Explainer 4

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Explainer script circa 7/29/06 on the parliamentary system.
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  v.2Explainer 4ClipThat was Queen Elizabeth II during the annual State Opening of the British Parliament.I. Parliament: a legacy of monarchyWhy did we begin with the United Kingdom? Because the British parliamentary, or Westminster system, is considered one of thelegacies of British colonial rule, in contrast to the politicaltraditions of republican government, a legacy of the Romanrepublic and the French and American revolutions.At its height, the British Empire encompassed a third of the landarea of the globe. From Canada to India, Malaysia to Australia, thegoverning systems of former British colonies owe a great deal tothat of the United Kingdom. The British system has been hailed asthe product of a long, and rich, evolution that has continued for centuries. For example, while Parliament is an ancient institutionin England, the function of the prime minister dates to HoraceWalpole, in 1721; The title “Prime Minister” itself didn’t even become official in the UK until 1906 with Henry Campbell-Bannerman.So let’s view the evolution of parliamentary government. In the past, monarchs had absolute power; that power was at first,challenged by the barons and other nobles, whose support wasnecessary if kings were to be able to form armies and raise taxesfor their upkeep. Whether it was through forced agreements suchas the Magna Carta in England, or noble-led rebellions and thedeposing of dynasties, the nobility over the centuries began to  obtain powers previously reserved for the king. What was once the prerogative of one person became a shared authority, exercised bymonarchs upon the approval of assemblies of nobles. In turn, thenobles ended up sharing legislative and even executive powerswith the middle and professional classes.We can view the rise of parliamentary government, then, in theseterms: what was once totally the king’s, became the powers of acollective composed of large landowners and then the middle and professional classes; and so according to that kind of politicalevolution, it was natural for the undivided powers of both runninggovernment ministries, and of legislation, to remain undivided. Asurvey of the remaining monarchies of the world indicates thisevolutionary process: constitutional monarchies today areoverwhelmingly parliamentary, whether one looks at the UK, theScandinavian nations, or Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada,Australia, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.In other countries where monarchies have been abolished, the parliamentary system is also found: in these countries, hereditarymonarchs have been replaced with Presidents with fixed terms,who, however, serve the same, mainly ceremonial functions, of themonarchies they replaced. Germany and India are good examples.How does the parliamentary system, in general, work?Under the parliamentary system, the parliament is supreme. Itfulfills both the legislative and executive functions of government.The courts are often subordinate to parliament, which has the power to amend the constitution: former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia, for example, stripped the MalaysianSupreme Court of some of its powers to rule on parliament’sactions, just as he introduced legislation to further reduce thealready nominal powers of the Malaysian king.  Parliaments may be unicameral or bicameral, though the majorityof parliaments are bicameral, though the powers of the upper chamber varies greatly from country to country.The electorate chooses members of parliament, or MP’s, who areelected by district. The MP’s, in turn, have party affiliations, andthe number of MP’s elected determines which party heads thegovernment. In general, if a party secures a clear majority in parliament, it forms the government by itself. If no single partyachieves a majority, then the parties can combine to form acoalition, with ministries and committees divided up according thecomposition of the coalition.The government thus formed, has a life for a fixed term. When thatterm ends, an election is held. During that time, the governmenthas a leader, called the Prime Minister, who heads the cabinet. ThePrime Minister and his cabinet select who, from among the ranksof their party or coalition, hold various ministerial positions. At thesame time, parliament itself has committees, composed of majorityand minority members, who conduct the legislative business of  parliament.The opposition is composed of everyone in parliament who doesn’t belong to the ruling party or coalition. In general, the largestopposition party forms what is called a “shadow government,”under a leader assisted by opposition MP’s who hold theresponsibility of concentrating on the various ministries. They arethe next government-in-waiting.The Prime Minister and his government is accountable, not to theelectorate, but to parliament. The Prime Minister’s policies and proposed legislation are therefore subject to continuous scrutinynot only by the opposition, but by his own party as well. A PrimeMinister can hire and fire ministers as he pleases; but if a Prime  Minister or his government conduct becomes controversial or questionable, his mandate can be put to the test.There are four ways to do this. His party can propose a vote of confidence in parliament: this serves as a positive re-endorsementof the government. The opposition can call for a vote of no-confidence: a rejection of the government. The Prime Minister’s party can also decide for a change in the party leadership: if unchallenged by the opposition, the ruling party could change thePrime Minister but give the position to a new one from within their ranks. Or, if there’s a coalition, parts of it could use the challengeto the PM to call for a vote of confidence or no confidence. Agovernment, to head off a vote of confidence or no-confidence or a party split, can ask for parliament to be dissolved, and electionsheld.Calling for an early election by dissolving parliament ahead of itsterm, is a way a PM or government can prevent losing a vote of confidence, or a vote of no-confidence, or an intra-party fightspilling over to parliament. Defeat in such a vote means that thegovernment falls, and in general, elections for a new parliamentheld anyway. And since losing such a vote would be harmful to a party’s chances to reelect its candidates, calling for a caretaker government to be appointed to preside over the election allows theruling party or government to fight an election on its own, and notthe opposition’s, terms.Either way, since the term of parliament can be shortened, ideallythe government of the day is always one that enjoys the support of  parliament, regardless of its standing with the people.In fact in the 1920s and 1930s, Filipino politicians tended to viewelections in a parliamentary manner. Party splits and campaigns between parties coincided with elections for the House and Senate:the split would occur before an election, and the election would be
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