Home The Washington Diplomat November 2008 Parliamentary Democracy:Too Much of a Good Thing?

Parliamentary Democracy:Too Much of a Good Thing?


As the United States holds its most interesting presidential election in a generation, it’s easy to for-get that the John McCain-Barack Obama battle isn’t the only race under the sun.

Washington-based diplomats are tracking half a dozen key elections around the world — some of them in countries whose parliamentary form of government is so complicated that it makes the U.S. Electoral College look simple by comparison.

For one thing, elections in the United States always fall on “Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November,” according to the U.S. Constitution. Yet in a parliamentary democracy, fixed election dates are often unheard of.

Furthermore, in the United States, presidential elections occur every four years — but in many other democracies, whole gov-ernments seem to be expendable. Italy, for example, has had 61 governments since the end of World War II, some of them lasting only 11 days.

The point of a parliamentary system where governments can be dissolved and snap elections called at any moment is often to break political deadlock — yet revolving-door governments can conversely lead to a paralysis in policymaking. Likewise, if no change in power results, a snap election can further entrench the political discord.

In 2007, Canada’s British-style Parliament changed the Canada Elections Act to require federal elections every four years on the third Monday in October, beginning with Oct. 19, 2009. But in September, Parliament itself was dissolved at the request of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who called for new elections to be held the following month on Oct. 14, even though the notion of fixed elections was his proposal.

But in the end, Harper and his Conservative minority government couldn’t come to an agreement with the country’s main opposition party, the Liberals, with each side blaming the other for wanting a snap election.

A minority government situation such as Harper’s occurs when the party that holds the most seats in the House of Commons — the powerful body that is directly elected by the Canadian people — still holds less than the opposition parties combined.

And the parties in Canada’s Parliament do not form coalitions as in other systems of government, which can often lead to political stalemate. Not long after assuming office, Harper proposed to reform Canadian democracy to fix this problem.

In a speech back in May 2005, Harper argued that “fixed election dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar simply for partisan political advantage.” However, he added this important caveat: “Unless we’re defeated or prevented from governing,” he said, “we want to keep moving forward to make this minority Parliament work over the next three years.”

But apparently, it didn’t work, and Harper said he needed to call elections to fix what he called an unproductive Parliament.

Despite a last-minute rally by the Liberals’ Stéphane Dion, who challenged Harper on his response to the global financial crisis, the Conservatives handily won with 38 percent of the vote, followed by the Liberals at 26 percent, and the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) with 18 percent.

At the same time, the results confirmed what many experts predicted — that the snap election was unlikely to alter the political composition of the deeply fractured legislature. Harper’s Conservatives won 143 seats, up from 124 in the last election, though they still hold a minority in Parliament. In fact, Canadians have now elected their third back-to-back minority Conservative government in just four years.

“It looks like we’re going to have pretty much the same numbers per party as we had before,” David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, correctly predicted prior to the election. “Harper’s got a plurality, the Liberals have a weak leader, and a lot of their more lefty types are defecting to the NDP and the Greens,” he said. “The problem is, you can get 20 percent of the vote and still not have a seat in Parliament.”

That’s because the country has a complex multiparty system intended to better represent its pluralistic, linguistically different population, which is spread out over such a large geography.

As leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, Harper enjoys strong support in the western provinces, particularly his native, oil-rich Alberta. But the opposition Liberals are strong in Ontario, Canada’s industrial and financial center, while in French-speaking Québec, the nationalist Bloc Québécois holds sway.

So why keep a system that produced a third election in four years that didn’t actually change anything? Despite its political stasis, Canada has no plans to change its parliamentary model, preferring the flexibility, plurality and compromise it offers.

“Having a two-party system would be seen as too American,” said Biette. “There is a movement to look at proportional repre-sentation, kind of like Israel. For example, if the Liberal Party receives 25 percent of the vote, they’d get 25 percent of the MPs. Israel, where small parties offer themselves as coalition partners, is the extreme, but maybe if you cleared a threshold of 10 percent, then you could have representation. In Canada, you don’t have coalitions; that’s not the way they do things.”

Christopher Sands, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and resident expert on Canadian politics, says he likes the way they do things, preferring the country’s current parliamentary system.

“It has two important features: the opposition can bring down the government through a vote of no-confidence, and the government has the ability to call an election when it’s convenient. Those two things have to go together,” he said. “I think the idea of fixed elections is stupid, because it’s inconsistent with parliamentary government. Unless you eliminate votes of no-confidence, you’ve thrown the advantage to the opposition.”

Presumably, Harper called the election sensing an opportunity to weaken the opposition and strengthen his party’s standing in Parliament — a gamble backed by many opinion polls at the time. What he didn’t anticipate was the cascading global financial crisis — analysts say Canada will likely fall into recession in 2009 — that bolstered his opponents, who ripped apart Harper’s “stay the course” mantra.

“People are rather concerned about the economy right now, and one of the reasons Harper’s lost some support is that he hasn’t portrayed himself as overly concerned about what’s happening,” Biette said.

On the plus side, “Canada doesn’t have the mortgage problem we have, and energy exports are big. The United States imports more energy from Canada than from any other country,” he said, adding that “the anti-American card gets played in every elec-tion, to different degrees. This year, the Conservatives are playing the anti-American card, saying the financial crisis was America’s fault and that Canada has a better system.”

But so far it does look like Canada will be better able to weather the global credit crisis, thanks to its tightly regulated, more liquid and less leveraged banking system.

Sands of the Hudson Institute noted that U.S. financial crunch also inadvertently helps Canada “in that the Toronto Stock Ex-change is definitely secondary in the global financial system. So when the primary markets are in trouble, you see a flight to secondary markets, or everybody loses money.”

But he cautions that although “nobody is expecting a bank failure in Canada,” the country could suffer if U.S. demand for Ca-nadian commodities such as oil, nickel and precious metals falls dramatically. Canada has already suffered its worst tourism season in memory as Americans — conscious of record-high gasoline prices — cancelled vacation plans to such attractions as Québec City and Prince Edward Island.

Another important U.S. ally, Japan — which, like Canada, has a parliamentary system — is also facing economic woes (see cover profile) amid a constantly changing political backdrop. In fact, it’s not at all clear how long newly inaugurated Prime Minister Taro Aso will remain in power as he tries to put together a spending package to revive his country’s ailing economy.

Aso, 68, is an outspoken conservative who in September was elected leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The former president of a cement company, he’s run for prime minister four times in seven years. Aso’s two predecessors, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, both stepped down within the past 14 months amid dismal approval ratings.

“Every year when I give this speech, there’s a new prime minister,” said political analyst Gerald L. Curtis, speaking Sept. 29 at Washington’s Japan Information and Culture Center. “I think this time next year, there will have been at least two new prime ministers.”

Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University, is considered one of the nation’s top experts on U.S.-Japan rela-tions. He said the LDP’s half-century dominance of Japanese politics is coming to an end, and that the next prime minister is likely to come from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was formed in 1998 as a merger of four previously independent parties that were opposed to the LDP.

“Looking back on the last 50 years, one of the central reasons the LDP stayed in power is that it reached out across the political spectrum. It started out as an amalgam of different conservative parties fighting to prevent the socialists from coming to power. They had a system of recruiting leaders and making policy, and there was a supportive relationship between the LDP and the bureaucracy,” explained Curtis.

“All of this has collapsed. The LDP is unwinding, and there’s no factional balance. It’s basically a cabinet of friends.”

Of 18 cabinet members, Curtis pointed out that 12 are hereditary politicians — sons or daughters of people who have served in Japan’s Diet. A perfect example is Fukuda, whom Curtis said never really wanted to be a politician but did what his father wanted him to do. (Aso himself is the grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, Japan’s powerful postwar prime minister.)

“An unbelievable 40 percent of LDP members hold these family seats. They have a stranglehold on these positions,” Curtis charged. “Many of them go into politics not out of a desire but out of a sense of obligation. It used to be that these politicians came from the districts in which they ran, so they had their finger on the pulse of their publics. But most of these second-generation politicians grew up in Tokyo. You’d be amazed how many of them don’t know anything about their own districts.”

Aso had been widely expected to call a November general election to break Tokyo’s parliamentary deadlock, but the worsening global credit crunch might lead him to delay the elections so that he can deal with the crisis — something the majority of the public favors at this point.

No matter when the election is held, says Curtis, neither the LDP nor the DPJ are likely to win a majority of seats. That means one of two possibilities: the LDP along with its junior partner, the New Komeito Party, squeak out a bare majority of seats, or the DPJ wins more seats than the LDP, enabling it to form a coalition government.

“I think the next government will be DPJ. This will make an Aso government ungovernable,” Curtis predicted. “If the DPJ gets even one more seat than the LDP, they’ll be able to hammer together a coalition. Aso won’t last 40 days if the LDP doesn’t win in this coming election.”

Regardless of who wins, Curtis says the country’s problems are deep-seated and endemic — and won’t be solved by a revolving door of politicians.

“One thing that troubles me about Japanese politicians is how much they enjoy bureaucracy-bashing. The DPJ even more than the LDP has pushed this. It’s very dangerous, and it’s all based on a fundamental lie: that all of Japan’s problems are caused by bureaucrats.” Curtis warned.

“Japanese believe they can enjoy Scandinavian-level services and American-level taxes. But it’s a fantasy. The result is an enormous deficit.”

According to the professor, part of the problem is that Japan is more preoccupied with domestic issues than ever before — to the point that no one even discusses permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council anymore. Defense spending hasn’t gone up in seven years, and Japan’s budget for overseas development assistance has been cut. In short, argues Curtis, Ja-pan is no longer a great world power.

Curtis concludes that, if nothing else, a DPJ victory will excite the public and represent a major change for Japanese who have seen their country’s political life dominated by the LDP for half a century.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a good thing to have a new prime minister every six months, because you want to circulate all these old guys, let them have their day and then get rid of them,” he said. “There’s no evidence that there’s any great leader out there.”

That may well indeed be the case for three other important parliamentary democracies — South Africa, Thailand and Ukraine — all of which have upcoming elections, though political unrest may derail those elections in at least one and possibly two of those countries.

Violent clashes in Thailand broke out in early October, only three weeks after the inauguration of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, leader of the People Power Party (PPP). The protestors, from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), are at-tempting to force Somchai’s resignation or, more ominously, another military coup (it would be the 19th coup since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932).

The turmoil has damaged tourism and shaken investor confidence in a country that’s had four leaders in the last two years, hin-dering the government’s ability to implement any actual reforms or policies. It has also deeply divided the country between its rural poor, who elected Somchai into office, and the predominantly urban, middle-class supporters that adamantly oppose Somchai’s rule.

If a new election takes place within the next few months as widely expected, the PPP will probably win again, say observers, although the schism between the rich and poor will make political compromise highly unlikely.

And on Dec. 7, Ukrainians will head to the polls for the third time in as many years since the so-called Orange Revolution, after President Viktor Yushchenko dissolved Parliament and called for snap elections in early October.

Yushchenko blamed his coalition partner and former ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, for this latest election saga, which will certainly cement the end of their on-again-off-again alliance. “The democratic coalition, I’m deeply convinced, was ruined by a single thing — the human ambition of a single person, the greed for power, differences in values and the dominance of personal interests over national ones.”

Yushchenko’s coalition fell apart Sept. 3 after Tymoshenko’s bloc switched allegiances to vote with the opposition in passing a bill that weakens the presidential role and strengthens the government’s executive powers.

But the call to snap elections amid a global economic downturn is being sharply criticized by Yushchenko’s rivals.

“Two months of the electoral process. Two months of reviewing and counting votes. A month to form a coalition. Two months to form a government,” said opposition politician Ivan Kyrylenko, warning of political paralysis. “That’s seven months that the country will be dealing with this coalition process.”

Ukraine’s dizzying array of prime ministers contrasts with the stable line of party rule that has governed post-apartheid South Africa — at least it did until recently. Although national elections aren’t scheduled until next spring, South Africa’s problems could be exacerbated by a split in the long-ruling African National Congress (ANC), which up until September had been headed by the country’s only two post-apartheid presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

But last December, tensions began when populist firebrand Jacob Zuma was elected leader of the party, sidelining the cerebral Mbeki, who’d been in power since 1999. Disagreements between the two archrivals — both veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle — seriously weakened Mbeki’s ability to govern, and in September, Mbeki was finally forced to resign.

“A struggle for the soul of the ANC is under way,” said academic James Hamill, writing in an article for Britain’s Chatham House think tank. As a result, he said, the ANC is “increasingly blind to the bigger picture at home and abroad.” With a GDP of 8 billion last year, South Africa is by far the continent’s leading economy, though some 48 percent of its people live below the poverty line, and 65 percent of young people between 15 and 24 are currently jobless.

The ANC itself denies all talk of a split into rival factions, though if that does come to pass, it may not be such a bad thing.

“If the new administration in Pretoria can unshackle itself from the ANC’s inhibitive liberation ethos, Mbeki’s departure from office could revitalize South Africa’s standing in world affairs,” according to an International Herald Tribune opinion piece by Greg Mills and Terence McNamee. South African opposition leaders agree it’s time for ANC dominance to give way to political diversity.

Tony Leon, the Democratic Alliance’s spokesman for foreign affairs — who spoke at the Cato Institute recently on the state of freedom in Africa — suggested that “South Africa’s current uncertainty could, over time, lead to far less predictable — and far more democratic political outcomes.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel, managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, contributed to this report.