Is an effective legislature the cornerstone to an effective democracy?

At the latest Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) expert engagement event we were joined by Dr Tim Power, who spoke about the relationship between comparative political institutions such as parties, legislatures, and the executive in Brazil. Dr Power outlined the impact that factors external to parliaments such as the electoral system and the attitude of politicians towards other countries have on internal characteristics like the make-up of committees, the role of the speaker and procedural rules about votes. In order to change the way a legislature works, he argued, “you must change these factors “.

It’s clear that the increasing power of politicians, in systems where public opinion favours those in the executive, has created an uneven playing field. Dr Power described the tension between Brazil’s executive and legislature, even when party fragmentation occurs in the Parliament, the president is able to continue governing by decree with the approval of the Speaker of the House. Thus, the president can manipulate internal divisions to shape the political agenda and build a coalition which can govern.

Brazil’s experience is very much of interest to WFD. Our programmes focus on the expertise UK MPs and their staff have to offer parliamentarians in transitioning countries, often that involves support in crafting legislation and developing public policy. In Brazil, though, the top level of government can legislate freely. Where the majority of legislation is coming from the executive, such as in Latin America, there are potential lessons to be learnt about how WFD adjusts its programme strategies.

To do so effectively, WFD must understand that the major concern of politicians is, as Dr Power suggested, not initiating quality legislation but being re-elected in four years’ time. Every time politicians are presented with an opportunity to change the way the executive and legislature interacts, he argued they instinctively ask themselves: what’s in this reform for me? The main goal in the four-year electoral cycle is to achieve something that they can claim credit for – like a bridge they can have their photo next to. A role in the executive, even as a coalition member, allows politicians to claim a piece of the credit for delivering key public services. Hence the parade of posters featuring smiling politicians which litter the roadsides by every new infrastructure project.

What, asked WFD CEO Anthony Smith, “is the real issue – parties, or the executive, or the legislature?” The best solution, Dr Power argued, is to tackle the electoral cycle. In Brazil, the staggered nature of the legislative and municipal elections means that the window to produce quality legislation is dramatically reduced by politicians who are too preoccupied with getting re-elected. It is this external factor – the electoral system – Dr Power believes is the key to successful reform in Brazil.

The absence of a strong political party system, the increasing fragmentation of the parties that do exist, and the individualistic nature of politicians has a significant impact on the way the legislature functions. All this is related to the electoral process. The large number of individual candidates at elections means politicians are “poorly identifiable with voters” and therefore not held to account for their actions. The public pressure to create strong legislation is absent from the system. Changing the legislature to one that is proactive would mean addressing all these issues.

But is this essential in creating a fully functioning strong democratic country? No, Dr Power believes – and WFD’s Director of Research, Graeme Ramshaw agrees.

Graeme argued that the real lesson will be from international organisations, like WFD, accepting that a reactive legislature is not necessarily a bad thing. He asked about the relationship between a proactive legislature and the need for a strong parliament, to which Dr Power responded with a question: “How many transformative legislatures have there been in the world?” He argued that “everyone else (outside of the UK and US) was a follower at best”. This does not mean that they did not have a ‘strong parliament’ though.

Take the Brazilian case: the legislature is perceived as “the second mover in everything” and the President as “dominating the legislative agenda”. This is true – almost 85% of legislation originates with the executive – but it is the Congress which reviews the presidential decrees being put forward. If it does not approve them, they will fail. The most appropriate intervention, therefore, for an organisation like WFD may be to identify the best way of strengthening the reactive system which is already in place.

“We conduct context analysis to build up an understanding of why a parliament is structured the way it is and functions the way it does”, Graeme Ramshaw explained. “It is by building our evidence base about different systems and parliaments that we can improve the quality of our programmes in countries that have political traditions distinct from those of the UK. Far from attempting to impose a particular model or set of institutional relationships, our focus is always on supporting parliamentary cultures and practices that enable each country’s democracy to flourish in its own unique way.”

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