The Politics of Parliamentary Systems

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Two parties fell from power last week, trigging election. In Portugal, the government of Prime Minister José Sócrates fell after a no-confidence motion was passed by the five opposition parties over spending cuts and tax increases intended to address the ongoing economic crisis in the country. A general election looks likely to take place in May or June. Meanwhile, in Canada, Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government fell after three opposition parties passed a no-confidence motion in response to a finding in the House of Commons that found Harper’s government in contempt of parliament. Harper’s government was found to have provided falls information to parliament on at least three separate occasions. New elections are scheduled to take place on May 2.

The collapse of Sócrates’ government in Portugal and Harper’s government in Canada highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of parliamentary systems. Unlike presidential systems, where legislative terms are fixed and elections are set according to a regular schedule, parliamentary systems usually only have a maximum length of time between elections, normally five years. Elections can—and indeed, often do—come earlier. The government may call an early election if it feels that doing so can give it a larger majority in parliament. And opposition parties may force an early election by passing a no-confidence motion.

Both country’s upcoming elections should provide interesting political theatre. In Canada, public opinion polling is suggesting that Harper’s Conservative Party will likely win a plurality of seats but be denied an absolute majority in the House of Commons, the country’s parliament. If this happens, it will either be forced to seek coalition partners to establish a government, or (more likely) it will try to rule as a minority government again. The problem is that minority governments are inherently unstable, as the government is forced to cobble together a majority vote on every issue from an unstable and often shifting group of Members of Parliament from other parties.

In Portugal, the stakes are perhaps even larger. There, the collapse of Sócrates’ government came just days before the European Union was scheduled to decide on a rescue package for the Portuguese economy. That package, which was conditioned on the government of Portugal enacting strict (and widely unpopular) austerity measures, now appears to be in jeopardy. But the ability of the E.U. to discipline the government of Portugal may be limited, as any spillover of the economic crisis from Portugal could endanger the stability of the euro, the common currency used in fifteen E.U. economies, including Spain, France, and Germany.

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