The Evolution of Parliamentarism and its Political Consequences (completed)

The number of democracies in the world today is higher than in any other time. The majority of these democracies adopt a parliamentary constitution, that is, one that is based on assembly confidence. Assembly confidence regimes are those in which governments, in order to come to and stay in power, must be at least tolerated by a legislative majority. They can be divided into cases of negative and positive parliamentarism. In stark contrast with scholarship on varieties of presidentialism, the research literature on the evolution and consequences of the two forms of parliamentarism is surprisingly sparse and rudimentary.

About the project

With this in mind, our goal is to develop fully the distinction between negative and positive parliamentarism and clarify its institutional implications; to trace the origins of the institutions associated with negative and positive parliamentarism; and to study their consequences for the way parliamentary governments operate in an ever more demanding, complex, and global policy environment.

The project will provide the first truly intertemporal comparative study of the design and consequences of varieties of parliamentarism.

The notion of positive and negative parliamentarism has been invoked primarily to account for differences in the government formation process and the type of government (minority or majority) that results from it. We reject the simplicity of this usage, instead arguing that the distinction between positive and negative parliamentarism is systemic and matters not only for the process of government formation and termination, but also for several important aspects of the operation of the government during its existence.

Schematically, we propose that there are two sets of instruments of positive parliamentarism: those that refer to the existence of the government, and those that pertain to the government’s ability to control parliament (agenda setting powers), which affect its ability to pass legislation and govern. The first set of instruments includes formation rules (investiture) and non-confidence procedures. The second set of instruments includes the confidence vote, decree powers, parliamentary dissolution and instruments, such as the “guillotine” and the block vote, which place limits on the parliament’s ability to amend bills and allow the government to “package” a bill for a legislative floor vote in the way it sees fit. All these institutions are considered to matter for the type of government that is observed in parliamentary democracies (majority versus minority), for the duration and overall stability of the government, and for the government’s legislative and governing capacity.

Our view of positive parliamentarism differs with the usage we find in the literature, in that we also consider instruments that are relevant for the government’s governing capacity once the government is formed. In this sense, our thinking about parliamentary systems rejects the implicit assumption of the vast majority of studies of government formation and termination in these systems, according to which the way the government functions during its time in office is mostly determined by the way it is formed.

The two sets of institutions of positive parliamentarism – those related to government formation and those related to the government’s agenda setting powers – yield four theoretical possibilities for the characterization of existing systems:

  1. Those that have no institutions of positive parliamentarism.
  2. Those that adopt institutions of positive parliamentarism when it comes to government formation and termination, but not when it comes to the government’s agenda setting capacity.
  3. Those that adopt institutions of positive parliamentarism when it comes to the government’s agenda setting capacity, but not when it comes to government formation and termination.
  4. Those that adopt both sets of institutions of positive parliamentarism.


All four options are theoretically possible, but their frequency among historical and existing parliamentary democracies is not known. Thus, it is central to the project to develop theoretically the four types of parliamentary democracies and to document their empirical existence, even before we begin to consider the consequences of such varieties of parliamentarism.



The project is financed by the Norwegian Research Council (FriSam project no. 222442). The project runs from 2013 to May 2017.



Published Feb. 21, 2013 12:10 PM - Last modified Jan. 11, 2019 12:17 PM