Parliaments and Parliamentarism

Parliaments and Parliamentarism

Today it is virtually impossible to imagine the government of almost any country without parliamentarism. But what is the story behind the legislative body that many of us take for granted today? 

Text : Hamazasp Haroyan 


Is Parliamentarism a Word?

If you try to google “parliamentarism”, one of the questions suggested by the search engine is “Is parliamentarism a word?”. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “parliamentarism” as “parliamentary system of government”, i.e. a system of government having the real executive power vested in a cabinet composed of members of the legislature who are individually and collectively responsible to the legislature. Political scientists usually distinguish between “parliamentary” and “presidential” systems of democratic government, depending on whether the cabinet of ministers is appointed by the president or the parliament. However, even in presidential systems, the parliaments play a major role. In fact, there are few democratic states in the world that can be described as “pure” presidential systems, the majority belong to the so-called “semi-presidential” systems, in which the parliaments retain significant influence on the executive government. However, there is also a wider understanding of the term, which refers to the importance of parliament and parliamentary politics in any system of democratic government. It is hard to overestimate the significance of parliaments for modern democracy. The parliament has an immense role in a modern democratic state, whether a parliamentary republic, a presidential republic or a constitutional monarchy. 

Inter-Parliamentary Union congress in Russia


There is even an international day of parliamentarism, introduced by the United Nations, celebrated on June 30. According to the UN website, “This Day celebrates parliaments and the ways in which parliamentary systems of government improve the day-to-day lives of people the world over… It is also an opportunity for parliaments to take stock, identify challenges, and ways to address them effectively”. The specific date was chosen to honor the day in 1889, when the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the global organization of parliaments, was established. This is how the UN website explains what is the significance of the International day of parliamentarism, or in other words, why parliaments are important: 

“strong parliaments are a cornerstone of democracy. They represent the voice of the people, pass laws, allocate funds to implement laws and policies, and hold governments to account. They work to make sure that policies benefit all people, especially the most vulnerable.”

Whether in well-established democratic systems or emerging democracies, parliaments play a key role. Obviously, their main objective is to create laws, which govern the life of the country and its citizens. But, apart from that, they have many other functions, from providing an oversight over the executive power, representing the citizens, which should also include giving voice to minorities and underprivileged groups, to ratifying international agreements and executing parliamentary diplomacy.


Parliaments before Parliamentarism

While today parliaments play a key role in the majority of the countries of the world, this has not always been the case. In fact even in the 19th century only a handful of countries had functioning parliaments with a significant role in the political process. The idea that countries should be run by parliaments is in fact one of the contributions of the so called “Age of Enlightenment”: it emerged in the works of political philosophers of 17-18th centuries, and came into reality in the Western world through the revolutions and reforms mostly in the late 18th and 19th centuries, while the rest of the world mostly caught up with the idea of parliamentarism in 20th century. However, today parliaments seem universally accepted, countries that do not have parliaments are today a tiny minority, even though the degree to which parliaments actually influence the state affairs might vary significantly from one country to another.

So how old is parliamentarism? When was the first parliament formed? Where does the word “parliament” come from and what does it mean? In fact, the answer to the last question is the easiest. As any French speaker would easily guess, it is related to the French verb “parler”, “to speak.” The word “parlement” was recorded in old French as early as 11th century, and initially it referred to any kind of discussion. Later it began to be used in reference to a certain type of court. However, it received its contemporary meaning, an elected legislative body, in medieval England, where the first elected legislative body was assembled in 13th century.
It is more difficult to answer the question when and where the first parliament was formed. The answer to this question also depends on what can be considered “parliament.” Throughout history, from the ancient times, there existed councils, which took part in the governance, however most of these did not fit the definition of parliament, since they had no legislative power, and were not elected, but rather appointed by the ruler, or formed from the representatives of aristocracy. 

The great republics of the ancient world, Athens and Rome, came somewhat closer to the emergence of parliamentarism, but they were still quite far from our modern understanding of the term. Thus, the famous Athenian Republic was more of a direct democracy: main decisions were taken by the council of all citizens, which was called “ecclesia”. There was a smaller elected council of 400 members, called “boule”, but its role was secondary to the general council of citizens. And in any case, when we talk about Athenian democracy, we need to remember that only a minority of actual inhabitants of Athens had the status of citizens: women and migrants did not have voting rights, not to mention slaves. 

As for the Roman republic, it represented more of an aristocratic system of government, albeit with some elements of democracy. Thus, the famous Roman Senate was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls: after a Roman magistrate, in other words an executive official, served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic appointment to the Senate. In fact there was another elected body in the Roman Republic which was closer to our understanding of the parliament, it was called “comitia” (this is where the word “committee” comes from), but its participation in the state affairs, while quite significant, was not as dominant as that of modern parliaments.

Monument to Alfonso IX in, Baiona, Spain


The first parliaments that resemble modern parliamentarism emerged in medieval Europe. While most people would probably think that the first “real” parliament was convened in England, in fact the first elected legislative bodies in medieval Europe were convened on the Iberian peninsula, in what today is Spain and Portugal. In 1188 in the kingdom of Leon, in what is today Spain, the king Alfonso the 9th summoned an elected council called “cortes”, a fact recognized by UNESCO as the beginning of European parliamentarism. According to UNESCO, the Decreta of Leon of 1188 is the oldest documentary manifestation of the European parliamentary system. In addition, UNESCO granted the 1188 Cortes of Alfonso IX the title of "Memory of the World" and the city of Leon has been recognized as the "Cradle of Parliamentarism".

The roots of the English parliament go back to the so called Magna Carta of 1215, a document signed by the king John, who was faced with an uprising of English aristocracy, or, as they were referred at the time, the barons. Unable to quash the uprising he had to come to an agreement with the insurgents, according to which he promised not to levy and collect taxes, without the consent of a council. However, this council was still not a proper parliament, since it consisted only of the lords, i.e. members of the nobility. It was later in the same century, under the king Henry III, that elected representatives of “commons” joined the parliament, and in this case it was also a result of a rebellion against the king. In 1265 Simon de Montfort, a member of the aristocracy who led a rebellion against the king Henry the 3rd, summoned a parliament, which included not only the members of the aristocracy and church hierarchy, as had been the case with such gatherings before, but also representatives of “common people”. Thus, it is often considered that the parliament of 1265 was the beginning of the history of parliamentarism in England.

Magna Carta, 1297 version


The civic contract theory and the emergence of modern parliamentarism

Obviously, all these medieval parliaments were very far from modern parliaments, both in terms of the scale of representation of the population, and in terms of the scale of their power and their influence on the state affairs. In fact, the emergence of parliaments in their modern form is a phenomenon of modernity. The first European parliaments of the modern type started to emerge in the 17-18th century. In most cases, this was related to revolutions, civil wars, and other political perturbations., since the kings and the aristocracy were not willing to give up their power to the elected representatives of “the common people”. Thus, the English parliament in its current form was established in 1707, and its formation was a result of almost a century of revolutions and civil wars, which culminated in the so called “glorious revolution” in the late 17th century. In France the so called “Etats generales”, which resembled the medieval forms of parliamentarism were transformed into “Convent” in the course of the French revolution that started in 1789. In America, the colonists that rebelled against the English king and created their own “United States” established the Congress, which remains one of the oldest functioning parliaments in the world.

Glorious Revolution of 1688


The philosophical bases of modern parliamentarism were created by the European political philosophers of these ages, including thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau. The ideological basis of the parliamentarism was the concept of the civic contract, the idea that the state was a result of an agreement between the citizens and the government, in which the citizens, who are the source of power, delegate that power to the state officials. While in early forms of the civic contract theory, it was the monarch that received the power from the people, it was only logical that the development of this theory would lead to parliament being the primary form of government elected by the people. What better way of delegating power can one imagine, than electing representatives from the people, who would adopt laws and appoint government officials.

The ideas and practices of parliamentarism spread from Western Europe first to Central and Eastern Europe, and then to the rest of the world. Today there are virtually no countries that do not have parliaments, even though the design and functions of the parliaments may vary greatly. There are countries that have a classic parliamentary system of government, in which the cabinets are appointed by parliaments, and the president or the monarch has mostly symbolic and representative functions. There are countries with a presidential system, the US being the most well-known example, but even in these systems the parliament has an immense role in the government. 
Finally, many countries have mixed systems, as has been the case in Armenia before the recent constitutional reform. It is also important to understand that in some countries, more specifically the ones with authoritarian regimes, the influence of the parliament in real life may be more limited than on paper. However, the general trend in the world is toward expanding the role of the parliaments, rather than restricting it. Today it is virtually impossible to imagine the government of almost any country without parliamentarism. And, as more and more citizens around the world engage in political participation, parliamentarism is becoming more and more important.


Older than you may think: Armenian Parliamentarism

So what about parliamentarism in Armenia? How far back does the story of Armenian parliamentarism go? In the middle ages there had been councils of aristocracy and church elders, which were devoted to solving important issues. Thus, in 449 a council of feudal lords and church elders gathered in Artashat rejected Persian king Hazkert’s order to abandon Christianity for Zoroastrianism, which became the beginning of the famous uprising led by Vardan Mamikonyan. Throughout the Middle Ages there were also church councils that adopted rules, which served as laws that governed Armenian communities in the periods when there was no Armenian statehood. Of course, these councils cannot be considered as forms of parliamentary rule. If we are talking about the history of Armenian parliamentarism per se, we need to go back at least to the 18th century.

It was in the 18th century that the ideas of parliamentarism were voiced by Armenian intellectuals, and it happened quite far from Armenian lands, in India. At the time Armenian lands were under foreign rule, and the largest centers of Armenian intellectual life were located outside of Armenia, and one was in Madras (or Chennai, as it is called since 1996) in India. In the 18th century India had quite a wealthy and influential Armenian community, and some of its intellectual leaders were making plans of restoring Armenian statehood. India’s Armenians had links with Europe, particularly with England, so the Armenian intellectuals of Madras were well-aware of the ideas of enlightenment. In fact, their writings were so progressive for their time, that they scared some of the compatriots back in Armenia. Thus, a book called “Nor Tetrak vor Kochi Hordorak” (“New book called Exhortation”) written by Movses Baghramyan, a native of Artsakh, who had moved to India,, was banned. The catholicos Simeon Yerevantsi issued orders to burn any copies of the book that could be found. Probably, one of the ideas of the book that scared conservative Armenians, was Baghramyan’s view that monarchy should be replaced by parliamentary government, since no single man can govern without mistakes, and mistakes of the ruler can be deadly for the country.

Indian Madras, one of the centers of the Armenian diaspora in the 18th century


Another member of the Madras community, Shahamir Shahamiryan went even further: publishing a draft constitution for the future state of Armenia in a book called “Vorogayt Parats”, the title of which is translated as “Entrapment of Glory” (apparently, Madras Armenians had a somewhat specific taste in book titles). Shahamiryan envisaged for Armenia a government, which was not only republican, but also parliamentary, quite a radical view for his times. The new Armenian state was supposed to be ruled by a parliament called “Hayots Tun” (“Armenian house”), elected by the population, and which in turn would appoint a cabinet of ministers, led by prime-minister, whom Shahamiryan called “nakharar” (old Armenian word which designated feudal lords, which today has come to signify members of the government).

Obviously, at the time when Armenia was divided between the Persian and Ottoman Empires, the chances of implementation of the progressive ideas of Shahamiryan and Baghramyan were bleak. However, the liberal-democratic ideas of this group became the basis upon which intellectuals and political activists based their struggle for liberation of Armenia in the 19th century. The chance to put these ideas in practice came in the 20th century, when the Russian Empire collapsed and the independent Republic of Armenia was created. 

Shahamir Shahamiryan’s “Vorogayt Parats”


The parliament of independent Armenia was not created from scratch. When Bolsheviks captured power in Russia, the Transcaucasian Seim was created, which assumed power in the region. The Seim was comprised of deputies who were elected by the people in Trasncaucasia to serve in Russia’s Constituent Assembly, the legislative body that was supposed to create a constitution for Russia, but was violently disbanded by Bolsheviks. Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun had a faction of 27 members in the Seim. In April 1918 the Seim proclaimed the independence of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, which, however, proved to be short-lived, lasting a little more than a month. Parallel to the Transcaucasian Seim there was also a body that represented the Armenians of the Transcaucasia, the Armenian National Council, which consisted of 15 members, who were chosen by the Armenian National Congress that took place in Tbilisi in October 1917 and had delegates from Armenians from all over Russian Empire (except Bolsheviks, who boycotted the congress).

The Trasncaucasian federation collapsed in late May 1918 and the Armenian National Council declared Armenia an independent state on May 28. As the Republic of Armenia was created, it needed a supreme legislative body. But the situation in the country was dire: after the war and genocide Armenia was full of refugees and ravaged by hunger and disease. Since it was impossible to hold proper election in this situation, the first parliament was created on the basis of the Armenian National Council. The number of its members was tripled, and representatives of national minorities were added. Thus, the first provisional Armenian parliament was created. 

The first proper elections to the Armenian parliament took place in June 1919. The parliament had 80 members, including three women. Armenian electoral law was quite progressive for its time, since it established universal suffrage for everyone over 20 years old. This included women, while even in many European countries women could not vote at the time. For example in UK, usually considered the cradle of parliamentarism, women received the right to vote in 1918, but this referred only to women with college education, and only in 1928 full suffrage for women was introduced. Not to mention that in Switzerland, another age-old bastion of democracy, women received the right to vote in federal elections as late as in 1971.

As the first Republic of Armenia collapsed under the blows of Turkish Kemalists and Russian Bolsheviks, the Soviet Armenia, often referred to as “the Second Republic” was established. Soviet Armenia, as it is obvious from the word itself, was supposed to be ruled by “Soviets”, i.e. councils of workers and farmers. The elective legislative body of the Soviet Armenia was called the Supreme Council. The Supreme Council had 340 members, all elected from majoritarian districts, and its term lasted 5 years. Throughout the Soviet period the Supreme council played mostly a formal role, as all the decisions were taken by the Communist leadership. In fact, it was only the Communist Party that took part in elections, or rather, as it was called in the Soviet “newspeak” the alliance “of Communists and non-partisans”. Often there was only one candidate running in each district, so Soviet elections could be described as a certain type of ritual rather than a real political process. 

Soviet Armenia’s Supreme Council, 1980’s


However, by 1990, when the Soviet system was in crisis, conditions emerged for the Supreme Council to be transformed into a real parliament. In 1990 for the first time competitive elections into the Supreme Council took place and for the first (and last) time in the history of Soviet Armenia, the ruling political power was changed through elections: opposition Armenian National Movement gained majority, beating the Communists. As the USSR was collapsing and Armenia declared independence The Supreme Council became the first parliament of the Third Republic of Armenia.

In 1995 the Supreme Council was replaced by the new legislative body, the National Assembly. It was also then that the first constitution of Armenia was adopted in a referendum. The constitution made Armenia a presidential-parliamentary republic with strong presidential power. Later changes in the constitution somewhat shifted the balance of power from the president to the parliament, but presidentialism was predominant until 2015, when the constitution was changed once again, opening the road to transfer to a parliamentary republic in spring 2018. The transfer to parliamentary republic was a subject of heated debates at the time, which still continue till this day. While some argue that parliamentarism is a more democratic form of government, an argument supported by the example of majority of European countries, others claim that Armenian political system is not ready yet for such a system, or that presidential system may be better suited for responding to crisis situations, of the kind that Armenia is going through today. Today, as Armenia is approaching its 8th parliamentary election throughout independence the jury is still out on the merits of parliamentary and presidential systems. However, one thing is clear: a strong parliament is the best guarantee that the people’s voice is heard.