Parliamentary democracies have a serious dilemma. Their system causes fragmentation of political parties, and yet to function properly it requires that there are no more than two parties. This is why such governments often take forever to form, are instable, and have to function on common minimum programs cobbled together for political conveniences at the last minute.
Political fragmentation is mainly due to the lack of a nationwide presidential-type election. Without it, local political parties have no incentive to join together on a national platform. They win better on local issues. And then jostle for power in the nation’s legislature. Secondly, political parties split or new ones emerge because in parliamentary systems governance is driven by parties, not issues. Proponents of an issue get no attention unless they are members of the majority party and a part of government. Their issue has a better chance of being noticed if they form a separate party that has a few seats in parliament. For parliamentary coalitions are based on seats instead of issues. Thirdly, this system causes fragmentation because it is unitary by design. Federalism finds expression in this system only by forming state-based political outfits and then winning seats in parliament.
But ironically the parliamentary system requires exactly two parties to function properly. It is because bringing governments down for poor performance is one of its essential features. With more than two parties, political machinations can often save a government. This beats the entire purpose of having a parliamentary democracy. As the famous British Constitutional Scholar, Walter Bagehot noted, “The defining characteristic of that government is the choice of the executive ruler by the legislative assembly; but when there are three parties a satisfactory choice is impossible.”
The British themselves suffer from these ailments of their system. At current count, the UK Election Commission has 344 registered political parties. India has more than 900. This recent article in The Economist points out that these trends will only continue…