1. Introduction


This book is an ambitious attempt to define the contribution of parliament to democracy, and to identify the distinctive attributes of a democratic parliament or legislature in the twenty-first century. Its core comprises extracts from submissions provided by member parliaments of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), in which they describe some of the challenges they currently face, and provide examples of their own democratic practice which they wish to share with others. The work is therefore not an academic treatise, nor a manual of instruction or prescription; but a living compilation of ideas and practices organised around key democratic values as these are realised in, and promoted by, the activities of parliaments themselves.

The democratic paradox

The early years of the twenty-first century have witnessed a marked paradox. On the one hand democracy, both as an ideal and as a set of political institutions and practices, has triumphed in most countries of the world. As the outcome statement of the 2005 UN World Summit declared, ‘democracy is a universal value’ which ‘does not belong to any country or region’. On the other hand, these years have also seen a considerable disillusionment developing with the results of democracy in practice, one that is shared by citizens of the ‘old’ democracies as much as by those of the ‘new and emerging’ ones. Such disillusionment may always have been inherent in the democratic project, and in what the Italian political theorist Norberto Bobbio has termed its ‘broken promises’ – the ‘contrast between what was promised and what has actually come about’. Yet it is a contrast that appears particularly acute in the present age, when democracies are called on to grapple with forces that often seem beyond their control, affecting their security, their economies, and the livelihoods and well-being of their citizens.

Parliaments today have a key role in addressing this paradox. As the central institution of democracy, they embody the will of the people in government, and carry all their expectations that democracy will be truly responsive to their needs and help solve the most pressing problems that confront them in their daily lives. As the elected body that represents society in all its diversity, parliaments have a unique responsibility for reconciling the conflicting interests and expectations of different groups and communities through the democratic means of dialogue and compromise. As the key legislative organ, parliaments have the task of adapting society’s laws to its rapidly changing needs and circumstances. As the body entrusted with the oversight of government, they are responsible for ensuring that governments are fully accountable to the people.

In the process parliaments are themselves undergoing considerable change, as they seek to adapt to the challenges of a new century. The past few years have witnessed numerous efforts across many parliaments to engage more effectively with the public and to improve the way they work: to become more genuinely representative of their electorates, more accessible and accountable to them, more open and transparent in their procedures, and more effective in their key tasks of legislation and oversight of government. As a guide to these initiatives, this book is partly an attempt to provide a contemporary picture of the contribution that parliaments are making to consolidating and strengthening democracy. At the same time it is more than simply a record; it also has an aspirational purpose. In presenting what parliaments themselves see as good examples of democratic practice, it builds up a profile of what a democratic parliament actually looks like, and how it might better become so. The term ‘Guide’ embraces both these purposes, aspirational as well as descriptive.

   Multiple audiences

Who, then, is the Guide designed for? In the first instance it is addressed to parliamentarians, who are concerned to respond to the challenges of the contemporary world, and to provide effective leadership in meeting them. Although each parliament has its own national traditions and distinctive character, all are well used to exchanging experiences across parliaments, and using ideas from elsewhere about possible solutions to common problems, once appropriately adapted to their domestic circumstances. The Guide forms a contribution to this mutual learning process, in what is a very rapidly changing scene. Hopefully, every parliamentary reader will find at least one good idea or example of good practice within its covers which could be usefully ‘domesticated’.

The Guide is also addressed to concerned citizens and activists in any country. It is impossible to ignore the fact that, while individual parliamentary representatives at the constituency level may be respected, parliaments as an institution and politicians as a group do not rate highly in public esteem in many countries. This is partly because of the one-sided way in which they are often presented in the media. ‘The media tend to focus more on proceedings which are adversarial and on matters such as travel and expenses,’ notes one of our submissions. It also has to be said that some parliamentarians contribute to their own negative image as a self-serving elite, being more responsive to powerful sectional interests and lobbies than to their own electors. Correcting such an image is largely in the hands of parliamentarians themselves, and is not the purpose of this book. What it can do, however, is to give concerned citizens a more rounded picture of what takes place in parliaments, and of the changes many of them have been instituting so as to work in a more effective and democratic way. In this the book can help reform movements in particular countries to become more informed, by providing examples of initiatives which are actually taking place elsewhere. Progressive change in parliaments partly comes from within, from their own members, partly from determined and informed pressure from without, in society at large.

It is hoped that the Guide will also be of interest to international organisations involved in helping strengthen parliaments, as well as to researchers and students of parliamentary practice. In order to make it as accessible to as wide a readership as possible, it is written throughout in a jargon-free style. To keep the book from becoming overlong, while maintaining a comprehensiveness of coverage, the text is punctuated throughout with references to websites which can provide more detailed information on the issues covered. In this respect the Guide points beyond itself to a much wider body of knowledge and experience than can be comprehended within the covers of a single volume. There will also be a parallel electronic version available on the IPU website, with which readers can interact.

The parliamentary contribution to democracy

Before we can identify the parliamentary contribution to democracy we need first to be clear what we understand ‘democracy’ to mean. In brief, democracy is both an ideal and a set of institutions and practices. As an ideal, it expresses two very simple principles: first, that the members of any group or association should have the determining influence and control over its rules and policies, through their participation in deliberations about the common interest; second, that in doing so they should treat each other, and be treated, as equals. These principles are applicable from the smallest group up to the largest state; how effectively they are realised in practice is the touchstone of how democratic any association can claim to be.

At the level of the modern state these democratic principles are only realised through a complex set of institutions and practices, which have evolved over time and continue to do so. These include: a guaranteed framework of citizen rights; institutions of representative and accountable government; an active citizen body or civil society; and a number of mediating institutions between government and citizens, among which political parties and the media are the most important. Although parliaments belong most obviously to the second, governmental, set of institutions, they also have a key role to play in relation to the others. This is what makes them the central institution of a democracy.

   Citizen rights

For the people to have any influence over the laws and policies to which they are subject requires the guarantee of basic rights: to express themselves freely, to associate freely with others, to vote for their representatives in free and fair elections, and so on. It is this framework of rights that also secures for them the further democratic principle of being treated as equals without discrimination. These rights may need protecting for vulnerable or unpopular groups even when the infringement of them has majority support.

While respect for these rights is the responsibility of all citizens, it is the particular responsibility of parliament as the legislative power to ensure that their formulation and mode of protection in practice conform to international human rights standards, and that they are not undermined by other legislation, including that applicable to residents who do not have full citizenship. Nowadays, most citizens in both developed and developing countries regard economic and social rights as being as important a component of their basic rights as civil and political ones; how to protect these effectively for all sections of their population is one of the main challenges confronting parliaments in the present age of globalisation, where there is an erosion of national sovereignty.

   Institutions of representative and accountable government

A second dimension of democracy consists in the institutions of representative and accountable government, which together determine the laws and policies for society and secure respect for the rule of law. Within the traditional separation of powers – between the executive, legislature and judiciary – parliament as the freely elected body holds a central place in any democracy. It is the institution through which the will of the people is expressed, and through which popular self-government is realised in practice. As agents of the people, parliaments represent them in dealings with the other branches of government, and with various international and sub-national bodies. How well they fulfil this mediating role, and how representative of the people they are in all their diversity, is an important consideration for a democratic parliament.

Another is how effectively they carry out their distinctive functions within the separation of powers. Experts may differ on their precise list of such functions, but there seems broad agreement that at least the following should be included in the tasks undertaken by and expected of all parliaments:

  • law making
  • approval of taxation and expenditure, generally in the context of the national budget
  • oversight of executive actions, policy and personnel
  • ratification of treaties and monitoring of treaty bodies
  • debating issues of national and international moment
  • hearing and redressing grievances
  • approving constitutional change

In terms of these functions, parliament’s contribution to democracy lies in carrying out these functions effectively, not only in the sense of the efficient organisation of business, but of doing so in a way that serves the needs of all sections of society.

   Active civil society

By ‘civil society’ here is meant not just non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but the body of active citizens, working together in many different ways to solve their common problems and to promote and defend their interests. Although they can only do this if they are independent of government, they need to engage continually with government on issues which affect them, and the interests of those whom they represent. The role of citizens in a democracy is not exhausted by the act of electing a government; they need to be continually engaged with it if it is to remain in touch with the people and their needs. A democratic parliament for its part will seek to foster a vibrant civil society and to work closely with it in finding solutions to problems facing the country, and in improving the quality and relevance of legislation.

   Political parties

Of the mediating institutions between government and society, political parties are of particular significance for parliament. Parliament not only represents citizens as individuals; through the presence of political parties it also represents them collectively to promote certain broad policy tendencies. Parties serve both to focus electoral choice, and also to ensure that these choices are carried through into the work of parliament and into ongoing public debate. Although political parties are currently not held in high regard by the public at large, they are nevertheless indispensable to the working of a democratic parliament. Operating as they do in both the spheres of government and civil society, they serve as an essential bridge between the two.

   The communication media

The second bridging institution which has a key importance for parliament and its work are the communication media. The media constitute the key means for informing citizens about public affairs, and a key channel of communication between parliament and public. In their investigative role, the media have always been seen as a ‘watchdog’ against all kinds of abuse. How well they fulfil these functions is vital for the quality of democratic life. Given the tendency for these functions to become distorted, whether by executive partiality in a government-controlled system, or by powerful economic interests in a commercialised one, parliament has a key democratic role in setting an appropriate legal framework for the media, to ensure both their independence and their diversity.

Parliament thus makes a vital contribution to democracy at many levels simultaneously. Within the institutions of government it is the representative body through which the will of the people finds expression, in which their diversity is manifested, and in which the differences between them are debated and negotiated. At its best, parliament embodies the distinctive democratic attributes of discussion and compromise, as the means through which a public interest is realised that is more than the sum of individual or sectional interests. Moreover, the effectiveness with which parliament carries out its central functions of legislation, budgetary control and oversight of the executive is essential to the quality of democratic life. In carrying out these tasks it works together with the associations of civil society, and has the distinctive responsibility of safeguarding the individual democratic rights of citizens. It can only do all this, finally, if it itself observes democratic norms, by showing itself open, accessible and accountable to the electorate in its own mode of operation.

A framework for a democratic parliament

In the light of the above discussion it is now possible to set out the key characteristics of a democratic parliament. It is one which is:

  • representative: that is, socially and politically representative of the diversity of the people, and ensuring equal opportunities and protections for all its members;
  • transparent: that is, being open to the nation through different media, and transparent in the conduct of its business;
  • accessible: this means involving the public, including the associations and movements of civil society, in the work of parliament;
  • accountable: this involves members of parliament being accountable to the electorate for their performance in office and integrity of conduct;
  • effective: this means the effective organisation of business in accordance with these democratic values, and the performance of parliament’s legislative and oversight functions in a manner that serves the needs of the whole population.

In the accompanying framework (see table), these democratic values and requirements are set out in the first two columns. The third column itemises the possible procedural means and institutions through which these values may be realised. Of course parliaments differ from one another, both in terms of their governmental systems and in terms of their social and economic context. There are federal and unitary states. There are presidential and parliamentary systems. There are single- and dual-chamber parliaments. Above all there are enormous differences between countries, not only in their size, but also in their levels of economic development, and in the resources that are consequently available to parliaments for carrying out their work. The sheer diversity and creativity of practices exemplified in this Guide bears out the conclusion of the 2005 UN World Summit that ‘there is no single model of democracy’. At the same time, the basic values outlined in the framework provide a clear sense of direction and set of criteria to enable us to recognise what a democratic parliament might look like. They also serve as the organising principles for the content and chapter divisions of this Guide.

A version of the framework was sent to member parliaments for comment, and to provide a framework for the examples of good practice which they submitted. It is important to stress here that this exercise was not a systematic survey, asking for information from member parliaments about their practices under every heading. It was a much more free-ranging exercise, in which they were asked to choose two or three examples of good practice which they thought were worth sharing with others. The results have necessarily been uneven. On the one hand, the examples of democratic practice included in the Guide may not be the best or most striking ones that could be found if one were to conduct a thorough survey. They are simply ones selected and returned by the parliaments themselves, though regrettably there has not been space to include all of them. On the other hand, in order to ensure a reasonably comprehensive coverage of the issues, further examples have been drawn on from returns made by parliaments to previous surveys conducted by the IPU, as well as other sources (which will be referenced accordingly in the text).

   Some qualifications

Two further qualifications are worth making here. The examples of democratic practice included in the Guide are based on descriptions and documentation provided by parliaments themselves. We were not always able to check how well they are actually working, or whether they have been successfully sustained over time. How far, for instance, have people actually availed themselves of new opportunities to influence the legislative activities of a parliament, or have a parliament’s own enhanced oversight powers made government more accountable? Such questions would require a considerable research programme to answer, which is beyond the scope of this book. However, good practical examples which have been tried and endorsed by parliaments are worth disseminating even if they may not have worked perfectly, or may have led to problems that had not been entirely foreseen.

In this context a final word of caution is in order. Democracy in practice often requires a trade-off between competing norms or values which cannot all be maximised simultaneously. So parliaments have the task of facilitating a government’s legislative agenda as well as scrutinising and amending it; parliamentary immunities may protect representatives from executive arbitrariness but also mask potential criminality; making adequate provision for individual members’ initiatives may create havoc with the parliamentary timetable and the organisation of business; constituency-based electoral systems may foster ease of access to representatives for their electors, but produce parliaments that are collectively unrepresentative in various respects. There are many other such tensions and trade-offs. That they exist was clearly evident in the returns sent in by parliaments, and they have been discussed at various points in the text.

With these qualifications, the examples of good practice presented in the Guide offer a profile of what a democratic parliament aspires to be. They show that parliaments across the world are actively seeking to respond to the challenges of the present age. Mostly they are doing so by improving their ongoing procedures and the ways in which they engage with the public. Occasionally, however, it is a one-off event, in which a parliament plays a central role in resolving a national crisis, or in confronting a key moment of national decision, which does more than anything to raise its standing among the people. So the Ukrainian Parliament, in its communication for the Guide, has drawn our attention to the central role it played in helping resolve the national crisis caused by the flawed presidential election of late 2004. And the Turkish Parliament has singled out for mention the key vote it took in the run up to the 2003 war in Iraq, to reject the majority government’s proposal to allow foreign troops access to Turkish soil and to send its own troops abroad. Such moments cannot be predicted or legislated for. They serve as a salutary reminder, however, that, whatever its democratic procedures may be, it is a parliament’s ability to rise to the occasion and ‘speak for the nation’ at a moment of grave national decision that may have the most lasting consequences for its standing among the people.

Figure 1.1: Framework: the parliamentary contribution to democracy

Basic objectives or values. A parliament that is: Requirements Possible procedural and institutional means for the realisation of these objectives or values
Representative An elected parliament that is socially and politically representative, and committed to equal opportunities for its members so that they can carry out their mandates.

Free and fair electoral system and process; means of ensuring representation of/by all sectors of society with a view to reflecting national and gender diversity, for example by using special procedures to ensure representation of marginalised or excluded groups.

Open, democratic and independent party procedures, organisations and systems.

Mechanisms to ensure the rights of the political opposition and other political groups, and to allow all members to exercise their mandates freely and without being subjected to undue influence and pressure.

Freedom of speech and association; guarantees of parliamentary rights and immunities, including the integrity of the presiding officers and other office holders.

Equal opportunities policies and procedures; non-discriminatory hours and conditions of work; language facilities for all members.

Transparent A parliament that is open to the nation and transparent in the conduct of its business.

Proceedings open to the public; prior information to the public on the business before parliament; documentation available in relevant languages; availability of user-friendly tools, for example using various media such as the World Wide Web; the parliament should have its own public relations officers and facilities.

Legislation on freedom of/access to information.

Accessible Involvement of the public, including civil society and other people's movements, in the work of the parliament.

Various means for constituents to have access to their elected representatives.

Effective modes of public participation in pre-legislative scrutiny; right of open consultation for interested parties; public right of petition; systematic grievance procedures.

Possibility for lobbying, within the limits of agreed legal provisions that ensure transparency.

Accountable Members of parliament who are accountable to the electorate for their performance in office and for the integrity of their conduct.

Effective electoral sanction and monitoring processes; reporting procedures to inform constituents; standards and enforceable code of conduct.

Adequate salary for members; register of outside interests and income; enforceable limits on and transparency in election fundraising and expenditure.

At all levels: Effective organisation of business in accordance with these democratic norms and values.

Mechanisms and resources to ensure the independence and autonomy of parliament, including parliament's control of its own budget.

Availability of non-partisan professional staff separate from the main civil service.

Adequate unbiased research and information facilities for members; parliament’s own business committee; procedures for effective planning and timetabling of business; systems for monitoring parliamentary performance; opinion surveys among relevant groups on perceptions of performance.

(a) At the national level: Effective performance of legislative and scrutiny functions, and as a national forum for issues of common concern.

Systematic procedures for executive accountability; adequate powers and resources for committees; accountability to parliament of non-governmental public bodies and commissions.

Mechanisms to ensure effective parliamentary engagement in the national budget process in all its stages, including the subsequent auditing of accounts.

Ability to address issues of major concern to society; to mediate in the event of tension and prevent violent conflict; to shape public institutions that cater for the needs of the entire population.

For parliaments that approve senior appointments and/or perform judicial functions: mechanisms to ensure a fair, equitable and non-partisan process.

(b) In relation to the international level: Active involvement of parliament in international affairs. Procedures for parliamentary monitoring of and input into international negotiations as well as overseeing the positions adopted by the government; mechanisms that allow for parliamentary scrutiny of activities of international organisations and input into their deliberations; mechanisms for ensuring national compliance with international norms and the rule of law; inter-parliamentary cooperation and parliamentary diplomacy.
(c) In relation to the local level: Cooperative relationship with state, provincial and local legislatures. Mechanisms for regular consultations between the presiding officers of the national and sub-national parliaments or legislatures on national policy issues, in order to ensure that decisions are informed by local needs.


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