The Evolution of Parliaments: A Comparative-historical Perspective on Assemblies and Political Decision-making

Tom R Burns & Masoud Kamali. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. Sage Publication. 2003.

This chapter discusses a major component of the modernity complex, namely representative assemblies and parliaments as part of the modern state. It focuses on the emergence and institutionalization of parliament as an arrangement for collective representation, reflexivity and production of collective knowledge and decision-making. Our analyses are grounded in three key tenets.

First, in contrast to the abstract generalities of the ‘reflexive modernists’ (Beck [1992, 1997], Beck et al. [1994], Giddens [1990, 1991] and Lash [1999], among others), we stress the importance of specifying and examining in their historical, political and cultural contexts institutions such as forms of representative assemblies, bureaucracies, markets and market governance structures, among others. Thus, we focus, as in this chapter, on a particular institution or institutional arrangement and follow its historical emergence and development in particular contexts. This allows for a greater degree of specificity than available from much of those theorizing about ‘modernity.’ While we agree with the significance of, for instance, ‘reflexive processes’ in modern societies, our approach identifies and analyses particular institutional arrangements that play a role in societal reflexivity and deliberation, namely representative assemblies and parliaments.

Second, our approach identifies a complex of factors—power conditions, functionality or usefulness of such assemblies to rulers and powerful groups in society, and cultural-institutional factors—that contribute to explaining the logic of institutional development in different socio-political and cultural contexts (Burns, 1999, 2001; Burns and Dietz, 1992; Burns and Flam, 1987); in this chapter, representative assemblies or parliaments.

Third, we reject the prevalent, dualistic analysis of modernity—and in particular, of its institutions—that contrasts ‘Occident’ and ‘Oriental’ developments. The legacy of ‘Orientalism’ was established in part not only through the theories of Max Weber and Karl Marx, but also through those of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, John Locke and others (Kamali, 2001). Among contemporary theorists, Ernest Gellner, Jeffrey Alexander and Samuel Huntington explain the failure of democratic development in Islamic countries as compared to those in the West by the lack of ‘civil society and individualism’ in the ‘Islamic world.’ Our approach rejects the simple formula of searching for and identifying selected differences between the West and non-Western societies, for example ‘differences in democratic development.’ Such a formula serves to characterize the West as all-too unique.

We bring into the discussion, to the limited extent possible in a short chapter, the developments of early representative assemblies in a few ‘non-Western’ societies, for instance the empires of Persia and Ottoman. In this way, the evolution of representative assemblies in contemporary Iran and Turkey as well as other Islamic countries can be better understood as a continuing struggle, each with its own dialectics, much like many of the struggles that have taken place, and continue to do so, in Europe and elsewhere (Kamali, 1998, 2001). The increasing role and authority of parliaments in Europe and elsewhere have been highly uneven and subject to substantial setbacks and reversals in different socio-political and cultural contexts.

Our study suggests not only the diversity of developments in the European context, but also the similarities between some developments in European societies and those in non-European countries. The chapter aims to contribute to the concept of multiple modernities, by focusing on the development logic of a particular institution in diverse socio-political and cultural contexts.

The Crooked Road to Parliamentary Democracy

Parliament is a type of assembly. Assemblies are a universal construction based on human linguistic, conceptual and organizational capacities: (1) the gathering of elders in villages and ‘tribes’ (Mair, 1962; Maquet, 1971); (2) assemblies in classical Greek cities (demos); (3) the councils and synods of Christianity; (4) councils of Italian city-states; (5) the moots of the Saxons and the tings of the Scandinavians; (6) councils and consultation arrangements (for instance, shoura, and mashverat, in Islamic societies), courts and, in some cases, ‘parliaments’ linked to monarchs and emperors; (7) modern parliaments as a core part of contemporary democracy. In general, deliberative assemblies are a major social institution in every society, for conducting collective reflectivity, deliberation and decision-making.

The formation and development of states and empires provided a context for the utilization and evolution of assemblies in one form or another. The Prince—for example, medieval European monarchs, the monarchs of Persia and Ottoman, the emperors of China sought advice from persons chosen—typically at the discretion of the Prince—for their knowledge, competence and trustworthiness. Often, there was an interest in having them report from the entire realm and then to convey the Prince’s directives and tax demands back to their communities, ‘tribes’ and regions. The pattern of selection of such advisers tended to follow actual or established social structures—for instance, the nobility and clergy, possibly city merchants; the elites from diverse ‘tribes.’ In some cases, as in Sweden, commoners were represented in the parliament. A number of assemblies that evolved into democratic parliaments had their origin in the council to the Prince—in Europe, the curia regis: the great council of Britain, the Cortes of the Spanish kingdoms, the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, the Diets of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, and the parliaments of the Scandinavian countries. All represented to varying degrees the principal estates of the realm. Their purpose was to give counsel to the Prince and provide unity to the realm. But they became important in some cases in supplementing the Prince’s normal feudal income through agreement to special taxes. Also, the Prince could use the assembly to find out about special problems, opposition or unintended consequences of specific policies and institutions. Such assemblies evolved very differentially in various countries.

The Differential Development of Parliaments

States and empires all had assemblies of various sorts, to provide advice, to react to proposals for new laws and policies, and to report on the implementation of policies and laws passed by the Prince. The challenge in an analysis of the evolution of representative assemblies is to explain how consultative and advisory assemblies transformed themselves or were transformed—into institutions that could countervail political authority and eventually become a major basis of authority and legitimacy for political decisions.

At the outset, it must be emphasized that there has been no linear progression in the evolution of parliamentary systems. Assemblies as human organizations or constructions adapt, and are adapted to, their environment. Many assemblies, including historically time-honoured parliaments, have been the tools of monarchs (as pointed up in the case of many European parliaments before 1900), autocrats (the Ottoman sultans, the shahs of Iran), oligarchs (the Republic of Venice), political parties (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). But parliamentary assemblies have also been a means of opposition, a symbol of the struggle against tyranny or the violation of the rights of citizens. In general, historical studies point up the role that many parliamentary bodies have played in struggling against executive power and autocracy. And while numerous parliaments have been stripped of their powers, silenced and even abolished, there has been a relentless pressure in the modern period—resulting time and time again in the revival of parliamentary bodies in relation to political decision-making and law-making (see later).

Several patterns of development of parliamentary democracy can be identified. Our treatment is highly selective and is intended to serve illustrative purposes in this short chapter.

Relatively long and continuous development. A number of countries in Europe, such as England, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands and Sweden, showed a gradual growth of the power of parliament in relation to the monarchy. Still, the development was never linear. Europe’s oldest parliament, the Althing of Iceland, dating from 930, was abolished in 1800 under Danish sovereignty over Iceland. It was re-established in 1843 in the context of Icelandic national revival. There are discontinuities in the English case as well. For instance, the struggles between the crown and major groups, including many closely associated with Parliament, led to the English Civil War (1642-8), which resulted in the deposition of the king, and declaration of a Commonwealth (1649) with Parliament governing. Cromwell set up the Protectorate (1653-9), acting as virtual dictator, and manipulated and even dissolved Parliament. Monarchy and Parliament were ultimately restored in 1660, but the former was subject in an institutionalized manner to an assertive and largely unified Parliament.

Discontinuous development. Several countries have had important assemblies with a long but substantially discontinuous history, for instance the French Estates-General and the Spanish Cortes. Each was composed of three estates, the clergy, nobility and burghers. One can say generally that the Cortes (local cortes of the various Spanish regions), from the twelfth to the thirteenth century, and the Estates-General in France, established in the fourteenth century, had considerable influence vis-à-vis their monarchs over substantial periods. However, as royal power was consolidated—the emergence of absolutism—these assemblies were increasingly ignored, their powers curtailed, and they were seldom convoked. But as in England, struggles went on. For instance, in France, at the same time as the captivity of King John II in England (1355-7), the Estates-General forced the dauphin (later King Charles V) to promulgate the Grande Ordonnance, which was to expand its financial and administrative powers and make it the legislature of France. The dauphin, however, revoked his concessions almost as soon as he had made them and called a rival assembly. While later Estates-General often opposed the king and even won temporary concessions, the continuous consolidation of royal power blocked the emergence of a powerful parliamentary body. The Estates-General was not convoked during the period 1614-1789, and when it assembled on 5 May 1789 at Versailles, the stage was set for the French Revolution. This was, in fact, a continuation of an age-old struggle, but in an entirely new political, economic and social context. The French Revolution did not, however, settle the matter once and for all. There were reversals—for instance, the dictatorship of Napoleon. And during the 1800s, struggle between the government and parliament for sovereign power dovetailed with struggles between monarchists and republicans. These struggles resulted in a string of different regimes and substantial political instability. A somewhat similar history of struggle occurred in the Spanish case, but spanning both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Spain was characterized by the struggle between monarchists and republicans and the rise and fall of different types of regime. Parliamentary democracy appeared to triumph in Spain in 1931 with republicans victorious, but governments were unstable and culminated in the 1936-9 civil war. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-75), the Cortes was stripped of effective powers. It was restored in 1978 as a genuine parliament in a democratic state.

Poland provides another example of a long history of parliamentary development broken by substantial periods of a non-existent or non-sovereign parliament. The Polish precursor to a modern democratic parliament, the Sejm, was a powerful agent in relation to the monarch for more than two centuries (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries)—the gentry and noble classes had developed a high degree of egalitarianism and integration among themselves and forced the king to recognize the Sejm’s legislative powers, thereby weakening the Polish state in the geopolitical context of powerful, autocratic states surrounding it: Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden. Ultimately (1795), Poland was totally partitioned among Russia, Austria and Prussia and ceased to exist as an independent state. After the First World War, the state was restored. The Polish Sejm functioned from 1921 until 1926, when a military dictatorship was established, which was ended with the German occupation (1939-45). After the Second World War, the Sejm was re-established but subject to forty-three years (1946-89) of a communist straitjacket. It re-emerged in 1989 as a modern democratic parliament.

Late adoption of parliamentary forms. During the 1800s and early 1900s, some of the principles and rules of parliamentary democracy spread, via diffusion (Burns, 2001; Burns and Dietz, 1992), to new states such as Germany and Italy as well as to established states such as Persia, Ottoman, and Russia with previously autocratic regimes. All of these countries have had very difficult and uneven political developments in connection with parliamentarism. For instance, in 1906 Russia established a parliamentary body as a result of the Revolution of the previous year. It consisted of an upper house, the State Council, and a lower house, the Duma. No law was to be passed without the consent of the Duma. However, there were almost immediate conflicts between the Duma and the tsar over concrete policies as well as power-sharing, which resulted in several Dumas being dissolved between 1906 and 1917; the tsar also imposed electoral changes favouring the government. At the time of the Russian Revolution (1917), the Duma was supplanted by the Soviet assembly. Between 1917 and 1993, the Soviet was the supreme parliamentary body, but failed to function as a democratic institution or as a counterweight to the government. Since 1993 there has again been a Duma, which has been in a position to question and challenge the executive to a greater or lesser extent.

With the formation of a unified Germany, a Reichstag was established and functioned in the period 1871-1918 but with little power. Rather, there was substantial scepticism and disloyalty toward the parliamentary order. The Weimar Republic (1919-33) gave the Reichstag real power, but deep cleavages and intense conflicts in German politics immobilized it. Its powers were suspended for considerable periods of time prior to Hitler coming to power in 1933. Under the Nazi dictatorship, the Reichstag was disabled. However, it was maintained to be summoned from time to time to approve important government measures. Following defeat, Germany was given a new constitution and parliamentary government and, since 1949, has had a well-functioning democratic parliament.

Although consultative assemblies were used in the Persian and Ottoman empires, these were typically of a type employed by European monarchs as their immediate council of advisers. For example, the Ottoman sultan had a Chancellery of the State (or the Imperial Chancellery), the Divan. This was made up of, for instance, the grand vizier, viziers (ministers) and senior officials. This circle came to be extended by a consultative assembly of religious leaders, judges, military chiefs, diplomats and other dignitaries. More encompassing assemblies were not institutionalized, that is, grounded in established rules and procedures. The sultans and shahs would take into consideration and consult on matters of policy with important agents and groups, in particular the ulama, the Islamic clergy (Kamali, 1998). For example, even the most authoritarian rulers, such as Abdulhamit I (1774-89) of the Ottoman empire, would refer, for instance, the proposals for diplomatic missions to Sheykh ul-Islam and other high ulama before deciding anything, including matters of foreign policy of the empire (Neumann, 1993). Also important were the bazaris, who typically were in close association with the ulama. They were the most important economic group in major Islamic cities; government programmes and military campaigns often depended on them. The bazaris’ close connection and mutual interdependency with the ulama provided them a central role in the life of Islamic states and empires. However, typically bazaris had no direct political role in negotiations and consultations with the government. It was their ‘natural allies,’ namely the ulama, who represented them in consultations with government.

Important innovations in consultative bodies were introduced in both the Ottoman and Persian empires during the nineteenth century. The Ottomans’ close connections to European states and their engagements in power struggles with European powers made them especially alert to political innovations and other developments in Western countries. For example, the High Council of Just Decrees (Majlis-i valay-yi ahkam-i aldiye), a type of legislative assembly, was established in 1831. It was responsible for legislation, discussions and decisions on state expenditures and budget as well as tax collection. It became a model for later parliamentary development. As internal and international crises intensified in the mid-1870s, a group of state officials influenced by the ‘Young Turks’ and led by a former grand vizier, Midhat Pasha, called for the establishment of a constitutional regime. They succeeded in convincing the new Sultan Abdulhamid to approve in 1876 a constitution establishing an authoritative Council of State (Shura-yi devlet). This was expected to control state officials and military. The constitution also had provisions covering basic rights and privileges, the independence of courts and the security of judges, among other things. This was the first constitution of the Ottoman empire. The first parliament, which convened in March 1877, was not the product of popular elections. Its representation was determined by previously elected provincial administrative councils instead of through popular suffrage (Kayali, 1997).

This arrangement was a compromise between the Islamic conception of the principle of consulting (mashverat) and the European type of representation and legislative function. Unfortunately, the newly established parliament did not endure more than two years. The war with Russia and ultimate defeat provided Sultan Abdulhamid with an excuse to suspend the assembly in 1878. Notwithstanding the short life of the constitutional experiment of 1876-8, it was an important event in Ottoman political development. Elites and intellectuals from the urban upper middle classes as well as representatives from diverse parts of the empire came together for the first time to discuss issues ranging from the official language to freedom of press, tax collection, provincial reorganization, and ‘Westernization.’ Blocs not tied to religious and ethnic lines emerged. Government policy was subject to deliberation and criticism. The parliament succeeded in part in integrating Arab provinces through their representatives in the political body of the empire (32 of the 232 incumbencies belonged to Arabs [Kayali, 1997]).

In 1908 the ‘Young Turks’ revolution forced Sultan Abdulhamid to restore the constitution, and their proclamation for the future Ottoman state had a direct impact on the new constitutional government. This was the beginning of the process that established a Turkish republic (1923) and the emergence of limited parliamentary democracy.

In the Persian empire, Ottoman, Egyptian and European developments influenced the form of government. In particular, Ottoman models inspired the establishment of new consultative bodies in Persia. In 1856 the shah, Naser al-din shah, issued a decree to establish a consultative assembly, maslahat khaneh. In 1880 the shah established Dar-al shura-ye kobra (the Supreme Consultative Council) in which vazirs (ministers), military leaders, chiefs of provincial governments, the Persian ambassadors in London and Paris, and four representatives of the royal family participated.

These reforms were important initial efforts. However, the shah’s other economic and political initiatives—as part of modernization efforts—generated political opposition and reform movements, driving institutional innovation and development. A strong civil society in Iran provided the basis for political mobilization and a challenge to the central authority (Kamali, 1998). The ulama along with bazaris and tribal leaders played a decisive role in the Revolution of 1905-9, which established a modern constitution and parliament. The latter was intended not only to limit the power of the shah but also to constitute a democratic government in which the ultimate source of power would come from the people. This innovation was, however, also a threat to traditional society in that parliament could pass new laws challenging or contradicting Islamic law, the Shari’a. Out of the disorder and struggles (1908-21) following the constitutional revolution—which the new parliament and its government were unable to resolve—emerged a new powerful dynasty, the Pahlavi shahs. (English and Russian interests in Iran also played a role, particularly in the context of a relatively weak state vis-à-vis foreign interests and the involvement of the military in politics.) This set the stage for a long period in which the role and influence of parliament was substantially constrained. Seventy years later, another revolutionary movement—also grounded in traditional as well as modern civil societies—brought about the downfall of the ancient monarchy of Persia and established a republic with a democratically elected parliament and president as well as a council of religious leaders to ensure the compatibility of legislative acts of parliament with religious law. This Islamic Republic, while sharing a number of elements of mainstream European parliamentary democracy, has several features unique to Islamic conceptions and practices, for instance the key role of religious authority in the legislative process (Kamali, 1998).

What is important to bear in mind is that European conceptions of parliament, parliamentary representation and democracy diffused to the Iranian and Ottoman states and resulted in the establishment of innovative arrangements that typically were a hybrid of more indigenous forms and new European ones. For instance, in the case of consultative assemblies established in these countries during the nineteenth century, the members were not elected, but chosen by the sultan or the shah. Representatives from the ulama, civil servants, governmental agents and the army were selected. However, such consultative assemblies were the springboard for the development of more democratic assemblies appearing later, for instance in the context of the 1908 and 1923 ‘revolutions’ that led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic (1923) and the (1979) revolution in Iran that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

In the aftermath of the First World War, there emerged in Europe many new states (resulting in large part from the collapse of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires). Typically, these adopted at the outset parliamentary forms of government. Before the World War there were three republics in Europe; afterwards there were thirteen (among others, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Yugoslavia). However, in the face of substantial instability following the First World War—in part, economic crisis, in part the reaction to the Russian Revolution and the growing strength of labour movements—parliamentary democracy did not fare well: country after country were transformed into authoritarian regimes by the 1930s: Italy, Poland, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Austria, among others. In the 1940s a number of democratic countries were occupied, and Nazi dictatorship imposed, as in Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway.

After the Second World War, parliamentary democracy was substantially revived in Europe and has flourished to a large extent since then, even in former authoritarian or autocratic countries: Austria, Germany, Spain (the Franco regime ended in 1975 and a new parliamentary democracy was established in 1978), Portugal (dictatorship ended in 1974), Greece (after a relapse of military dictatorship, 1967-74) and the countries of Eastern Europe (1989-90) after communist dictatorship. But, in general, the movement towards parliamentary democracy has been far from smooth or even; it has been punctuated by civil wars, internal conquests and external impositions (Meny, 1993: 374-5). It continues to face challenges and threats (see later discussion). None the less, it has offered an ideal to which many peoples struggling with and emerging from dictatorships have turned.

Explaining the Emergence and Institutional Power of Parliaments

Modern parliaments are elected assemblies with the role of representing citizens, groups, regions and classes of society, deliberating on laws and policies, monitoring the actions of the executive, and approving or vetoing laws and regulations (that is, the legislative function in the sense of scrutinizing the details of laws and authorizing their passage). The general principle of parliamentary government is that the executive shall not exercise power arbitrarily but should be subject to the parliament representating ‘the sovereign people.’

The emergence and development of parliaments as public assemblies can be explained to a large extent by the interplay between three factors: functionality or usefulness of such assemblies to rulers and influential groups in society; power conditions; and cultural-institutional factors. The Prince establishes and utilizes an assembly to obtain information, advice and judgement, legitimacy, resource mobilization, and so on. But this social technology is a double-edged sword: the assembly, once called into existence, may take on a life of its own, developing a collective consciousness and agency, becoming a countervailing power vis-à-vis the Prince. In a parallel fashion, a movement or group in opposition to the Prince may create or activate an assembly to represent the movement or group vis-à-vis the Prince. In this process, the assembly may gain recognition and power vis-à-vis the Prince. It also becomes an important collective symbol and contributor to the development of the culture of law and due process.

The three key factors that explain the emergence and institutionalization of powerful parliaments are briefly spelled out below.

Functionality. Assemblies are universal and perform (and have performed historically) a number of different functions in relation to public or collective decision-making. Here we focus on representative assemblies such as parliaments. These assemblies provide a context—a social technology—for producing collective knowledge, making or legitimizing public decisions, and enabling collective reflectivity (Burns and Engdahl, 1998; Burns and Ueberhorst, 1988). Decision-making may refer to the election of political leadership, for instance, a king or president, or passing legislation, approving a tax or budget, or addressing a threat to the collectivity such as invasion or other dangerous situation. In general, in these processes major conflicts may be addressed and possibly resolved, solidarity increased, and the peoples or parts of a realm or country ‘integrated.’

Whether the value of an assembly is articulated by the central authority and/or by the assembly itself or a supporting movement, the point is that assemblies are institutional constructions that human agents and societies utilize for certain purposes such as collective reflectivity on critical problems and issues, mobilization of collective resources and collective decision-making and knowledge production. For instance, in the latter case it is a means of assembling or aggregating dispersed or diverse information; in any community there is a particular need to assemble and aggregate information in considering policy measures or laws and their likely consequences, including unintended consequences.

The power factor. Many historically important assemblies have been created and reconstructed by powerful rulers, oligarchs and aristocrats. Typically, they considered such arrangements useful for certain of their purposes. But often, the assembly became a power of its own as it brought together knowledgeable and, in some cases, powerful agents of the realm. The actual role and influence of the assembly depended to a considerable degree on the distribution of power—and the concrete power processes—between rulers and those engaged or represented in the assembly. Such factors, together with functionality, go a long way toward explaining the development of parliamentary influence.

If the Prince, as a powerful agent, finds it useful or essential to establish and utilize an assembly—and there is no countervailing force to this—it is likely to happen, as we have seen in our brief sketch of several parliamentary bodies. Such a development will also happen if important agents or groups in society—on which the government is dependent (or which the government cannot or will not eliminate or replace)—mobilize and assert themselves as a public assembly, that is, a collective agent, designed to discuss and negotiate with the executive. Thus, a group or movement claiming to represent important concerns or interests may assemble and counterpoise itself to the Prince, calling for discussions and negotiations (as did Solidarity in Poland or Charter 77—leading to Civic Forum—in Czechoslovakia in their respective challenges to communist regimes).

Of course, the power conditions may be such that a prince, political leadership or party is in a position to manipulate parliament to such a degree that it ceases to be an autonomous agent, or simply to abolish it (recall the cases of tsarist Russian, Ottoman sultans and Persian shahs, the Cromwell ‘Protectorate’ or the dictatorships of Mussolini and Hitler). Autocratic regimes typically have sufficient power to ignore major groups in the society, because they own or control independent sources of material and human resources (and/or they have a monopoly on force and the costs of utilizing it are low). In general, power resources are distributed or organized in such ways that the prince is capable of mobilizing vast economic, political or other resources without the consent of civil society agents and groups. His dependency is minimal.

The emergence of powerful assemblies is a function of (1) the autonomy of key groups in civil society from the prince and (2) the sustained dependence of the Prince on them for human or material resources as well as legitimation—whether religious, political or legal (Kamali, 1998, 2001). A central authority may establish or call up an assembly for purposes of seeking advice, support or approval for a decision, or assistence in implementing or assessing a policy or programme. For instance, the prince is unable to finance his foreign affairs, military initiatives or public works based on the proceeds of his own estates and tax revenues, and he must obtain such resources through the goodwill and agency of others. Or, he must rely on a group or class to administer the realm or to lead armed forces. The assembly provides access to resources controlled by agents represented in or by the assembly who have sufficient autonomy and power that they can make, or refuse to make, available the resources to the prince (or make any coercive action on the part of the Prince highly costly). Thus, they may agree (or refuse to agree) to pay taxes or provide men and equipment for purposes of public projects or war. The negotiations may concern not only specific policies but ultimately the role and power of the assembly in relation to the Prince.

Such groups or agents on which the Prince depends may then set constraints on him, and influence his policies and laws as the English Parliament was able to do increasingly between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries; or as the ulama and the bazaris have done historically in Iran, and particularly in the past hundred years (Kamali, 1998). These dependencies transform the relationship from one of information exchange to a material condition, one where the central power is countervailed by other powers. There is a shift from ‘advising’ to ‘negotiating’ and, under some conditions, to ‘approving’ and even ‘legislating.’ This explains why the fiscal and military demands connected with foreign policy and wars have had an impact on internal power relations—parliaments were often strengthened by the requirement of public consent for increasing levels of tax revenue or the mobilization of soldiers.

In sum, such power conditions have been advantageous to the establishment and empowerment of an influential general public assembly such as parliament, but its durability depends also on an effective government. The Prince and his centrally controlled bureaucracy might be strong enough to provide coherence and effective administration as well as military defence (in contrast to the situation of the Polish monarch), but not so strong as to wield absolute power. The case of medieval England illustrates this (Moore, 1966; Tumin, 1982). Societal groups and classes in society were independent and powerful enough to exercise a number of important rights, regardless of the desires or manoeuvres of the central authority. To a greater or lesser extent there was an autonomous civil society whose agents the monarch sought counsel from and depended on; they were therefore in a position to negotiate with and influence its authority. Coalitions were formed between and among groups and classes as well as with the central authority in such ways as to maintain a certain balance of power. Conflicts occurred without eliminating groups and with alternating victories and defeats. Kamali (1997, 1998) has argued similarity that the agency of an autonomous civil society explains the Iranian socio-political revolutions of 1905 (1905-9) and 1977 (1977-9) and the evolution of parliamentary democracy in Iran. The revolutions were instances of civil society actors mobilizing and asserting themselves in relation to the Prince and laying some of the foundations of parliamentary democracy.

The evolution of parliaments in Europe, in particular, must be seen in the context of the competition among states. European kings some more than others—needed intelligence about the situation of the realm, indications of the impact of their policies (with implications for agricultural production, commerce, strategic conditions, and so on), and legitimation for their undertakings. They could not rely only on their administrators and police for such purposes. They required parliaments to support and legitimate the vast mobilization of money and armies to be used in international competition. Competition was a driving factor in the evolution not only of military force, administration, jurisprudence and economy, but also of European parliaments, their relationship to the executive and their role in modern state-building and nation formation.

Cultural-institutional factors: collective symbols, the law and institutional procedures. The notion that the parliament represents the whole people or nation—and that such a people or nation is believed really to exist—is, of course, a socio-political construction. A sense of shared national or other identity, which an assembly or part of an assembly represents, is a key factor in the establishment of the unique authority and legitimacy of parliament. Such identification arises in some cases in the context of military, political or economic competition or conflict in regional or international arenas. For example, in England, Denmark and Sweden, the aristocracies as well as other major groups developed a commitment to national unity and survival (Burns and Flam, 1987; Tumin, 1982—this was also the basis of the Athenian democratic achievement [Eder, 1997]). These groups did not cease to struggle for power and privilege, but they did so within established ‘rules and procedures of the political game.’ Widespread national identification, and the commitment it engenders, depends, at least in part, on the institutionalization not only of principles of solidarity and justice within the collectivity, but also of concrete procedures and rules of the game for resolving conflicts, making collective decisions and distributing resources. Parliament became an instrument as well as symbol for this. On this basis it could claim that it represents ‘the nation’ and contributes to its integration.

The importance of a culture of laws and due process—‘the rule of law’—cannot be over-stressed. Modern democracy—and, in particular, democratic organizations such as parliament—emerged in contexts differing radically from those of antiquity. Still, one commonality between ancient Greek democracy and those of modernity has been the significance of law and legal or formalized procedures (this relates to the idea of a necessary and strong connection between law and liberty [Eder, 1997]). Weber referred to the ‘spirit of the jurist,’ which spread over all of Europe. Currently it guides the development of the European Union. Since the French Revolution, modern legalism and modern democracy developed together. For all of continental Europe (and to some extent England), a major factor in the evolution of government was the university-trained jurists in secular law. Everywhere the revolution of political management in the direction of the evolving rational state was borne by trained jurists (Weber, 1991: 93). Lawyers, as an independent profession and status group with secular education and societal roles, flowered in Europe. This flowering fed upon and contributed to the development of ‘procedural rationality,’ and it was connected with the use of rhetoric and argument in consultation, negotiation and public decision-making.

Whenever the Prince must seek support on a more or less regular basis from, or is materially or otherwise dependent on, important societal groups which are assembled, or assemble themselves, then the assembly becomes an identifiable—to a greater or lesser extent autonomous—agent counterpoised to the sovereign. Thus, there is a qualitative shift when an assembly of people takes on a name and relatively well-defined rules concerning its functions and operations, the number of representatives, how it is to be composed, when and where it is to meet, the rules of procedures, and so on. It may compete with the prince and come to define itself and to be perceived as—the natural representative of society or of the (significant) people of the realm. The institutionalization of its role in relation to the sovereign and to civil society may take place gradually, as in the evolution of the English Parliament, or more radically, as in constituting parliaments following the revolutions in France (1789), Iran (1905, 1979), the Ottoman state (1908) and Eastern European countries (1989-90). Eventually, these as well as other assemblies (or movements backing such assemblies) succeeded in negotiating the ground rules of their relationship, their respective roles and their rights and obligations, which came to be more and more recognized and institutionalized, even in the eyes of the executive (and future executives) as well as significant groups of society who turned to it to represent and to advance their interests or concerns vis-à-vis the Prince.

If common ground rules are not spelled out or agreed upon, there is persistent uncertainty about the relationship and the distribution of powers, rights and obligations. This situation makes for high transaction costs, risks of frequent conflicts and substantial unpredictability and instability. There are strong selective pressures toward institutionalizing the relationship and the role of the representative assembly in the political system, since this is an effective way to regulate conflict and to increase predictability and social order. As suggested earlier, rules and operating procedures are established to enable or facilitate its functioning and decision-making. Other rules specify how representation is to be organized, how representatives are to be selected, and how the internal social order is to be organized.

One of the historically important contributions to the development of parliamentary democracy was the sustained discovery and elaboration of appropriate or fitting institutional means to constitute deliberative, legislative assemblies for large complex societies; that is, to solve such problems as those of scale and representativity. The size of the community (village, clan, city, region, country, empire) for which an assembly functions is a critical factor since it determines the need for a system of representation. The Greek democratic assemblies differ entirely from modern democratic assemblies (ignoring that Greek democracy accepted slavery and the exclusion of women). When the demos gathered, it was more like a large ‘town meeting’ in which thousands of citizens participated, could express their opinion and vote. Modern democratic assemblies for large-scale societies are based on formalized principles of representation, by which the power of citizens or communities is delegated to their representatives rather than being exercised through direct participation. Historically, the composition of any assembly reflected the larger social structure—or the conception of social structure—in the polity. For instance, in general, historical parliaments were constituted on the basis of divisions into different estates or classes, status groups or other collectivities; thus, medieval assemblies consisted of representatives of the major estates or status groups. In Islamic societies with tribal peoples, representation in state councils included tribal representation. Modern parliaments derive their authority and legitimacy from their claim that they represent territorial constituencies (not necessarily fixed groups or classes) and the people or society as a whole.

The complex interplay between functionality, power and cultural-institutional factors in the evolution of parliamentary assemblies cannot be elaborated in the limited space of this chapter. One can say in brief the following:

  • Power may trump functionality. A powerful prince may block or undermine the functioning of parliament to the detriment of effective policy-making and regulation.
  • But functionality over the long run is crucial to the maintenance and effectiveness of power. The power of the Prince depends on institutional arrangements such as public assemblies that contribute to collective reflectivity and problem-solving and to the production of collective knowledge and legitimation.
  • Powerful agents may select and reinforce emerging forms that—although not properly legitimate—prove functional for new types of policy issues and policy contexts. Thus, contemporary economic interests and agents of civil society are undermining or marginalizing contemporary parliamentary democracy in supporting and elaborating ‘organic’ forms of governance.
  • Non-democratic symbolic expressions of the community or nation may trump parliament, as for instance when the latter is judged by many as less ‘representative’ of the collective than a monarch or a charismatic dictator, because of parliament’s divisiveness or ineffectiveness, or the character of some of its membership. Thus, the dictator manages to combine coercive and symbolic powers.
  • The potentiality of a contemporary parliament to function effectively as a representative body and collective symbol of a nation is reduced as non-territorial forms of representation increase in importance and power—as we have suggested with respect to the emerging organic forms of governance.

Contemporary Developments

In the late twentieth century, after a history with many setbacks and failures, parliamentary democracy appeared to have triumphed. Indeed, democracy has come to be identified primarily with parliamentary democracy—of course, it also encompasses additional concepts such as the rule of law, civil rights and general enfranchisement.

There are many different ways of institutionalizing the principles of ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ (Meny 1993): the number of chambers in parliament (bicameral or unicameral); who is entitled to run as a representative; who is entitled to vote; whether voting is obligatory or optional; how votes are converted into a number of elected representatives; rules which affect the number of political parties or independent representatives; the frequency of elections; the division of functions and relationship between parliament and the government; among other things. The general organizing principles and formal characteristics are copied as new nations are formed, or as tyranny is overthrown and replaced with one or another form of parliamentary democracy. The evolution of parliament can be related not only to the general process of modern state-building but also to nation formation, since national parliaments became a major factor in the development of collective consciousness and the articulation of the collective identity of a ‘nation.’

Further Crooked Developments

The heady years from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s witnessed the vigorous advancement of parliamentary democracy: Greece (1974), Portugal (1974), Spain (1978), Argentina (1985), Brazil (1985), Eastern Europe (1989) and South Africa (1992), among others. But the ‘reverse waves’ in the 1990s should not have been surprising the emergence of autocratic regimes in a number of countries (for instance, Peru, Ecuador, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and so on) have been followed most recently by some democratic advancement in several of these countries. The advances and reverses can be understood or interpreted as indications of conflicting forces. Parliamentary democracy means different things. An abstract, decontextualized form (such as a unitary state with majority rule) may not be realizable or stable in a highly heterogeneous social environment, or one in which there is a dominant, authoritarian group without commitment to democratic values and principles. The emergence of the new democracies in some cases has been confronted with the problems of deep ethnic or other social divisions and conflicts, inexperience in ‘managing’ parliamentary democracy in an effective way, and lack of commitment to the rule of law and procedural rationality. In general, it is essential to keep in mind the uneven and crooked development of parliamentary systems historically, as outlined in this chapter. Thus, we might better understand the problems of establishing and maintaining parliamentary democracy across the globe.

Paradoxically, even in Europe and North America, with a substantial history of parliamentary democracy, the conventional model increasingly faces major challenges and institutional difficulties at the beginning of the twenty-first Century (Burns, 1999; Burns et al., 2000; Held, 1995). In particular, the position of parliament in contemporary societies has become increasingly marginalized in a world with globalization, the appearance of many new, diverse policy-making areas, radical specialization and an explosion of new vigorous political agents, namely NGOs. New forms of governance and regulation, referred to as organic governance (Burns, 1999; Burns et al., 2000), have emerged in which the role or status for parliaments is ambiguous or increasingly peripheral. Such governance has developed parallel to and in interaction with at times in co-operation with, at times in competition with—parliamentary government. On the sectoral level, one finds various stable policy networks or communities, ‘sub-governments’ and ‘private governments’ involving interest groups (for instance, single-issue NGOs) engaged in particular policy issues and problems (Burns, 1999). For instance, international and national financial networks and groups wield substantial power, fully capable of shaping economic policy-making of governments: a Ministry of Finance, the OECD and IMF, along with international and national financial interests, may support restrictive monetary and fiscal policies (or react negatively to deviation from such policies) frequently in opposition to parliamentary will as well as major constituencies such as labour unions. Or environmental and animal rights interest organizations engage and exercise influence successfully in a variety of policy sectors without engaging in electoral politics: organizations such as Greenpeace as well as many other environmental organizations, including local ones, ignore electoral politics and parliamentary representatives to a large extent. A variety of public interest organizations concern themselves with the policies, production and quality of public services. This type of ‘organized citizenry’ is widespread and particularly visible in areas of environment, gender, health care, treatment of animals, many high-tech developments and ethically defined issues such as abortion, the rights of minorities and immigrants, and so on.

A common denominator in the contemporary development of non-parliamentary systems of governance is the introduction and engagement of private and semi-private actors in ‘public’ policy-making, that is, the ‘reconquest of political authority by societal actors,’ agents grounded in or emerging from civil society. Today, the national democracy of individual citizens and their parliamentary representatives tends to be bypassed and surpassed by a de facto direct democracy of organized interests, citizen groups and lobbyists that engage themselves directly in policy issues that particularly concern them. Direct participation in problem-solving and rule-making has never been so widespread and so far-reaching as today. This system of ‘governance’ is largely one of organizations, by organizations and for organizations—not so much that of autonomous, individual citizens. The development of a complex of such governance processes entails transformations of key components of political order: sovereignty, representation, responsibility and accountability, in the very character of laws and regulation (Burns, 1999; Burns et al., 2000). Major rule- and policy-making activities are substantially displaced from the arenas of parliamentary government to other settings: global, regional and local levels as well as those in numerous specialized public issue and policy sectors of modern society. The emerging political order is multi-polar. In such a characterization, one can distinguish between government based on parliamentary democracy, on the one hand, and governance based on a complex of diverse regulative, representational and authority processes, on the other hand (Burns, 1999, Burns et al., 2000; Hirst and Thompson, 1995).

A territorial, parliamentary system with centralized, formalized law-making is, under contemporary conditions, organizationally, technically and resource-wise inferior to organic forms of governance and is being displaced or replaced in policy area after policy area through selection on the part of powerful actors and interests (Burns and Dietz, 1992). The superiority of the new forms is explained on the basis of the factors identified earlier to explain the emergence and development of powerful parliaments in many modern states:

Relative non-functionality. Parliament (and its government) lacks flexibility and effectiveness in mobilizing and articulating specialized forms of collective knowledge, in integrating policy-making and implementation and assessment, and in representing new powerful agents such as special economic interests as well as public-interest NGOs who insist on representing themselves in policy-making. The new forms of governance enable the bringing together of many of the key actors most directly interested and influential with respect to a given area or issue. They also allow for the direct mobilization and participation of a variety of specialized experts (scientific, technical, legal, managerial) as well as some of those most affected by and engaged in the issue. Both of these groups are essential to the processes of identifying sectoral problems, producing essential knowledge and formulating policies and laws to solve the problems. The organic forms are more flexible than the formalized modes in that the latter are constrained by having to take into account and satisfy legally defined concepts such as ‘representation,’ ‘due process,’ ‘authority,’ ‘legitimacy,’ ‘law,’ ‘compliance,’ ‘accountability.’ Also, the organic forms are much less subject to territorial or regional constraints than is parliament or to a great extent its government. ‘Policies’ and ‘laws’ agreed to in the organic policy networks and sub-governments are interpreted and implemented in large part through these same arrangements. This increases the likelihood of ‘forward integration,’ linking policy-making effectively to implementation, whereas in the usual parliamentary/administrative arrangement, law and policy-making are separated from implementation and assessment.

Loss of relative power. Parliament can no longer uniquely represent many of the powerful interests and groups of society, in part because economic, civil society and other interests insist on representing themselves, engaging directly in relevant policy areas, and selecting and constituting many of the major forums for discussing and deliberating on policy—substantially outside of parliamentary as well as purely government arenas. Some of these agents—private, semi-private and public command substantial resources far beyond most citizens, political parties and parliaments. The arenas where they gather becomes attractive to other agents, powerful as well as weak ones, because it is ‘where the action takes place’ relevant to the issue or policy question at stake. Some members of parliament join or create NGOs in order to gain a say or influence over actual policy-making.

Competing ‘democratic’ forms and legitimacy. The organic forms also realize and derive legitimacy from the general cultural notions of democracy (as distinct from the legal parliamentary forms), namely the right to form groups or organizations in order to advance or protect interests, the right to be informed or to know and the right to voice an opinion and to influence policies or laws that affect one’s interests or values. But there are tensions and dilemmas. Parliament remains a major basis for legitimizing political authority and regulation in most modern societies and cannot be simply ignored (Burns et al., 2000).


This chapter has stressed the causal heterogeneity in the development of parliaments as particular types of representative assemblies. Some emerged through a process of struggle and reform between a state (or its elite) and parts of civil society. In other cases, assemblies were introduced by the political elite, in many cases simply adopting forms already established elsewhere. In a few cases, a parliamentary order was imposed from the outside, in some cases by victors in war, in many cases by a colonial power. Many non-Western countries have been influenced by, or forced to follow, Western models of democracy.

Our theoretical approach is, in general, consistent with the notion of multiple modernities (Featherstone et al., 1995; Therborn and Wallenius, 1999, among others), in particular diverse paths to, among other things, representative assemblies and parliamentary democracy. It entails rejecting the conception of the ‘West versus the rest’ and, instead, stressing the diversity of ‘modern development’ and the parallels of (as well as differences between) Western and non-Western developments. Assemblies, of which parliaments are a special case, are universal and antedate modernity. They are not simply a creation of Europe. Modern parliaments are a special type of assembly and a source of societal power—they represent a major institutional innovation and a key part of modern state-building. Already today, however, one can discern the emergence of new formations of governance, conceptions of representation and patterns of sovereignty not only in Europe but also in other parts of the world.