2. A representative parliament


The first criterion of a democratic parliament is that it should be representative of the people. In the first instance this means that parliament should reflect the popular will as expressed in the choices electors make for their representatives and for the political parties in whose name they stand. A parliament that is significantly unrepresentative in this respect, whether through deficiencies in electoral procedure or the electoral system, will to that extent forfeit legitimacy, and be less able to reflect public opinion on the important issues of the day. A democratic parliament should also reflect the social diversity of the population in terms of gender, language, religion, ethnicity, or other politically significant characteristics. A parliament which is unrepresentative in this second sense will leave some social groups and communities feeling disadvantaged in the political process or even excluded altogether, with consequences for the quality of public life or the stability of the political system and society in general.

This objective for a democratic parliament of being representative in these different senses is achieved partly through the composition of parliament, which is the result of the election process; partly through fair and inclusive parliamentary procedures, which provide an opportunity for all members to express their views, to take part in the work of parliament on an equal footing with others, and to develop their parliamentary careers. While the composition of parliament looks at first sight to be the result of a pre-parliamentary process, parliaments are nevertheless capable of influencing their own composition indirectly, through their legislative power to set the rules under which elections take place. As to fair and inclusive procedures, these are clearly under a parliament’s own direct control.

Electoral rules and procedures to ensure a parliament that is politically representative

Three different features of the election process contribute to this objective. First and most basic is the guarantee of fair electoral procedures, to ensure that no voters, candidates or parties are systematically disadvantaged or discriminated against. Standards for ‘free and fair elections’ are now highly developed, covering everything from the registration of voters and parties, through each aspect of the electoral process itself, to procedures for appeal against the result, preferably supervised throughout by an independent electoral commission. Although these standards are elaborate, they are designed to give effect to a very simple principle enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (see box below). They will not be discussed further here, but that does not imply that they can be taken for granted. Examples of their flagrant violation in a few countries, or of their casual implementation in several others, show the need for constant vigilance if the representative character of parliament is not to be compromised.

At the same time we should not overlook the possibility that a parliament might be unrepresentative because of substantial restrictions in the suffrage. In this context, the submission from the Sultanate of Oman has made special mention of its extension of the suffrage to all citizens over the age of 21 in the latest elections to the Shura Council in 2003. Other countries draw attention to their recent extension of the suffrage to citizens living abroad, an extension which is particularly significant for countries with large numbers of citizens resident abroad as migrant workers. So the Philippines added a potential 7.5 million new voters in this category in 2003, and Mexico more than 10 million in 2005. Other countries have recently extended the suffrage by reducing the voting age to 18 or even 16.

Box: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 25

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity:

  1. to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
  2. to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
  3. to have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country

Source: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Retrieved 20.07.2005 from United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights <http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/a_ccpr.htm>

Further online reading about standards for free and fair elections:

European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) (2002). Guidelines on elections <http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2002/CDL-AD(2002)013-e.asp>

Goodwin-Gill, G. (2006). Free and fair elections. Inter-Parliamentary Union <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/Free&Fair06-e.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (1994). Declaration on Criteria for Free and Fair Elections <http://www.ipu.org/cnl-e/154-free.htm>

Nelson, S (2003). Standards to judge elections. Administration and Cost of Elections Project

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (2003). Existing commitments for democratic elections in OSCE participating states <http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2003/10/772_en.pdf>

Southern Africa Development Community (2004). SADC principles and guidelines governing democratic elections <http://www.iss.co.za/AF/RegOrg/unity_to_union/pdfs/sadc/elecprinciples.pdf>

Southern Africa Development Community Parliamentary Forum (2001). Norms and standards for elections in the SADC region <http://www.sadcpf.org/documents/SADCPF_ElectionNormsStandards.pdf>>

   Electoral systems

A second feature affecting the political representativeness of a parliament is how the given electoral system operates in the social and political context of the country, and how fairly it treats different political parties, whose degree of electoral support provides the best index of public opinion. There are numerous types of electoral system currently in operation, but the three most common types are:

  • the plurality or ‘first past the post’ system. Under this system electors vote for one candidate in single-member constituencies, and the candidate who wins the most votes is elected, whether or not he or she wins a majority of the votes cast. In some countries an alternative vote or second round ballot ensures that a candidate can only be elected by a majority of votes in each constituency.
  • the party-list system. Here political parties draw up lists of candidates in a ranking order for multi-member districts, which may be region- or nation-wide. The number of candidates elected from each party list will be proportionate to the total votes cast for the respective parties in that district.
  • the mixed-member or additional-member system. Here electors have two votes, one for a constituency member elected under the plurality system, and one for a party list. The effect of the party-list component is to make the overall balance between the parties in parliament more proportionate to their total vote; how proportionate will depend on the respective number of members elected under each system.

Of these systems, the plurality system can produce a parliament that is quite disproportionate as between the national votes for the respective parties, and thus one that is not truly representative of popular opinion in the country. A comparison between recent election results in India and the United Kingdom shows how much this depends on the particular context of the country concerned (see box). Although the Indian result conceals quite large discrepancies between votes and seats won in individual states and by particular political parties, the national outcome was broadly representative of political opinion in the country overall, whereas the UK election resulted in a parliament that was highly unrepresentative, as the previous two had also been.

Box: Election results in India and the United Kingdom

  % of votes seats % of seats
India, 2004
Congress & allies 36.5 222 41
BJP & allies 36 189 35
Others 27.5 132 24
United Kingdom, 2005
Labour 36 356 55
Conservative 33 197 30
Liberal Democrat 23 62 10
Others 8 31 5

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union

A party-list system, on the other hand, is designed to produce a parliament that will broadly reflect the electorate’s choices for the respective parties, and hence the spread of political opinion in the country. A disadvantage is that it may sever any connection between the voters and an identifiable local representative – a connection that may be important for facilitating access of members to their electorates, and for representing local interests. The submissions to this study show that a number of parliaments which previously relied on an exclusively single-member constituency system have recently added a party-list element as the simplest reform to ensure that parliament becomes more representative and inclusive. For example, in 2002 the Parliament of Monaco added a proportional element to its two-stage constituency ballot so as to guarantee a more diverse political representation in the National Council. In 2004 the Republic of Korea changed its electoral law to a ‘1 Person 2 Votes System’ under which each voter is allowed to cast one ballot for a candidate running in the voter’s district and a second for the political party of preference, which will help determine the distribution of 56 additional seats on a proportional basis. ‘As a result, the 17th National Assembly became more representative, reflecting the voices of all corners of society.’ The effect of such a reform in empowering previously underrepresented sections of society is exemplified in this submission on the Philippines from a member of the IPU working group:

The passage of the ‘Party List System Act’ in 1995, covering 20% of the membership of the House of Representatives of the Philippine Congress, or a maximum number of 53 seats out of a total of 236 members, is a breakthrough towards a process of dismantling monopoly control by big business and big landed interests in the composition of the Philippine Congress. It is a proportional representation system alongside the single-district, first-past-the post system of legislative districts. Though imperfect and needing amendment, the party list system has allowed the election of representatives of the ‘marginalised and underrepresented’ sectors of Philippine society.

Further online reading about different electoral systems:

Administration and Cost of Elections Project (2003). Electoral systems index <http://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/default>

Election Process Information Collection Project (2004). EPIC research results for electoral systems <http://ace.at.org/epic-en/es>

International IDEA (2005). Electoral system design: The new International IDEA handbook <http://www.idea.int/publications/esd/upload/Idea_ESD_full.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Parline database module on electoral systems <http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/parlinesearch.asp>

   Who actually votes

Apart from the inclusiveness of the suffrage and the character of the electoral system, the political representativeness of a parliament may also be affected by who actually exercises their right to vote. Although there are many reasons for people not doing so, a common one is the belief that those who are elected will not represent the interests of the voters. If this belief is more widespread among some sections of society than others, it will skew the resulting character of parliament. So, for example, the cost of campaigning for election may affect the ability of those elected to represent the views of their voters rather than of those who have contributed most to their election coffers. Examples of good practice in the regulation of campaign and party finance will considered more fully in the chapter on accountability. Here it will be sufficient to quote the comments of the Canadian Parliament about the importance of strict financial rules for the credibility of the electoral process, and consequently for electoral turnout:

Political parties are at the heart of a modern political and electoral system and are essential to a vibrant and viable democratic system. Recent changes to the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act governing the financing of political parties and candidates have contributed to increasing the representative nature of the Canadian electoral system. These key amendments provide for greater disclosure of sources and amounts of financing, limits on donations by individuals, and prohibitions on donations to political participants by organizations such as corporations and unions. The changes also address public financing measures to ensure fairness across all political parties ……In Canada, politicians are very concerned about participation rates in the political process, particularly voter turnout among young people. This problem is by no means unique to Canada as it is common to all western democracies. Part of the objective of the changes outlined above is to restore public confidence in the electoral system.

For more information on candidate and party financing, see chapter 5.

Election rules and procedures to ensure a parliament that reflects the social diversity of the population

Although it is not possible to give an exhaustive list in the abstract of the social groups whose under-representation in parliament might become a cause for concern in any one country, the issue of women’s representation is a universal one, as also the representation of minority or marginal communities, whether these be linguistic, religious, ethnic, indigenous, or some combination of all these. A characteristic of a democratic parliament is that it will have instituted effective measures to ensure that it is fully inclusive.

   Women in parliaments

In almost all societies politics has been a traditional male preserve, and there have been substantial barriers to women’s involvement. In western democracies the extension of the suffrage to women came relatively late, but equality with men in terms of the vote did not bring with it the same equality in terms of opportunity for access to public office. Even today women represent only some 16.4% of all legislators in the world’s parliaments. They are not represented at all in eleven of them, and in the single or lower chamber of 60 parliaments their proportion is less than 10% (all data as of 28 February 2006).

Why should this be a matter of concern from a democratic point of view? In the year 2000 the IPU conducted a survey of women parliamentarians across the world to elicit their views and experiences of their work in parliament. In its publication Politics: Women’s Insight women answered this question in their own terms:

  • It’s a matter of equality and justice. ‘A democracy in which women are represented only marginally is not a real democracy….women’s participation in policy making is a question of justice and equality.’ ‘Anything less than equality for women in this area is a deficit of democracy.’
  • The presence of women changes the political process and culture. ‘Women are all in all less adversarial and more consensus-driven, seeking solutions to problems rather than scoring political points.’ ‘Women are humanising the political world…their presence is transformative.’ ‘Thanks to women the public is beginning to trust in politics again.’
  • Women change the male bias in policy priorities. ‘Women are much more sensitive to social problems, especially those related to poverty and raising children.’ ‘Women are the first to become aware of economic, educational and health problems.’ ‘Their priorities are more human-centred for both men and women.’

There was agreement among those responding to the survey that for women’s presence to make a noticeable difference in these respects depended on the number of them in parliament. In this they echoed the findings of a 1995 report by the UN Development Programme, which concluded that for women as a group to exert a meaningful influence in legislative bodies required a 30% level of representation.

Has the situation for women’s representation improved at all since the time of that UNDP report? Whereas in 1995 in only five countries did women constitute over 30% of the legislature, this number has now risen to twenty; and there has been a gradual rise overall in the percentage of women members from 11% to the current 16.4%, as shown in figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1: World average of women in parliaments, 1995 - 2006.
Situation in January of each year, except in 1995 (July) and 1996 (April)*

Figure 2.1: World average of women in parliaments, 1995 - 2006

* Percentages do not take into account the situation of parliaments for which data was unavailable.
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union

The regional distribution of these numbers is given in figure 2.2. These regional averages conceal marked divergences between countries within each region, which is why, for example, the Nordic countries have been singled out as a group for their consistent exemplary position in comparison with the European average. Similarly, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq stand out among Arab states, the latter with over 25% of women parliamentarians. In sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda has the highest percentage of any country, with over 48%. Within the Americas, the significant increases in most Latin countries since 1995 have not been reflected in the countries of North America. So these regional figures conceal substantial differences between countries.

Figure 2.2: Regional averages of women in parliaments, 1995, 2000 and 2005.
Situation for both Houses of Parliament combined in December of each year*

Figure 2.2: Regional averages of women in parliaments, 1995, 2000 and 2005
* Percentages do not take into account the situation of parliaments for which data was unavailable.
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Women in Parliament in 2005: the year in perspective. <http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/women06_en.pdf>

Further online reading about the percentages of women in national parliaments:

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2005). Women in politics 2005: Poster <http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/wmnmap05_en.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Women in national parliaments. Situation as of 28 February 2006 <http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Women in national parliaments. Statistical archive <http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world-arc.htm>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Women in politics: 60 years in retrospect (Information Kit) <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/wmninfokit06_en.pdf>

What, then, are the main obstacles preventing faster progress on this issue, and what can be done about them? Here are some of the considerations advanced by the women parliamentarians in the IPU 2000 survey to explain women’s low participation rates in parliament and in politics more generally:

  • Negative self-selection. Many women are put off taking part in politics because of its competitive and adversarial character, and the sacrifice it means for family life.
  • Male hostility. The hierarchies of political parties are typically male-dominated, and can be quite hostile towards women.
  • Times of meetings. Most meetings are held in the evening and at weekends, and make it difficult for those with family responsibilities to take part.
  • The expense of standing for election, where expenses are partly borne by the candidate rather than wholly by the political parties.

As to what can be done to offset these obstacles, the example of countries which have the highest female participation rates or have shown the most progress over the past decade demonstrates that it is invariably the result of affirmative action measures of one kind or another. To date such measures have been introduced in 81 countries, typically after determined campaigning by women’s organisations. Some of these measures have legal force, others depend on initiatives taken by parties themselves. The following are the typical forms they may take:

  • Reserved parliamentary seats for women, for example to be filled according to the proportion of seats won overall by the respective parties.
  • Guaranteed proportions of party lists or ‘quotas’ to be filled by women, including top places.
  • Women-only short lists for candidate selection in constituency-based systems, or constituency ‘twinning’, with a requirement that one of each sex be selected.

Countries with markedly low female participation rates have begun to make a significant difference by the adoption of such measures. For example, in 2004 the Republic of Korea introduced a combination of all the above measures into its relevant laws. The Political Party Act now requires the assignment of 50% of the proportional representative seats to women, and the inclusion of women in every two candidates from the top of the candidate list. The Law on Political Funds provides state subsidies to parties nominating women to run in 30% or more electoral districts. As a consequence of these changes the percentage of women in the 17th National Assembly doubled from the previous assembly to 13%. Other countries have achieved a higher percentage where seats allocated to party lists form a larger proportion than in Korea.

Such affirmative action measures can be justified on equality grounds by reference to article 4.1 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women:

Adoption by States Parties of temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women shall not be considered discrimination …… these measures shall be discontinued when the objectives of equality of opportunity and treatment have been achieved.

The implication of this article is that such measures will help to bring about long-term change; but they cannot do so on their own. This is demonstrated by the example of Bangladesh, where the provision reserving 30 additional parliamentary seats to women expired in 2000, with the consequence of a dramatic fall in women’s representation in parliament from nine to two per cent. The provision has now been restored with an increase of additional seats to 45. So affirmative action measures are likely to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for improving women’s participation for the foreseeable future.

Further online reading about ‘quotas’ and other affirmative action measures:

Global database of quotas for women. <http://www.quotaproject.org/>

Htun, M (2004) Is gender like ethnicity? Global Database of Quotas for Women <http://www.quotaproject.org/other/HtunPOP2004.pdf>

International IDEA (2002). Women in parliament: beyond numbers <http://www.idea.int/gender/wip_handbook.cfm>

International IDEA (2004). The implementation of quotas: African experiences <http://www.quotaproject.org/publications/Quotas_Africa.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Women in parliament in 2005 - the year in perspective. <http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/women06_en.pdf>

   The representation of minority and marginal communities

The fact that parties representing minority communities are not present in a parliament does not necessarily mean that their distinctive identities or interests are ignored. It may be that these can be satisfactorily represented through mainstream parties. Parties may nominate a minority spokesperson or have voting systems that allow members to give extra support to candidates from a minority community. However, pursuing minority representation through mainstream parties seems likely to be successful only if they form a sufficiently large proportion of the population.

Where there is a likelihood that minority communities will not be adequately represented in parliament, a number of different strategies are available, depending on the type of electoral system and the degree of geographical concentration of the minority or minorities concerned.

  • Reduced registration or funding or entry requirements. Entry for smaller groups can be facilitated by reducing the number of statements of support needed to register a political party, or the number of voters to qualify for public funding. Or parties registered as belonging to a national minority may qualify for entry to parliament on a lower threshold of the popular vote.
  • Designing constituency boundaries so as to give representatives from minority communities a better chance of success (so-called ‘affirmative gerrymandering’). Or, if minorities are concentrated in a particular region, a more favourable number of parliamentary seats can be assigned to that region.
  • Party candidate quotas, so that in certain regions a minimum percentage of those on a party list must be drawn from minority communities. For example, in Singapore 14 out of 23 constituencies are Group Representation Constituencies, with a requirement that at least one candidate in each party team must belong to a minority.
  • Reserved seats for representatives of minority communities. This is the most widely used method, currently employed by some 25 countries from every region of the world. India currently reserves 79 of its 543 seats in the Lok Sabha for scheduled castes and 41 for scheduled tribes. Mauritius reserves 8 of its 70 seats for the ‘best losers’ representing the four constitutionally recognised ethnic communities. Slovenia reserves one each for the Italian and Hungarian ‘national communities’.

None of these methods is wholly uncontroversial. Minority quotas on mainstream party lists may deprive minority communities of representation through their own autonomous organisations, which they may prefer. On the other hand, measures to support autonomous organisations may serve to reinforce separate identities and militate against national unity. New Zealand’s approach to this dilemma is to allow its Maori voters the choice of registering on either the national electoral roll or a separate Maori roll, and to allow the number who opt for the latter to determine the number of reserved seats in parliament. Protecting minority rights without arousing majority resentment is, however, a difficult issue everywhere, and solutions will always depend on the particular circumstances of a given country. Nor should we overlook the possibility that the communities which are marginalised in their parliamentary representation may comprise a majority of a country’s population.

Special electoral arrangements may be necessary in post-conflict situations, or where democracy is being restored after military intervention which has been communally related. Such arrangements may be transitional, and subject to some disagreement about how democracy should be understood, as this submission from Fiji exemplifies:

In terms of representation the communal electoral system for the election of Members of the House of Representatives has been specifically designed to address the multi-ethnic diversity of the Fiji Islands. Given the struggles that the Fiji Islands have had in the past with respect to maintaining democracy, this system is at this time considered the most appropriate as it guarantees representation from major ethnic groups while still ensuring that the balance of power is held by Members elected to open seats by all citizens registered in a particular constituency. There are still opposing views in Fiji with respect to having an electoral system that guarantees an indigenous Fijian majority in the House of Representatives as well as a push for all members of the House to be elected on open seats.

   The role of a second chamber

A second chamber or upper house of parliament can play a significant role with regard to representing the diversity of a country’s population. Most obviously, in federal systems a country’s territorial diversity is reflected in the representation of the component states or provinces and their interests in a second chamber, which may have the special task to review how legislation impacts on the country’s different regions and localities. This territorial function is not confined to federal systems, and may include special representation for citizens abroad in a second chamber, as in France. In all countries with a two-chamber parliament the selection mechanism for the second chamber can also be used to ensure greater representation for different communities and social groups, whether through a different electoral system from the first chamber, or through the procedures for appointment (where appointed members are present). In this way the social representativeness of parliament as a whole can be enhanced, including representation for groups such as the disabled, the socially excluded and small minorities of all kinds.

Further online reading about the representation of minority and marginal communities:

European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) (2000). Electoral law and national minorities <http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2000/CDL-INF(2000)004-e.asp>

European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) (2005). Report on electoral rules and affirmative action for national minorities’ participation in decision-making process in European countries <http://venice.coe.int/docs/2005/CDL-AD(2005)009-e.asp>

Foundation on Inter-Ethnic Relations (1999). The Lund recommendations on the effective participation of national minorities in public life & explanatory note <http://www.osce.org/documents/hcnm/1999/09/2698_en.pdf>

Ghai, Y (2001). Public participation and minorities. Minority Rights Group International <http://www.minorityrights.org/download.php?id=112>

Norris, P (2004). Ethnic minorities, in Electoral engineering: voting rules and political behavior <http://ksghome.harvard.edu/~pnorris/ACROBAT/Institutions/Chapter 9.pdf>

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (2001). Guidelines to assist national minority participation in the electoral process. <http://www.osce.org/item/13589.html?ch=129>

Fair and inclusive parliamentary procedures

As already indicated, for a parliament to be representative of its citizens is not just a matter of its composition. It also requires that its procedures and mode of working are inclusive, and give full opportunity to all its members to play their part in its work. This principle of inclusiveness has a number of different aspects to it, which will be considered in turn. All depend for their effective implementation on the impartiality of a Presiding Officer or Speaker, who has a key role in ensuring even-handedness between different groups and parties. Many parliaments go to great lengths to ensure the ‘above-party’ character of their Speaker or Presiding Officer, even though he or she is likely to have had a previous party affiliation. Kiribati even requires the Speaker’s position to be elected from candidates who are outside parliament, so as to avoid any pressure towards favouritism in carrying out his or her duties. Most parliaments achieve the same result by electing members with a proven track record of impartiality, for example as committee chair or Deputy Speaker. Typical characteristics are those exemplified in this description of a former speaker of the Indian Lok Sabha, G.V.Mavalankar:

As Speaker of the first Lok Sabha of a new born nation, Mavalankar’s role was not merely that of a moderator and facilitator of its proceedings but a founding father invested with the responsibility to establish rules, procedures, conventions and customs that suited the ethos of the land. He accomplished all this with patience, perseverance, wisdom and above all with a remarkable sense of history….In the application of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of the House, Shri Mavalankar demonstrated exceptional objectivity and never made any distinction between members belonging to the Government and the Opposition. This tradition has been maintained over the years, and it is this which makes our parliamentary system work.

The above description shows the importance of the character of a Speaker especially for a new or young parliament, in establishing a tradition of impartiality in the conduct of business. In those parliaments where the role of the Presiding Officer is defined as a party figure, representing the majority party or coalition, it is important that checks and procedures should be in place to ensure that the rights of all members are respected.

   Inclusiveness for parties

Most of the work of a parliament is carried out in committees, whether legislative or oversight committees, or a combination of the two. It is an accepted practice in almost all parliaments that the membership of such committees is proportionate to the strength of the different parties or groups in the chamber as a whole. So, for example, Serbia-Montenegro reports that ‘in the process of establishment of the working bodies of the Assembly the proportional representation of the Deputies from each member state and each political party….is taken into account.’ In addition, a number of parliaments have the practice of reserving the chair of specific committees to a member of an opposition or minority party. The French Assemblée Nationale gives the right to the opposition to nominate the chair or rapporteur of any commission of enquiry or information mission. In the Lithuanian Seimas a representative of the parliamentary opposition is elected chair or deputy-chair of the Committee on Budget and Finance, as is also typical with the Public Accounts Committee in Westminster-type parliaments.

In a number of parliaments this cross-party character of committee membership extends to the process of decision-making also, through an attempt to achieve consensus. It is most important that this occurs in procedure committees, which arrange the business before parliament. In Zimbabwe, for example, a cross-party business committee meets with the Speaker and Deputy Speaker each week to organise parliamentary business on a non-partisan basis. Such arrangements are typical in most parliaments, and will be reported more fully in chapter 6. In some cases, a spirit of consensus can also be found in substantive committees. In the Cyprus House of Representatives ‘the discussions at the committee level are permeated by a spirit of compromise and most of the laws are adopted in plenary unanimously.’ An Enlarged Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Norwegian Stortinget gives the government the opportunity to discuss important issues related to trade, national security and other foreign policy with all the factions of Parliament before any decision is finalised. ‘The existence of this committee has contributed to a…common political consensus in the field of foreign policy that Norway has experienced since the Second World War.’ In the Senegalese Assemblée Nationale legislation of particular importance can be referred to an ad hoc Commission comprising the leaders of all political groups, in order to obtain the widest possible agreement.

In Australia this consensus approach extends across many committees:

One feature that marks House of Representatives committees is that they usually do not adopt a political approach to subjects considered by them; members from across the political spectrum usually adopt a non-confrontational attempt to reach a common solution. As such, their outputs are usually more productive and bring about effective change in governmental policy on issues of great importance to the Australian public.

Where consensus is not possible in committee work, many parliaments make provision for the tabling of minority reports.

   Specific rights for opposition or minority parties and groups

Opposition or minority parties have a key role to play in holding the government to account, and in providing alternative policy options for public consideration. In parliamentary systems, where the government can exercise the initiative over debate and legislation through its parliamentary majority, it is important that there be guaranteed rights for an official opposition to place items for legislation and policy debate on the parliamentary agenda, as well as guaranteed time for such debate. By the same token, minority parties in legislatures under a presidential system need similar rights. Even in the monarchical system of Saudia Arabia, any group of ten members of the legislature is now entitled to propose a draft law or an amendment to a law already in force. Such rights are recognised by almost all parliaments.

For example in the Italian Camera dei Deputati, which has very precise regulations governing the allocation of its time, opposition groups are guaranteed a minimum quota of subjects they can introduce, and a guaranteed proportion of the speaking time allocated to any subject. In the case of bills introduced by the government the allocation of speaking time to opposition groups is greater than to those representing the majority. The Lithuanian Seimas provides guaranteed time for opposition groups to introduce parliamentary bills and ‘agendas’, and gives priority to the Leader of the Opposition in the questioning of government ministers, and in debates on the Government Programme and its Annual Report. In the UK House of Commons twenty days are allocated in each session for proceedings on opposition business, seventeen of which are at the disposal of the leader of the largest opposition party. Such examples could be multiplied from across many parliaments.

Further online reading about the role and rights of opposition parties in parliaments:

Inter-Parliamentary Union (1999). Guidelines on the rights and duties of the opposition in parliament <http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/gabon.htm>

   Opportunities for individual members

The principle of inclusion indicates the need for guaranteed opportunities for those who are not members of the leading cadres of parliamentary groups to take part in the full range of parliamentary activities. Many parliaments set aside time for individual members or ‘backbenchers’ to introduce their own legislation, sometimes referred to as ‘private members’ bills, or to introduce proposals into committees or the main chamber on their own individual initiative, as well as to initiate debates.

Such facilities can create problems, however. The submission from the Israeli Knesset mentions the proliferation of private members’ bills as one of its main organisational difficulties. The Swedish Riksdag has similar reservations about the right of individual members’ initiative:

Extensive use of these rights may give rise to problems with regard to the efficiency of parliamentary work. In Sweden, the use made by individual members of this right of initiative has led to problems of this kind for the Committees, in that they have been overburdened with matters arising from such initiatives. In contrast to the right of initiative, the use of the other rights is mainly controlled by the parties and not by individual members, and in this way the risk of excessive use is reduced.

The effective organisation of business is an issue that occupies all parliaments, and it will be examined in chapter 6. Here it will suffice to point out two different ways in which the problem raised from Sweden is addressed by other parliaments. One is the route taken by the Italian Camera dei Deputati, of achieving strict agreement in advance on the time and length of all contributions, ‘including personal interventions by deputies who are not speaking on behalf of a parliamentary group’. The other is simply to expand the time available. For example, in the Indian Lok Sabha an institution has emerged called ‘Zero Hour’, which takes place after the formal Question Hour and before the beginning of regular listed business. It has been described as follows:

The emergence of Zero Hour can be traced to the early sixties when issues of great public importance and urgency began to be raised by members, sometimes with the prior permission of the Speaker or some other times without such permission. Members are free to raise any matter – international, national or local – that concerns them. Zero Hour has been described in terms such as ‘waste of public money’, ‘mad hour’, ‘a great beginning of an evil day’ and ‘an unwanted thing’. But it has become lively and important. Sometimes it is regarded as the biggest hurdle for presiding officers to transact normal business, at others it is seen as something original in the way of parliamentary lexicon and practice.

A more radical way of increasing the amount of parliamentary time available for ordinary members has been the introduction of a parallel chamber. The Australian House of Representatives, which was the first to develop such an institution, called the Main Committee, sees this as its most significant item of recent reform. ‘This body cannot commence parliamentary business and it cannot make a final decision on such business, but it can do everything in between. It has dramatically increased the amount of available time for government business and private members’ business, permitted ongoing debates on parliamentary committee reports and provided members with more opportunity to debate matters.’ A similar parallel chamber, called Westminster Hall, has been introduced in the UK House of Commons.

   Gender equality

Ensuring that women are able to play a full part in parliamentary work is not only a matter of expanding their opportunities for access to elective office. It also requires that parliament’s own arrangements are such as to facilitate rather than disadvantage women in contributing to the full range of its activities on equal terms with men. The South African Parliament notes that ‘despite successes in ensuring that women make up a significant percentage of Members, women do not always find it easy to fulfil their political roles, and Parliament needs to constantly monitor its infrastructure and organisational culture to ensure that these are supportive to women’s strategic and practical needs.’ The IPU survey of women parliamentarians summarised their views in this way: ‘The first concern of women in politics is to reconcile their political life with family commitments…At the parliamentary level, the crèche or day nursery services available on the premises in Nordic countries to MPs who are mothers of small children are still only a dream for most women parliamentarians in other parts of the world. The same applies to the times at which meetings and sessions could be held so as to give women MPs a better chance of combining their political duties with their private lives.’ (Politics: Women's Insight, IPU, 2000)

Here is one woman’s comment on her struggle to get even quite basic facilities in a building designed for men:

I used to use the men’s toilet beside the Caucus room, and women who followed me did this, too, until they made it unisex. Well, after I had gone, finally a crèche was provided and the refurbishing has meant equality in the provision of facilities and conveniences for MPs and their families. For instance, in the past there was a ‘Members’ Wives Room’, but nothing for the partners of women MPs.

Similar concerns apply to the timing of parliamentary business. Traditionally many western parliaments have had sittings that started relatively late in the day and extended throughout the evening. The UK House of Commons, among others, has recently experimented with changed sitting hours so as to cut out most late evenings, though the mixed reception of MPs to these changes shows that achieving agreed reform is not easy. The Programme Committees of the South African Parliament, for their part, have reached agreement that House sittings will not normally extend beyond 6 pm. ‘with a view to accommodating members’ family responsibilities’ – a consideration that applies to men as well as women.

Since most of a parliament’s work takes place in committees, ensuring that women members have every opportunity to participate in committee work and to progress to the position of chair is a consideration now taken seriously by many parliaments. This objective can be assisted by procedural rules, as in the case of Cameroon. ‘The rules of procedure of the National Assembly of Cameroon stipulate that every deputy must be a member of at least one and not more than two committees. Pursuant to judicious consultations, therefore, there is at least one woman on each committee. Two out of six general committees are chaired by women.’

As a more wide-ranging initiative, some parliaments have established gender equality committees, with a brief to promote gender equality in society as a whole. These committees usually have equal membership from men and women members, as in France, and some also take on the responsibility of keeping parliament’s own procedures under review from a gender perspective. The Swedish Parliament has established a ‘Working Party on Gender Equality in the Riksdag’. Its report of November 2004 concluded with fifteen proposals for a Riksdag with gender equality, of which the main ones are given below.

  • We propose that a programme of equality is drawn up for every mandate period with the aim of promoting equality in the Riksdag.
  • The Riksdag Board approves the programme for every mandate period. A civil servant is given the operative responsibility of implementing the programme.
  • We propose that regular seminars are arranged for committee bureaux to discuss working methods, the chair’s role, meeting culture, etc.
  • The Riksdag’s homepage should be developed with regard to gender-segregated statistical information.
  • There should be a professional support function for members who feel they are subjected to negative treatment.
  • The introduction for new members is developed to include more informal knowledge of the Riksdag.
  • Investigations set up within the Riksdag should report on any consequences for equality.
  • The committees’ work planning should take into consideration the feasibility for members to combine their Riksdag assignment with parenthood.

Such initiatives are typically the product of pressure on the part of women members. In several parliaments they have established cross-party women’s caucuses to promote such changes, as well as to review forthcoming parliamentary business from a gender perspective.

Further online reading about gender inclusion in the work of parliaments:

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2000). Politics: Women's insight <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/womeninsight_en.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2004). Enhancing the role of women in electoral processes in post-conflict countries. Post-election support <http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/meetings/2004/EGMelectoral/EP3-IPU.PDF>

Inter-Parliamentary Union, United Nations Development Programme (2002). National Seminar on "The Process of Engendering a New Constitution for Rwanda" <http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/kigali_bi.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (2003). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its Optional Protocol. Handbook for Parliamentarians <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/cedaw_en.pdf>

The Commonwealth (2001). Gender-sensitizing Commonwealth parliaments <http://www.cpahq.org/uploadedFiles/Programmes_and_Activities/Professional_Development/g_report.pdf>

   Equality for members of minority and marginal communities

In many parliaments the inclusion of representatives of minority and marginal communities may be sufficiently addressed through the procedures for opposition and minority parties already discussed. Where the minority is very small, however, it may be impossible under the normal rules for them to claim certain parliamentary rights such as positions on legislative or other committees. In this case requirements such as the need for a minimum number of elected members may be waived, or special procedural rights may be granted for minority issues. These could include the right to initiate new legislation or to veto certain types of bill. In Belgium, for example, for certain issues parliament is divided into French and Dutch language groups, and a majority in each group is required as well as an overall majority of two thirds for a measure to be passed.

Since minority and marginal communities are usually characterised by speaking a different language from the majority, an important issue for parliamentary inclusion concerns the language or languages in which parliamentary business is conducted. This consideration becomes all the more relevant where the language of parliamentary business is not spoken by a majority of the population. Here questions of expense in providing translation facilities may be a constraining factor. In the Indian Lok Sabha, for example, the languages for transacting business are Hindi and English. However, since the time of the Fourth Lok Sabah members have also been allowed to address the House in any of the scheduled languages provided for in the Constitution. At present, simultaneous interpretation facilities are available in eight languages besides the two mentioned (Assamese, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil and Telegu); while in the Upper House, the Rajya Sabha, facilities are also available in Gujurati, Urdu and Punjabi.

Further online reading about the use of minority and vernacular languages in the work of parliaments:

Matiki, A (2002). Language planning and linguistic exclusion in the legislative process in Malawi <http://www.linguapax.org/congres/taller/taller1/Matiki.html>

The House: New Zealand's House of Representatives 1854-2004 (2005). Parliament in Te Reo <http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/the-work-of-government/history-of-parliament/parliament-in-te-reo>

   Facilitating all members in their work

Besides the more obvious forms of inequality between members already considered, there may be less visible differences in resources or capacity which put some members at a systematic disadvantage. The issue of parliamentary resources and facilities will be considered more fully in chapter 6. Here it is sufficient to point out that members should enjoy equal access to them, and that parliament’s research and library staff should serve all members impartially.

This is not only a question of facilities, however, but of the capacity to use them. For example, most parliaments now have on-line facilities so that members can have up-to-the-minute information on the progress of bills and other aspects of parliamentary business. All surveys of the use of electronic means of communication, however, show that inequalities between users are not just a matter of equipment, but of the ability to use it across its full range. The fact that parliamentarians now increasingly come from professional backgrounds means that such abilities may simply be taken for granted. Yet everyone requires training, even if only to keep their skills updated.

This consideration applies more generally, for example in the context of newly elected members. Parliamentary procedures often seem arcane, the demands on time are enormously diverse, and members are left very much to their own devices. It may take a long time for new members to find ways of being effective across the full range of their responsibilities. Most parliaments provide induction programmes and mentoring schemes for newcomers, though these are quite variable in their quality and usefulness. Some are provided by party groups, some by the administrative staff of parliament. In a review of induction programmes conducted by the IPU, the following were suggested as essential elements in such a programme:

  • the rights and duties of members;
  • parliamentary procedure, debating and voting rules in committees and the Chamber;
  • details of parliamentary services provided and how to access them;
  • office organisation and the use of electronic and other equipment;
  • broadcasting and media relations;
  • organisation of constituency offices and relations with constituents.

As a specific example, the New Zealand Parliament produces a series of guidebooks available on line to all its members, dealing with different aspects of their work. For example, its guidebook Effective Select Committee Membership covers every aspect of a committee’s operation, including standing orders, procedures for different types of business, support services available, guidance for chairpersons, and so on. Its aim is that those who become familiar with it ‘will be empowered by this knowledge and will find it much easier to achieve their goals in select committees.’ In so doing they will also be better able to represent their constituents. Here are some typical extracts:

Know what you want to achieve. To be an effective member of a select committee you need to plan in advance what you want to achieve at a particular meeting and how you hope to achieve it. Proceedings can sometimes move quickly and without a plan you might find your opportunity to raise an issue or suggest a change to a report has been lost. This guidebook will help you understand what you can achieve and how to go about implementing your plan within the limits set out in Standing Orders……
Your chance to become an effective legislator. You do not need a law degree to be a good legislator. All you need are your ideas, a commitment to following through a process and the powers of persuasion to convince your colleagues on the committee that your proposals should be implemented. The committee’s advisors will advise on the feasibility of proposals and law drafting will be done by those who have specialist drafting skills. You need to think critically while you are considering legislation. Be prepared to ask questions if you do not understand the bill before you. The chances are that if you do not understand it, neither will the people you represent.
Protecting the rights of parliamentarians in fulfilling their mandates

A fundamental condition for a parliament to be representative, and for its members to represent their electors effectively, is that they be free to speak their minds without fear or favour. Historically, parliamentarians have often been subject to all kinds of pressure and intimidation from governments, especially when they have spoken out against government abuses. They have also been subjected to unwarranted pressure from other powerful forces within society itself. It is for this reason that the rights of parliamentarians to free speech have been given special protection through rules of parliamentary ‘privilege’ or ‘non-accountability’ which protect parliamentarians from prosecution for opinions expressed or votes cast in the exercise of their mandate.

Parliamentary non-accountability applies to anything spoken or written or any act committed by a member of a parliamentary assembly in the ordinary course of his official duties……the protection afforded is absolute and lifelong, even after he has ceased to be a member. All countries without exception endorse the principle of non-accountability defined in this way. (IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians, 1993)

The point of such a privilege is not only for the protection of parliamentarians, but so that they can better represent and protect the interests of their electors. This is well expressed in a resolution of the Council of the IPU in Mexico City in 1976: ‘Protection of the rights of parliamentarians is the necessary prerequisite to enable them to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in their respective countries; in addition, the representative nature of a Parliament closely depends on the respect of the rights of the members of that Parliament.’

In view of their history of oppressive regimes, many parliaments also grant their members immunity from arrest or prosecution for ordinary crimes, since such prosecutions have often served as an excuse for governments to remove critical or obstructive parliamentarians from public circulation. Such immunity or ‘inviolability’ lasts only for the member’s term of office. In certain serious cases it may be lifted, but only by a vote of parliament itself. In countries where it applies, such a provision seeks to balance the need to protect the liberty of members from executive encroachment with the concern that parliamentarians might appear to the public as a special elite with undue privileges. Getting this balance right as circumstances change is not easy, and a number of parliaments are reviewing their legislation on this question.

In the event of an assumed violation of their rights which is not resolved by domestic procedures, parliamentarians can appeal to the Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians, established under the auspices of the IPU in 1977. This committee, which is composed of senior parliamentarians from across the world, operates by a quasi-judicial procedure which aims at a mutually agreed settlement in confidence with the responsible government or parliament. Only in the event of non-settlement is the issue made public through the Governing Council of the IPU. This committee is now accepted as the main international body for protecting the rights of parliamentarians.

Further online reading about the rights of parliamentarians:

Inter-Parliamentary Union (1993). Inter-parliamentary symposium "Parliament: Guardian of human rights". Summing-up of the deliberations by the President of the symposium <http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/budapest.htm>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Human rights and humanitarian law <http://www.ipu.org/iss-e/hr-law.htm>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Parline database module on the parliamentary mandate <http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/parlinesearch.asp>

McGee, S (2001). Rules on parliamentary immunity in the European Parliament and the member States of the European Union. European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation <http://www.ecprd.org/ecprd/getfile.do?id=5062>

Myttenaere, R (1998). The immunities of members of parliament, in Constitutional and Parliamentary Information N° 175. Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments <http://www.asgp.co/Resources/Data/Documents/UJJICUIPKRGKNWTBNCAMSZFAGOKNXL.pdf>

Another resource available to parliamentarians under pressure is the support of fellow parliamentarians abroad. The German Bundestag, for example, has established a ‘Parliamentarians Protect Parliamentarians’ campaign. Its rationale and mode of operation is summarised as follows:

No one advocating the implementation and observance of human rights in Germany runs any risk in doing so. In many other countries, however, people who defend human rights can themselves become the victims of human rights abuses. ……Politicians are also among the defenders of human rights who are at risk. Exercising their right of free speech is mostly their sole offence. The criticism they voice makes them a thorn in the flesh of both state agencies in countries where the human rights situation is problematic and of paramilitary groups.

As members of the Bundestag you have a network of international contacts that you can use in favour of your fellow parliamentarians who are at risk. …… The secretariat of the Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid will tell you whether opposition politicians are under threat in a country you have contacts with or are intending to visit and what you can best do to support them. You can also use the information provided by the Committee secretariat to offer support from within Germany. It provides a sound basis for petitions and talks with political decision-makers from countries in which human rights are violated.

   Individual rights of parliamentarians and party discipline

A difficult and much contested issue concerns the right balance to be struck between the requirements of party discipline and the individual right of parliamentarians to speak their minds freely. On one side it is reasonable for a party on whose platform and with whose support a member has been elected to expect that the member will support the party’s programme in parliament. This consideration is necessary not only for the parties themselves but also for the electors, if they are to be able to count on a predictable connection between their exercise of the vote and the actions of their elected representatives in parliament. On the other hand, members have an individual responsibility to defend the interests of their constituents, and to speak out against policies which they believe to be misguided or damaging, even where these are promoted by their own party. Parties for their part have a responsibility to develop internally democratic procedures which allow for full debate on contentious issues, rather than simply relying on dictats from above.

How parliamentarians negotiate the potentially competing claims of party loyalty and individual conscience is one of the most difficult issues they face. Parliamentary parties have many forms of discipline available over dissident members, with the ultimate sanction of expulsion from the party, and consequent withdrawal of support at a future election. The point where such action comes to infringe the individual rights of a member has been clearly drawn by the IPU Governing Council in test cases before its Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians. First, any such expulsion should accord with a party’s internal rules guaranteeing due process, including the right of a member to defend him- or herself. Secondly, any expulsion should not result automatically in the member’s loss of his or her parliamentary seat or curtailment of its duration, since this would undermine the member’s right to freedom of expression. As the IPU has reiterated, a member’s disqualification from parliament requires a decision by parliament as a whole, and should only follow conviction for a criminal offence, not loss of party membership.

This principle becomes more contentious where a member leaves a party voluntarily or changes party in mid-term (so-called political ‘nomadism’). Such actions may be quite self-serving, for example in pursuit of governmental office, and they can bring considerable instability to parliament as well as frustrating the clear will of the electors. For these reasons a number of parliaments have introduced anti-defection provisions, requiring a member who has defected to surrender his or her seat. An example is the constitutional amendment passed by the Indian Parliament in 1985, to ‘combat the evil of political defections….which is likely to undermine the very foundations of our democracy and the principles which sustain it.’ This constitutional amendment disqualifies a political party member not only if he or she has given up their party membership, but even if they have voted contrary to the directions of their political party without prior permission. This provision was strengthened by a further amendment in 2003 to prevent whole party mergers.

An alternative way of dealing with the issue of defections is provided by the Swedish Parliament. It insists that, although members are elected from party lists, they are individually appointed and have their own individual mandate:

Therefore, if a member is excluded from a party or leaves a party during the electoral period he or she may remain as an MP. However, members leaving a party-group during the electoral term cannot form a new party-group which will be recognised as such by Parliament, nor formally join another party-group.

In respect to these different provisions, it may be worthwhile to record the Latimer House Guidelines for the Commonwealth, agreed under the auspices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in June 1998:

Security of members during their parliamentary term is fundamental to parliamentary independence and therefore:
  1. the expulsion of members from parliament as a penalty for leaving their parties (floor-crossing) should be viewed as a possible infringement of members’ independence; anti-defection measures may be necessary in some jurisdictions to deal with corrupt practices;
  2. laws allowing for the recall of members during their elected term should be viewed with caution, as a potential threat to the independence of members;
  3. the cessation of membership of a political party of itself should not lead to the loss of a member’s seat.

Further online reading about the rights of parliamentarians in relation to their parties:

Norris, P (2004). Building political parties: reforming legal regulations and internal rules. International IDEA <http://www.idea.int/parties/upload/pippa norris ready for wev _3_.pdf>

Scarrow, S (2005). Political Parties and Democracy in Theoretical and Practical Perspectives: Implementing Intra-Party Democracy. National Democratic Institute <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1951_polpart_scarrow_110105.pdf>

The Commonwealth (2002). Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles on the three branches of government <http://www.cpahq.org/uploadedFiles/Programmes_and_Activities/Commonwealth_Promotion/CommonwealthPrinciplesonThreeArmsofGovernment.pdf >


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