5. A parliament that is accountable


The accountability of office-holders is nowadays seen as a basic requirement for all public life in a democracy. When considering parliamentary accountability it is important to distinguish two quite different aspects. The first is the central role that parliament plays on behalf of the electorate in holding the government to account through its oversight function. This will be reviewed in the next chapter as a key issue in parliament’s democratic effectiveness. The second aspect concerns the accountability of parliament and its members to their own electorates; this will form the subject of the present chapter.

The idea of ‘accountability’ has many dimensions to it. Two overlapping ones will be considered here. One is the idea of an office-holder ‘giving an account’ of their actions after the event to a body to which they are answerable or responsible. In a democracy, whose life-blood is public discussion and debate, the ‘giving an account’ of their actions by representatives to their electorates through ongoing dialogue is an essential feature. Overlapping with this aspect is the requirement on an office-holder to meet certain standards of performance and integrity in the conduct of their office, subject to adjudication by a responsible body which has the power to impose some sanction in the event of serious failure to meet these standards. In this sense also parliamentarians are accountable to their electorates, who can impose the ultimate sanction of non-reappointment through the electoral process. As the Preamble to the 2001 Code of Conduct for Members of the Irish Dail puts it, ‘Members are in the unique position of being responsible to the electorate, which is the final arbiter of their conduct and has the right to dismiss them from their office at regular elections.’ However, because this electoral sanction is long-dated and often uncertain, other bodies and commissions have come to be set up in recent times to which parliamentarians are more directly answerable for their standards of conduct, including of course committees of parliament itself.

Horizontal and vertical accountability

Writers on accountability nowadays make a distinction between what they call ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ accountability. ‘Horizontal’ accountability is effected by regulatory and other supervisory bodies which are composed of professionals acting on behalf of the public. ‘Vertical’ accountability is effected from below, by the public itself, through a variety of mechanisms, including elections, complaints procedures, legal redress, the activities of civil society organisations, and so on. In the public sphere it is typically a combination of the two dimensions, horizontal and vertical, that ensures effective accountability. So, for example, minimising corruption among public officials typically requires a combination of anti-corruption commissions exercising independent legal and investigative powers, together with active citizen bodies, watch-dog groups and investigative media. A similar combination can be seen at work in relation to ensuring standards of conduct by parliamentarians themselves. First, however, we should look at the more specifically political aspect of parliamentary accountability, that of ‘giving an account’ to their constituents.

   Rendering account

Two important conditions for ‘account-giving’ by parliamentarians to their electors have been addressed in previous chapters. These are the availability of information about their activities, and the ability of constituents to question their representatives in the light of this information. In this respect there seems little that needs adding to the material on parliamentary openness and accessibility from the previous two chapters. In addition to these, however, the idea of accountability implies a more focused and systematic ‘account-giving’ after the event, to which the public can respond. As we have already seen, constituents are increasingly interested in learning how their representatives have voted on key issues before parliament, and interrogating them about their actions. For members to have their voting record published, and to be able to give a reasoned defence of their record, is of the essence of political accountability. The extension of the Internet makes this requirement much more readily realisable, and it is now a standard feature in many parliaments.

Less common is the practice of parliamentarians issuing a regular report, say on an annual or sessional basis, covering their activities across the whole range of their parliamentary work. Where this is done, it mostly takes the form of a collective report on its activities by parliament as a whole. So, to take a few examples, the Romanian Parliament produces a report of its activities at the end of each legislative session, which is published in the Romanian official gazette. The Finnish Parliament publishes an annual report on-line, which covers organisation, finance and accounts as well as legislative and international activity. In France, an annual report is published on the parliamentary budget and its implementation, covering both assemblies. In Luxembourg the annual report of the Chamber of Deputies is circulated to every household in the country. In St. Kitts and Nevis, reporting takes the form of oral questioning of parliamentarians on their annual record in an annual town-hall-style meeting called Face to Face:

This meeting takes place at venues other than Parliament but it brings parliamentarians ‘face to face’ with the public at large. Parliamentarians are hereby made to account for their stewardship. This meeting is carried live on radio and television. There is also a live audience and participation via the Internet and telephone. There is a moderator who channels the questions from the Internet, the telephone and the live audience to the parliamentarians who are given time to respond. The questions are spontaneous and parliamentarians have no prior knowledge of the questions that will be asked. This format has proven to be extremely beneficial in the area of accountability and education of the public as to the work of parliament.

While the examples from Luxembourg and St. Kitts involve countries with relatively small populations, there is no reason why their example could not be replicated by individual parliamentarians at a constituency level. An annual report of a member’s activity and voting record sent to all constituents at the end of each session, together with opportunities to question the member on his or her record on line or through constituency meetings, could considerably enhance confidence in the accountability of parliamentarians on a regular basis, rather than just at election time.

   Recall of parliamentarians

The belief that an election held once every few years is insufficient for representatives to be genuinely accountable to their electorates lies behind proposals to give citizens the power to recall in mid-term those they have elected. Two jurisdictions where such a measure is in force are Uganda and the province of British Columbia in Canada. In Uganda (article 84 of the Constitution) a member of parliament may be recalled from office on any of the following grounds:

  • physical or mental incapacity rendering that member incapable of performing the functions of the office; or
  • misconduct or misbehaviour likely to bring hatred, ridicule, contempt or disrepute to the office; or
  • persistent deserting of the electorate without reasonable cause.

The mechanism requires a petition signed by at least two-thirds of the registered voters of the constituency or designated social group from which the member was elected. The decision on the validity of the petition (and consequent forfeiture of mandate) is determined by the Electoral Commission after a full public enquiry.

In British Columbia there is no specification of the grounds for a possible recall, and the mechanism differs from Uganda’s in that signatures are required from 40% of the registered voters in a constituency, after which a by-election has to be held. With as many as nine recall petitions initiated in a single one-year period of the 2001 Assembly (though none was eventually successful), there is concern at the potential overuse of this right, and at the expense of time and money involved, especially as the signatures have to be officially checked for their validity. This may well be a reason why such right of recall has not been more widely adopted.

Principles and codes of parliamentary conduct

Where the mechanism of recall is an example of vertical accountability, a much more usual method for addressing potential misconduct on the part of parliamentarians is through a code of conduct which is enforced horizontally, by a specific commission acting on behalf of the public. The past decade or more has witnessed the widespread development and adoption of principles and codes of conduct, both for the public service generally, and for parliamentarians in particular. This development has been partly in response to a decline in public confidence in the standards of parliamentarians, and a declining trust in representative institutions generally, at least in the established democracies. Whether these public attitudes have reflected any actual decline in standards, or the fact that cases of malpractice are now more widely reported and discussed, and are less readily tolerated, hardly matters. What counts are public perceptions, of which this report by the Clerk of the Australian House of Representatives can serve as a graphic illustration:

During the last year (2000), the advertising industry, the news journalists and the used car salesmen of Australia had cause for rejoicing. Previously, they had been at the bottom of a list of professions ranked according to the public’s perception of their trustworthiness – Members of Parliament were ranked just above them. However, a survey was released in July, altering the ranking…the survey placed the nation’s legislators last in perception of trustworthiness in a list of twenty-three professional groups.

Most public disquiet has focused on financial matters, and in particular on the use of legislators’ position to advance their own personal economic interests, or the interests of individuals and organisations which they are being rewarded in some way to represent. Other concerns include levels of attendance, the use of privileged information and the misuse of parliamentary allowances.

It should be said that rules of conduct for parliamentarians have always existed, though these have typically been confined to conduct affecting the good order of parliamentary business itself. Thus there are standard prohibitions in almost all parliaments on speech or behaviour which insults or intimidates another member; which obstructs the freedom of debate or voting; or which shows disrespect to the institution or its presiding officer. In addition to such matters of internal order and decorum, it has always been understood as a principle and taken for granted that parliamentarians are elected to serve a public interest, rather than personal or private ones. What is relatively recent has been the need felt by many parliaments to make this principle explicit in a published set of norms and a public code of conduct, which will enhance confidence externally in the integrity of parliament. The typical purposes of such a code are clearly set out in the preamble to the Canadian Code of Official Conduct:

  1. to recognize that service in Parliament is a public trust;
  2. to maintain public confidence and trust in the integrity of parliamentarians individually and the respect and confidence that society places in Parliament as an institution;
  3. to assure the public that all parliamentarians are held to standards that place the public interest ahead of parliamentarians’ private interests and to provide a transparent system by which the public may judge this to be the case;
  4. to provide for greater certainty and guidance for parliamentarians in how to reconcile their private interests with their public duties;
  5. to foster consensus among parliamentarians by establishing common rules and by providing the means by which questions relating to proper conduct may be answered by an independent, non-partisan advisor.

The last two points on this list raise a number of issues that have proved recurrent in the development of codes of conduct. One is that, without consensus among parliamentarians themselves, any code proves exceedingly difficult to enforce. And consensus is often difficult to reach because of the complexity of some of the issues, and a number of ‘grey areas’ where precise interpretation of a code proves controversial. A consideration of some of these ‘grey areas’ under the rubric of conflicts of interest will provide a useful way of exploring this important aspect of parliamentary accountability.

   Public and private interests

A central feature of all principles and codes of parliamentary conduct is the distinction between the public interest and private or personal ones. This distinction is fundamental to the democratic idea that the purpose of elective office is to serve the public, not the enrichment of the office-holder or his or her personal connections. In common parlance the abuse of public office for personal gain is termed ‘corruption’; in parliamentary language it is termed a ‘conflict of interest’, as defined, for example, in this extract from the code of the Irish Dail:

A conflict of interest exists where a Member participates in or makes a decision in the execution of his or her office knowing that it will improperly and dishonestly further his or her private financial interest or another person’s private financial interest directly or indirectly. A conflict of interest does not exist where the Member or other person benefits only as a member of the public or a broad class of persons.

The phrase ‘or a broad class of persons’ is a source of some difficulty, however. Are parliamentarians who belong to a class of large landowners, say, or shareholders in oil, pharmaceutical or media companies, any less disinterested when legislating in a manner that benefits these groups than if they are acting to advance their individual private interest? The distinction may not seem so obvious to the public. It is for this reason that many parliaments require members to register a list of their financial interests and/or assets, and to appoint an impartial registrar who can give advice and adjudicate on potential conflicts of interest. Typical items included in a register of financial interests are: ownership of shares in public and private companies; ownership of land and property; remunerated directorships and partnerships.

These items do not exhaust the potential sources of conflict of interest, however. Another ‘grey area’ concerns outside bodies to which a member may be under an obligation because of some benefit received for services rendered or anticipated, say as a parliamentary advisor or informal spokesperson. Most parliaments prohibit members from formally contracting themselves to outside bodies to act in parliament on their behalf, as in this resolution of the UK Parliament dating from an attempt by a trade union in 1947 to give instructions to a member:

It is inconsistent with the dignity of the House, with the duty of a Member to his constituency, and with the maintenance of the privilege of freedom of speech, for any Member of the House to enter into any contractual agreement with an outside body, controlling or limiting the Member’s complete independence and freedom of action in parliament…the duty of a Member being to his constituency and to the country as a whole, rather than to any particular section thereof.

Yet the line between a formal agreement to promote the interests of an outside body, and a tacit understanding to do so in return for some remuneration, is a very fine one. It is for this reason that a parliamentary list of ‘registrable interests’ of members will typically also include: consultancies and retainerships; gifts and hospitality; travel expenses and other payments in kind.

A further ‘grey area’ concerns the extent to which it is legitimate for parliamentarians to undertake other paid work when they are paid a salary for carrying out their parliamentary duties on a full-time basis. Some parliaments take the view that it is advantageous for their members to be engaged in paid activities outside the political sphere, though the public is rarely consulted about this. In any case it is difficult to prevent parliamentarians from engaging in free-lance work such as journalism, broadcasting on current affairs, or writing of all kinds, which could be seen as a natural extension of parliamentary activity. Again, the requirement to declare all sources of income in a register of interests puts the issue in the public domain, where any potential conflict of interest is open to judgement by other parliamentarians and the electorate.

   Register of interests

Most of these ‘grey areas’ of potential conflict of interest, then, whether concerning ownership of assets, receipt of benefits or other paid employment, can be dealt with by the principle of transparency, through declaration in a register of interests. An example of a list of ‘registrable interests’ which includes all the items mentioned above is this one from the South Africa:

The following kinds of financial interests are registrable interests:
  1. shares and other financial interests in companies and other corporate entities;
  2. remunerated employment outside parliament;
  3. directorships and partnerships;
  4. d. consultancies;
  5. sponsorships;
  6. gifts and hospitality from a source other than a family member or permanent companion;
  7. any other benefit of a material nature;
  8. foreign travel (other than personal visits paid for by the member, business visits unrelated to the member’s role as a public representative and official and formal visits paid for by the state or the member’s party);
  9. ownership and other interests in land and property; and
  10. pensions.

Not all parliaments have such a register. Among those that do, however, there are quite substantial differences in its content and operation. These differences include:

  • whether the register is compulsory or voluntary, as the latter is the case in the Nordic countries;
  • whether it includes only assets and property, as in most Francophone countries, or other financial interests as well;
  • whether the declaration of assets extends to the member’s partner and children or not;
  • whether all of the register is made public, or some parts are reported only to the Presiding Officer or registrar on privacy grounds;
  • whether a declaration is made by parliamentarians only at the beginning and end of their mandate, or is updated on an annual basis;
  • whether a potential conflict of interest is merely declared upon a member’s involvement in the relevant item of business, or they are actually debarred from taking part at all;
  • whether the register is monitored and enforced by an external body or a parliamentary committee, or some combination of the two.

Given these widely differing practices in different parliaments, it is difficult to define any one as exemplary, especially when so much depends upon consensus and the corresponding enforceability of any code of practice. Yet it could serve as a reasonable rule of thumb that, the more conflicts of interest are a matter of public concern in a particular country, the more the need for a clear and enforceable register of interests, and for an impartial figure to adjudicate such matters, in order to restore or maintain public confidence.

On the matter of mechanisms for enforcing codes of conduct, it is worth quoting here a paragraph supplied by National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) from its work on international standards for democratic legislatures:

Self-regulation is often insufficient to effectively enforce ethics regulations. For this reason, many countries have tasked an independent or non-partisan entity to monitor compliance with ethical codes – as in the case of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the United Kingdom. The code of conduct is enforced by the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and it is the duty of the Commissioner to advise the Committee, maintain the Register of Members’ interests, advise members, confidentially, on registration matters, monitor the operation of the code and the register; and finally, receive and, if appropriate, investigate complaints from legislators and citizens. Whilst the Commissioner cannot impose penalties, a power left to the Committee, he or she brings to the role greater levels of impartiality than might reasonably arise from the self-monitoring of an ethics committee.

   Parliamentary attendance

Most parliamentary codes of conduct concern themselves mainly with financial matters and potential conflicts of interest. However, these are not the only issues that may affect the confidence of electorates in their representatives. Also of concern, for example, is the issue of parliamentary attendance. As has already been noted, TV pictures of largely empty chambers for plenary sessions can convey a misleading impression, since members may well be absent on other legitimate parliamentary and constituency business. Most parliaments regulate their members’ attendance at committees and plenary sessions through their standing orders, which typically require notification to the Presiding Officer of reasons for absence. Penalties for ‘unreasonable absence’ may include any or all of the following:

  • publication of an attendance/absence list;
  • censure or ‘call to order’;
  • forfeiture of part of a member’s salary;
  • temporary suspension;
  • forfeiture of the parliamentary mandate.

More exceptional is the provision in the USA and the Philippines for the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest the offending member and/or have them conveyed by force to the assembly (source: Marc Van der Hulst, The Parliamentary Mandate, IPU, 2000, pp.107-12).

Further online reading about codes of conduct and conflicts of interest:

Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments (1998). Codes of conduct for parliamentary staff, in Constitutional and parliamentary information, N° 175 <http://www.asgp.co/Resources/Data/Documents/XIVWFDRMFRLVBFTDJWWLDBDJTKCIXR.pdf>

European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation (2001). Parliamentary codes of conduct in Europe: an overview <http://www.ecprd.org/ecprd/getfile.do?id=5073>

National Conference of State Legislatures (nd). Model code of conduct for legislative staff <http://www.ncsl.org/racss/codeofconduct.htm>

National Democratic Institute (1999). Legislative ethics: a comparative overview <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/026_ww_legethics.pdf>

Stapenhurst, R. and Pelizzo, R. (2004). Legislative ethics and codes of conduct. World Bank Institute <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTPARLIAMENTARIANS/Resources/Legislative_Ethics_and_Codes_of_Conduct.pdf>

Party and campaign financing

Not every issue of parliamentary accountability that has been a matter of concern to the public over the past decade or more is covered by codes of conduct that apply to members of parliament as individuals. There has also been concern over the way in which political parties competing for public office are financed. With the increasing cost of election campaigns on one side (the so-called ‘electoral arms race’), and the relative paucity of contributions from membership dues on the other, political parties have been forced to seek financial support from wealthy individuals and institutions. This has raised concern that elected representatives might become collectively more accountable to powerful donors than to their electorates.

As we have already seen, political parties, for all the low esteem in which they are held in most countries, play a vital role in parliamentary and political life. To achieve any influence over public policy, citizens and parliamentarians have to combine with like-minded others, rather than act as isolated individuals. Political parties provide the essential ‘glue’ which holds the political process together. They alone can offer the electorate alternative policy and legislative programmes which stand some chance of being enacted, or of being coherently criticised and opposed. Voters know that, by voting for a candidate of a given party, he or she will broadly support the party’s programme and leadership if elected to office. It is only through the predictability which parties thus provide that the electorate can have any collective influence over the composition and programme of a parliament.

Given their essential role, it is a matter of public interest that political parties should be financed adequately and accountably to carry out their work of campaigning, organisation and education. Two decades or so ago very little was known about the financing of political parties, and they were treated as private associations like any other, accountable only to themselves. It is only more recently that concerns about their financing have become a public issue, and that its relevance to electoral competition and parliamentary accountability has been recognised as critical. We now have two large comparative studies available which provide up-to-date evidence on party financing across the globe, and offer suggestions for legislative improvement. These are the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) Handbook, Funding of Political Parties and Electoral Campaigns, ed. Reginald Austin and Maja Tjernstrom, Stockholm, 2003; and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) study of party financing in 22 developing countries, Money in Politics, by Denise Baer and Shari Bryan, Washington DC, 2005. Together these studies provide some pointers to good practice, though much is acknowledged to depend upon the specific country context.

Concerns about party financing mentioned by both studies focus on the following three problem areas:

  • inadequate resources. This problem is particularly acute in developing countries, where finance from party membership dues is minuscule, and candidates often have to finance their campaign expenses from personal sources. ‘More than four out of five respondents state that they supply the majority of funds for their campaigns, often at the risk of personal bankruptcy….As a result, many resort to relationships with individual donors who expect preferential treatment once the candidate is elected, or worse, many reformers choose not to run at all, leaving the field to candidates who are independently wealthy.’ (NDI, p.4)
  • unequal resources. The electoral playing field can be distorted by inequalities of wealth in society which are differentially accessible to competing parties. Another distortion occurs where governing parties are able to use government resources, facilities and patronage improperly to gain advantage over opposition parties. ‘Only governing parties are in a position to award contracts, grant other favours or divert state funds illegally to themselves.’ (IDEA, p.28)
  • compromising sources. Campaign money from powerful interests may be given in expectation of legislative or other benefits which frustrate the democratic process or undermine public confidence in the integrity of government. As the IDEA study puts it succinctly, ‘The issue at stake is whether interested money should be allowed to override equal voting rights.’ (p.8)

It should be evident from the above list of concerns that the issue of party and campaign financing touches on a number of the features of a democratic parliament treated in this book: on the fairness of the electoral process, and its capacity to produce a parliament that is politically representative of the electorate; on parliament’s social representativeness through the role of personal wealth in access to candidacy; above all, on the degree of parliament’s accountability to the electorate.

   Addressing the concerns

How are these concerns being addressed? The two studies mentioned both agree that strategies vary enormously according to the individual country context, and that no single model of good practice is universally applicable. Yet they also suggest certain guidelines for party financing: a mix of legislative strategies – regulation, subvention, transparency – is preferable to reliance on any one; pluralism of sources of financing should be encouraged; legislation has to be effectively enforced, preferably by a single agency; finally, no system will ever be completely watertight, since the flow of money is like the flow of water. ‘No obstacle set up for control purposes will stop trickles from flowing and siphons from being applied.’ (IDEA, p.13). The NDI study contains extensive interviews with those involved, which show how legislation can be evaded in practice, reinforcing this scepticism.

Scepticism about watertight enforcement, however, should not be read as an argument for not addressing the issue. Here is what can reasonably be concluded from these studies about the different legislative strategies mentioned above:


The purpose of regulation is to limit both the demand for resources by parties and the mode of its supply. Two common measures on the demand side to contain the electoral ‘arms race’ are: limitations on campaign expenditure; and restrictions on paid political advertising in the broadcast media, both during and between elections. On the supply side, contributions may be banned: above a certain sum; from foreign sources; from organisations rather than individuals. All such restrictions have to meet with broad political agreement and be effectively enforced if they are not to be regularly circumvented through ‘creative accounting’.

   Public subvention

Public subsidy for political parties is widely unpopular, and can be damaging if it undermines the incentive for parties to seek income from voluntary supporters. On the other hand subsidies can go some way towards creating a more level playing field between parties, and supporting their essential public role. Subsidies in kind are often seen as preferable to cash subventions. These can take the form of free broadcast time on public media; free distribution of election literature; use of public buildings for meetings, and so on. Cash subsidies can be indirect, through tax exemptions or income tax deductions for donations; if direct, subsidies above a minimum threshold may be linked to the size of party membership or membership dues, as an encouragement to recruiting voluntary support. Subsidies have also been used as an incentive for good practice in other aspects of party activity, such as candidate selection.


In many countries details about party finances are obscure, and known only to a tight inner circle. Yet here as elsewhere transparency is essential to public confidence. Effective regulation depends on it; no public subvention is acceptable without it. And open accounts mean that party members, and competing parties as well, can contribute to more effective enforcement. This is a good illustration of the principle that effective accountability is best realised by a combination of ‘horizontal’ accountability, to a specialised enforcement agency, with ‘vertical’ accountability, to the public at large.

A useful way of concluding this discussion on party financing is with a couple of examples from our parliamentary submissions, which show a combination of all the above legislative strategies. The constitutional revision of 2001 in Greece introduced an express provision on party and electoral financing, as follows:

Political parties are entitled to receive financial support by the State for their electoral and operating expenses, as specified by law. A statute shall specify the guarantees of transparency concerning electoral expenses and, in general, the financial management of political parties, of MPs, parliamentary candidates and candidates for all degrees of local government. A statute shall impose the maximum limit of electoral expenses, may prohibit certain forms of pre-electoral promotion and shall specify the conditions under which violation of the relevant provisions constitutes a ground for the forfeiture of parliamentary office on the initiative of the special body in the following section. The audit of the electoral expenses of political parties and parliamentary candidates is carried out by a special body which is constituted also with the participation of senior judicial functionaries, as specified by law. (Article 29 para.2).

As a constitutional amendment, the above article only sets out the basic principles for legislation in this area. For a more detailed account of legislation in practice, here is the description of an Act of 2004, provided by the Canadian Parliament:

Until 2004, only candidates and political parties were required to disclose to the Chief Electoral Officer the sources and amounts of contributions received. Reporting obligations have now been extended to all political participants, including candidates, political parties, electoral district associations, leadership contestants and nomination contestants. All political participants are now required to disclose any contribution over $200……The source of potential political contributions has also been changed. Previously, these could be made by individuals, corporations, unions or other organisations and there were no limits on the amounts of the contribution. Now, with some minor exceptions, only individuals, that is citizens and permanent residents, are able to make financial contributions to registered parties and to leadership and nomination contestants. Contributions are also subject to an annual limit of $5000.
To compensate for potentially lost income to parties as a result of the changes in eligibility of donors, an annual allowance to registered parties is now provided in the amount of $1.75 per vote received by the party in the previous general election (to be adjusted for inflation), provided that the party has received either 2% of the valid votes cast nationally or 5% of the votes in the ridings where the party ran candidates. This is designed to be revenue neutral as it is believed that financially healthy political parties contribute to the viability of the electoral process. The changes also added an incentive to encourage contributions by individuals by doubling the portion of an individual’s political donation that is eligible for a 75% tax credit, from $200 to $400.

Further online reading about party financing:

Austin, R. and Tjernström, M. (eds) (2003). Funding of parties and election campaigns. International IDEA <http://www.idea.int/publications/funding_parties/upload/full.pdf>

Bryan, S. and Baer, D (eds.) (2005). Money in politics: a study of party financing practices in 22 countries. National Democratic Institute <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1848_polpart_moneyinpolitics_010105_full_text.pdf>

International IDEA (2005). Political finance database <http://www.idea.int/parties/finance/db/>

Johnston, M. (2005). Political parties and democracy in theoretical and practical perspectives: political finance policy, parties, and democratic development. National Democratic Institute <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1949_polpart_johnston_110105.pdf>

Moneyandpolitics.net. <http://www.moneyandpolitics.net/>

Monitoring public opinion

One feature that can contribute to the accountability of parliaments is the regular assessment of their public standing through opinion surveys, though only a few parliaments conduct these in any systematic way. Mostly we rely for such assessments on the findings of the regional ‘barometer’ surveys (Latinobarometer, Afrobarometer, etc.). These confirm a conclusion already suggested earlier, that parliaments as an institution do not stand high in public esteem, though there are significant regional differences, as table 5.1 shows. In the case of the European Union countries, for which figures exist over time, the figures show a marked decline in trust in parliaments having taken place over the period from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s (see, for example, Susan J. Pharr and Robert D. Putnam eds., Disaffected Democracies, Princeton, 2000; Susan Hattis Rolef, Trust in Parliaments - Some Theoretical and Empirical Findings, unpublished manuscript, The Knesset, Israel, 2005).

Figure 5.1: Trust in national institutions: regional averages

Figure 5.1: Trust in national institutions: regional averages

Note: Regional averages and the figures for individual countries are usefully summarised and tabulated in International IDEA (2005) Ten Years of Supporting Democracy Worldwide, pages 63 – 64, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm, Sweden. The regional averages here are from this source, compiled from the regional Barometers respectively. ‘Trust’ is the combination of ‘a lot or some trust’, as opposed to ‘little or no trust’ and don’t know’. ‘Party’ is ‘the ruling party’.

Figures for European Union are from European Commission (2004), Eurobarometer 61: Public Opinion in the European Union, page 10, at <http://europa.eu.int/comm/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb61/eb61_en.pdf>

The choice of Eurobarometer 61, rather than a later one, is in order to be as consistent as possible with the years when the other areas were sampled: the underlying survey data was collected in Africa 2002/3; New Europe 2004/5; East Asia 2001-3; and Latin America 2003; European Union, Spring 2004. ‘Party’ is here in the plural as ‘political parties’. ‘Courts’ here is ‘’justice/the legal system’. The figures are for those answering ‘tend to trust’ from a choice of ‘tend to trust’; ‘tend not to trust’ and ‘don’t know’.

Countries and regions featured:

Africa (15): Mali, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Ghana, Uganda, Namibia, Kenya, Zambia, Senegal, South Africa, Cape Verde, Nigeria

New Europe (11): Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech R, Bulgaria, Russia

East Asia (8): China, Thailand, Mongolia, Philippines, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan,

Latin America (17): Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Honduras, Panama, Mexico, El Salvador, Paraguay, Argentina, Peru, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala

European Union (15): Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. These figures exclude countries of the enlarged European Union, who became members on May 1st 2004.

All the figures in the table need to be interpreted with caution, for a number of reasons. First, they obscure considerable differences between individual countries within each region, as a more detailed breakdown of the figures indicates. Secondly, many respondents, especially the less educated or politically aware, find it difficult to distinguish between different governmental institutions, or between the record of particular political leaders and the institutions they temporarily occupy. Thirdly, surveys suggest that people tend to have a more positive assessment of their own constituency representative than of the institution of parliament as a whole, suggesting that locality and individual contact are significant and valued features of a representative system.

Nevertheless, these are not findings that can be treated with complacency. It cannot be good for the health of democracy if its key representative institution is held in such comparative low esteem. There is, however, some disagreement among the political science community which attempts to interpret these findings as to what the precise reason for them may be. In a paper prepared for the IPU working group (of which she is a member) Marta Lagos, of Latinobarometer, points out how trust in parliament has to be seen in the context of trust in public institutions more generally. With respect to Latin America, ‘trust’ or ‘confidence’ is typically a characteristic realised through close personal connections, not a feature of wider social interactions or of impersonal political institutions, whose outcomes lack the same level of predictability. ‘Society organises itself not in open interaction with third parties, but rather in closed groups of people who are in a reachable sphere…. Trust in Latin American society is present within networks in society, not between networks.’ On this analysis, parliament itself has taken on the character of another closed network, whose activities are not seen as relevant to the wider society. ‘Now, laws passed by parliament have to first prove to benefit society as a whole, and produce rules that are equal for all, before parliament becomes a fully legitimate institution for the majority of the population.’ One of the wider challenges for democracy, then, is how to break down the barriers of distrust between different social networks, including that constituted by parliament itself.

Not all analysts would attribute the same degree of importance to a general lack of social trust in explaining low levels of confidence in parliament, at least in respect of other regions. Richard Rose, for example, of Eurobarometer, argues that for the former communist countries of eastern Europe, the main explanation lies in the public’s assessment of institutional performance and the behaviour of parliamentarians themselves (see, for example, William Mishler and Richard Rose, What are the political consequences of trust? Centre for the Study of Public Policy, University of Aberdeen). When it comes to the established democracies, there is little evidence of a decline in social trust to match the secular decline in the standing of parliaments. Other social changes typical of most advanced industrial countries seem to be more relevant. With social structures becoming more fragmented, it proves more difficult to legislate without antagonising one or other vocal minority, and the social base of established parties becomes eroded. Attitudes towards authority have also become less deferential, and its deficiencies are more widely publicised. At the same time, the processes of globalisation have put some of the forces that affect the wellbeing of citizens beyond the reach of national political institutions. Together these factors have contributed to the decline in public confidence noted above.

   Parliaments can influence public opinion

Whatever the differences between the world’s regions, one conclusion can be drawn that is common to them all: some at least of the factors influencing public levels of confidence in parliaments are attributable to broader social processes which parliaments do not directly control. Yet there is still much they can do to improve their public standing. Many of the changes and innovations described in previous chapters – to make parliaments more representative, transparent and accessible – have been initiated in response to concerns about public confidence, and in some cases to specific criticisms from opinion surveys. There is also evidence that reforms in individual parliaments can raise their public profile and standing. So, for example, the Swedish Parliament reports a modest recent improvement in public support; and notes that, as a result of its actions over ten years to increase its openness and transparency, ‘more people feel that the Riksdag is easy to contact [than previously], and interest in knowing more about the Riksdag has grown.’ The Turkish Parliament reports that, as a result of its recent initiatives to create a more open and accessible parliament, ‘its credibility among public institutions has risen from 10th to 4th place.’

These examples suggest that it is possible to improve public confidence in parliament as an institution. They also suggest the considerable value to parliaments of themselves initiating more systematic polling across time to help them keep track of how they stand with their electorates, and also to assess the public impact of the democratic improvements they have already introduced, as a contribution to their own accountability.

Further online reading about survey findings on parliaments:

Afrobarometer <http://www.afrobarometer.org/>

Bratton, M, Chu, Y-H, Lagos, M & Rose, R (2005). The people’s voice: trust in political institutions, in Ten years of supporting democracy worldwide. International IDEA <http://www.idea.int/publications/anniversary/upload/Inlay_s enttoprint_30May05.pdf>

Centre for the Study of Public Policy, University of Aberdeen <http://www.abdn.ac.uk/cspp/>

Asian Barometer <http://www.asianbarometer.org/>

Eurobarometer <http://europa.eu.int/comm/public_opinion/index_en.htm>

Latinobarometer <http://www.latinobarometro.org/>


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