Features of Parliamentary / Cabinet System of Government
The parliamentary system or cabinet system of government is where the Head of State is different from the Head of Government. That is, there are two persons running the affairs of the state. In this system of government, the Head of State is distinct from the Head of Government.
The real Executive powers lies in the Council of Ministers known as the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister and the legislature serves as the source of authority for the Executive.
The Cabinet which includes the Prime Minister and the Ministers are all selected from members of the parliament and still derive their powers from the legislature.
The cabinet system of government is characterized by the following:
The cabinet system of government is also called parliamentary system, party government or Westminster model.
In this system, the Head of State is different from the Head of Government. The head of state is a titular or ceremonial leader who may be a monarch or president. As Head of State, he performs mainly ceremonial and formal functions and his influence in the system is small.
The Prime Minister is the head of government and he is, therefore, the chief executive of the country. He is ‘primus interpares’ or first among equals.
The procedure for choosing the government is simple. After a general election, the monarch or president formally calls upon the party with majority in parliament to form a government. The leader of the victorious party becomes the prime minister, and he, in turn, choose his cabinet from parliament. So the person who eventually becomes the prime minister is first and foremost a member of parliament.
Both the prime minister and his cabinet are selected from the parliament, and they are thus responsible and accountable to parliament in the performance of their functions. That is, they are individually and collectively responsible to parliament.
The government (that is, the prime minister and his cabinet) can be removed by parliament by passing a vote of no confidence in the government. But this power is seldom used since both the government and the majority in parliament belong to the same party.
The executive does not have a fixed term of office. It remains in office as long as it wins general elections and enjoys the support of the house. For example, Mr. Tony Blair of the Labour Party was the Prime Minister of Britain from 1997 (having won elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005) to 2007.
What exists in a cabinet system of government is fusion of powers rather than separation of powers. That is, it is difficult to separate the executive from the legislature especially given the dual responsibility of the ministers as members of parliament and members of the cabinet.
The legislature may be unicameral or bicameral. Britain, for example, is bicameral. Ghana, which once practised this form of government, was, and is still unicameral.
Membership of the Upper House may be hereditary or elective or appointive. In Britain, the house is partly hereditary and partly appointive.
The monarch or president chooses the date of general elections on the advice of the prime minister.
The executive may dissolve parliament and the effectiveness of the legislature is hampered by the cabinet’s power to dissolve it.
There is parliamentary supremacy. This means that the laws made by parliament are binding on every other organ of government. This means that its acts or decisions cannot be questioned by the judiciary.
The courts can only interpret the statutes (laws), but they cannot invalidate them.
It is a party government since the cabinet system is based on the dominance of one party, which normally supports the policies of the government.
There are government and opposition parties in parliament. The party that wins the general election forms the government. In contrast, the largest minority party in parliament forms the opposition.
The opposition in parliament may form a shadow cabinet (or alternative ministers).
The principle of collective responsibility is an integral part of the cabinet system of government. It means that the cabinet is united before parliament and where the policy of a particular minister is under attack, it is the government as a whole that is under attack.
The principle of individual responsibility also operates in a cabinet system. This principle implies that a minister coordinates the activities of his ministry and takes full responsibility for anything that happens in his ministry.
The number of political parties represented in parliament has an important effect on the functioning of the system. In a country like Israel where many political parties are represented in parliament, it is usually difficult to have a party with a parliamentary majority and the government is therefore usually a coalition of parties and this partly accounts for the perennial instability of government in the country.
The cabinet system is sometimes called a dual executive as it contains both a president and prime minister.