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HOW TO CRITIQUE A POLITICAL SYSTEM
On my web site, I have produced short guides to 13 political systems [click here]. Since there are 193 members of the United Nations, there are obviously many more political systems although, for the purposes of this essay, I am only interested in political systems that are at least partially democratic.
Comparing and contrasting political systems is a useful exercise that brings out strengths, weaknesses and nuances. On this web site, I have compared the political systems of two Anglo-Saxon nations with a special relationship: the United States and the United Kingdom [click here].
But, more generally, how should one critique a particular political system? And how does one assess how democratic a particular political system is?
There is no such thing as the 'best' political system. Each political system represents a different and often complicated and sometimes hidden 'trade off' of various elements. Furthermore no political system operates in a vacuum: it reflects the history of the country, its geography and populace, and its culture and values.
THE THEORY OF GOVERNMENT
Ultimately all political systems are about power and assessing these systems requires answers to some fundamental questions about the exercise of power:
Classically political systems are seen as having three arms of government:
- How is power is distributed?
- What are the checks and balances on the exercise of that power?
- How accountable are politicians for the misuse or abuse of such power?
Although in classical theory the three arms of government are given three distinctive functions, in practice, there is an overlap:
- The executive - this is the group of ministers that runs the country from day to day.
- The legislature - this is the body of members of the parliament that passes legislation.
- The judiciary - these are the judges who ensure that the constitution is upheld and the laws are enforced.
There is a political theory, called 'the separation of the powers', which holds that each arm of government should have distinctive powers and each should exercise some checks and balances in relation to the other two arms. In its purest form, no individual should be a member of more than one arm of government - the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary - at the same time.
Although this model was developed in Ancient Greece and Rome, the modern formulation of the theory is ascribed to the French political philosopher Baron de Montequieu. He based his views in part on a study of the British political system of the time and his views had a profound influence on the 'Founding Fathers' who drafted the American constitution.
In fact, the current British political model is - in personal terms - no respecter of the 'separation of the powers':
- Often most of the legislative proposals will come from the executive rather than the legislature itself - for example, this is the case in the British political system
- Usually the legislature does more than pass bills; it monitors the work of the executive and holds it to account - for example, in the USA Congressional committees have powerful investigatory functions.
- Senior judges may be consulted on the drafting of new laws and not simply expected to enforce current laws and a powerful constitutional court may make interpretations of laws that many see as political.
On the other hand, the American political system is a pure form of the 'separation of the powers':
- Every member of the executive has to be a member of the legislature as well (House of Commons or House of Lords)
- Some senior judges are members of the legislature (House of Lords)
So, that is the theory. What about the practice?
I would suggest that there are two stages in critiquing a political system. First, one needs to understand the political system - especially in terms of how it distributes power and operates in practice. Second, one needs to assess that system by using a number of relevant tests.
HOW TO UNDERSTAND A POLITICAL SYSTEM
- The President cannot be a member of the Senate or the House of Representatives.
- No judge can sit in the Senate or the House of Representatives.
One cannot fully understand the political system of a country without knowing something about its history, geography and population. So, for example:
Then, to understand a political system, one needs to know where power lies and to what extent such power is circumscribed and accountable.
The starting point is to know whether the political system is a presidential one - like the United States, France and Russia - or a parliamentary one - like the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. That is, is the main source of power located in an elected president or an elected parliament? In the USA, the President is the head of state, the head of government, and the commander-in-chief, he has the power to make executive orders, and he nominates judges to the Supreme Court. In Russia, the President has power over more than 75 appointments. The British Prime Minister does not have as much power.
The next stage is to appreciate the balance of power between the two houses of the legislature where there is a bicameral system (about half of the nations in the world including most of the more populous ones). In some systems - like the American - the two houses have broadly equal power in terms of enacting legislation; in most countries, however, one chamber is pre-eminent, such as the House of Commons in Britain or the Bundestag in Germany but the delaying or blocking power of the second chamber varies from country to country. In the USA, the House of Representative has the power to impeach the President but it is the Senate which conducts the trial of impeachment.
A vital further stage is to comprehend how each arm of government is checked and balanced by the other. So, for instance, in the American political system, the President may veto bills passed by Congress, but the veto may be overridden by a two-thirds majority of both houses, while the Supreme Court determines how laws should be interpreted to ensure uniform policies in a top-down fashion.
HOW TO ASSESS A POLITICAL SYSTEM
- Britain does not have a written constitution because its political system largely evolved before the advent of written constitutions.
- The American political system gives so much power to the 50 states because the country was created by an original 13 states.
- The German political system gives so much power to the Länder because the framers of the constitution were anxious to disperse power as a reaction to the experience of Nazism.
- The Russian political system has an upper chamber, the Federation Council, with a complicated geographical make-up because of the different territorial units that make up this huge nation.
- The Lebanese political system is a special one called 'confessionalism' that attempts to represent fairly the demographic distribution of the different religious groups in the legislature and the government because there are so many such groups that vie for power.
To assess the democratic nature of a political system, one needs a set of tests that are 'real world' as opposed to theoretical.
Such a set of tests would revolve around the following key questions about the political system itself:
In some cases, residency alone is sufficient to obtain the right to vote. In other cases, citizenship is required before one can have the right to vote. So, for instance, in the USA, illegal migrants cannot vote. In the Gulf States, no migrant worker can vote. In all countries, the right to vote is limited by age and, in many other cases, there are limitations of one kind or another.
- How easy is it to obtain the right to vote?
Someone with the right to vote needs to register in order to be able to exercise that right. Some countries make such registration easier than others. In the USA, registration rules are a matter for the states and some states require proof of identity at the polling station. Keeping the voting register up-to-date is often a challenge.
- How easy is it actually to vote?
In many democratic countries, voter turnout has been falling. In the USA, for the last 40 years typical turnouts even for Presidential elections have been little more than 50%. In 22 countries, voting is compulsory, although only 10 of this countries enforce this (Australia and Brazil are examples). Is there a major difference in which components of the electorate actualy vote? In many cases, voter participation is low among young people and ethnic minorities.
- What proportion of the electorate does actually vote?
Does it represent fairly all geographical areas or units? All ethnic or religious groups? This could be achieved how by electoral constituencies are drawn up and by the choice of the voting system used. Generally speaking, large constituencies and the 'first past the post' voting system favour large parties and do not produce results in which the proportion of seats won by a party is close to the proportion of votes won by that party. On the other hand, some forms of proportional representation system of election can make it harder to form and maintain a government capable of putting through a programme.
- How representative is the system?
If a government loses the support of the people, how can it be changed? If a member of the legislature loses the support of his or her constituents, how can he or she be recalled or voted out? In theory, the shorter the term of office, the more accountable is the person elected: in the USA, members of the Senate serve six years, the President serves four, and member of the House of Representatives serve two. But, if the term office is too short, it is difficult for the person elected to gain experience and to take a medium-term view of interests.
- How accountable is the system?
Does the system enable governments to be created that last a reasonable period of time? In Italy, since 1945 only one government has served a full five-year term of office and the average lifetime of a government has been merely one year. Does the system enable legislation to be passed? In the USA, even a President can find it difficult or even impossible to get enacted legislation which he has proposed. Countless Bills proposed by Congressional Committees are never approved. In Israel, the national list system of election ensures that all governments are multi-party coalitions and small, religious parties can exert excessive influence, so that decision-making is more difficult than in other countries.
- How effective is the system?
Constitutional change should not be easy but it should not be impossible. Some countries have had several complete changes of constitution in a matter of decades which may not have enhanced stability. In the USA, significant constitutional change is practically impossible. In the UK, constitutional change can be achieved by a majority vote in the legislature because the country has no written constitution.
A further set of questions needs to be asked to evaluate the context in which the political system operates, especially:
- How flexible is the system?
All countries and all political systems have a degree of corruption but, in some cases, the corruption is widespread and even institutional and mechanisms for identifying corruption and holding the corrupt to account are weak.
American elections depend on vast sums to purchase broadcasting time. Parties and candidates in British elections cannot buy broadcasting time. As a consequence of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, effectively there are no limitations on expenditure in American political elections. There are statutory limitations on expenditure for all elections in the UK.
- What is the level of corruption?
In a country like Pakistan, the army has played a very political role and regularly overthrown governments. In Turkey, the army is seen as the guarantor of secular values. Sometimes the role of the military is more subtle or hidden.
- How politically neutral is the military?
In many countries, most of the media - newspapers, radio, television - is privately owned so that there tends to be a Right-wing bias as media groups are owned and controlled by financial interests or moguls such as Rupert Murdoch. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi controls the majority of television stations but still managed to lead a major political party and even become prime minister. In Russia, virtually all the mainstream media is pro-Putin.
- How independent is the media?
In a genuine democracy, there have to be ways of citizens expressing views and lobbying for their interests such as trade unions, pressure groups, think tanks, charities, interest groups, and non-governmental organisations. On the other hand, if lobbying of legislators is not transparent and regulated, strong financial interests can exert undue influence.
- How strong is civil society?
It will be very apparent from this essay that assessing a political system is not an easy task and requires information and insight. Fortunately there are organisations that do really useful work in this area, including the following:
- Economist Intelligence Unit 'Democracy Index' click here
- Freedom House 'Freedom In The World' assessment click here
- Transparency International 'Corruption Perceptions Index' click here
- Reporters Without Borders 'World Press Freedom Index' click here
Last modified on 5 December 2015
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