Parliaments in context: a parliament’s relationship with democratic trends

Parliaments occupy an awkward space between government and the people, triggering a range of responses that usually position the institution as either ‘them’ or ‘us’.

Victoria Hasson
22 February 2016

President-elect Jacob Zuma receives a standing ovation after being elected unopposed in 2014. GovernmentZA/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nd)

Parliaments and broader democratic trends necessarily interact. Parliaments are meant to be responsive to what is being discussed and needed in the country they serve, and more importantly they are meant to anticipate those discussions and needs. If you’re working in such a parliament, the key to getting this part right is to focus not on the macro-level of this process but on the micro-level of a parliament’s functioning. When we do this, it is easier to see precisely how a parliament and broader democratic trends interact.

In less established parliaments the interaction between broader democratic trends and parliamentary practice is formative as the institution works out how best to anticipate and absorb its deliberative, democratic powers. Even in post-colonial contexts where a set of standing orders and rules of procedure have been inherited, a developing parliament must still determine for itself how best to uphold the principle of popular sovereignty in its practices and procedures. This usually follows a slow and often tumultuous trajectory of trial and error.

It is not easy trying to figure out how best to institutionalise public will and opinion, moreover figuring out how best to ensure this is translated into laws or other state instruments that give effect to that opinion. Until the rules of the game have been established, and until a set of repeated practices have emerged as a valued set of ‘standing orders’, this iterative outside-in interaction must and does take place.

Sierra Leone, Jordan, Sri Lanka

I’ve borne witness to this process in my experience of analysing the inner functions of developing parliaments. For example, the inner workings of Sierra Leone’s parliament reflect a response to presidentialism that is shaping how oversight is performed, when and by whom. Much emphasis is placed on the practice of oversight via the work of its committees rather than on the legislative process. Going on oversight trips to monitor and review policy implementation as a collective body of parliament is seen as paramount to parliament’s democratic role.

In Jordan, practices within the House of Representatives are constantly negotiated in terms of broader demands for greater democracy. The by-laws of the institution have been changed a number of times, and remain a contested artefact, as MPs wrestle with how best to participate in parliament as locally elected independents trying to serve the state without a political party, or policy mandate. Practices in the Parliament of Jordan reflect an endeavour to make national representative behaviours stick in spite of structural challenges to this. For example, without a predetermined political party policy mandate, MPs are seen to raise numerous innocuous amendments in the house.


J.R. Jayawardene. Wikimedia commons.Effective parliamentarism in Sri Lanka is seen as a way to reinvigorate its democracy following a mass public outcry for greater public accountability. In 1978, Sri Lanka’s President J. R. Jayawardene promoted a socialist policy of consultation between parliament and the executive. This broader democratic sentiment led to the establishment of a consultative committee system in parliament in which committees were chaired by a member of the executive. Now this broader sentiment has changed and the institution has revised its standing orders to create a committee system with extensive new powers to hold the executive to account on adversarial terms.

Apartheid South Africa and after

However, an interesting exception to this trajectory emerged during my research into the inner practices of South Africa’s apartheid parliament. From parliament’s inception in 1910 to 1994, South Africa’s majority black population were excluded from direct representation at the national level. The majority of its people – including those that the institution did directly represent – viewed parliament as illegitimate and void of democratic authority. Yet, the internal practices and procedures of the institution were developed and invested in as democratic artefacts throughout this period. In this instance there was a total disconnect between broader democratic trends and what was going on inside the institution.

In well-established democracies, where this process of reflecting broader wants in a parliament’s performance has largely stagnated, the inner workings of the institution of parliament seem less acutely affected by broader democratic trends. Instead those parliaments build upon developed processes to tackle issues. In these contexts, institutions of parliament instead appear challenged to create effective strategies for building and sustaining public interest in the institution. An inside-out trajectory of parliament seeking to publicly interact with democratic trends emerges as these parliaments make use of social media to inform a broader populace on how the institution is handling affairs of social interest.

However, the nature and direction of this interaction is not static and at a given moment broader democratic trends inform an institution’s internal procedures. In the UK checkpoints have emerged that presently demand some form of parliamentary reform at times when what is being done by our representatives in Westminster is broadly perceived to be misaligned with our norms and values. The 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal is a good example of this.

In all contexts, a country’s social and political context shapes both the institution of parliament - and our understanding of what the institution of parliament does and how effectively it does it. However, this relationship is not always direct and is often nuanced by the way in which people interpret the notion of ‘parliament’ as an institution.

While working for the chief whip of the opposition in South Africa I interviewed a considerable number of individuals desperate to work in parliament. I always asked the obvious interview question: “What does parliament do?” I would sometimes re-phrase the question for a struggling candidate by asking: “What is the point of parliament?”; “What is parliament there to do?”

Given the visibility of South Africa’s National Assembly I was astounded by most candidates’ inability to articulate what the point of parliament was. Appropriating parliament to represent the entire population of South Africa was the bedrock of vehement and prolific anti-apartheid activist struggle over a 40-year period. The answers I received demonstrated that very little was understood about the role of parliament within South Africa’s constitutional framework and how it did that job.

Conceptions and expectations

I then came to realise that the interactive relationship between parliaments and democratic trends is reflexive but not necessarily correlative. People can care about them considerably but not know what they do, or know what they do but not care about them. In the case of South Africa, the people seem to care passionately about the institution and that it now exists to represent the entire population, but equally seem to have little handle of what it actually does.

This has led me to a final observation: what underlines the apparent distinction between what a parliament means to a person and their understanding of what it does, is that parliaments occupy an awkward space between government and the people. As such any reference to the institution triggers a range of responses that usually position the institution as either ‘them’ or ‘us’; that either fall on the side of those in power or fall on the side of those who are not.

So the interaction between parliaments and broader democratic trends is constantly filtered – and not simply by the procedures the institution develops to process broader social needs and demands. It is also shaped by the conceptions and expectations people have of what exactly a parliament does or does not do, and what a parliament should or should not be doing.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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