

See also conservatism; federalism; liberalism; socialism and social democracy.Further reading A. Lijphart, Democracies; , A. Lijphart (ed.), Parliamentary Versus Presidential Government; , G. Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: a Framework for Analysis, vol. 1; , M.S. Shugart and , J.M. Carey, Presidents and Assemblies; , A. Ware, Political Parties: Electoral Change and Structural Response.



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