Interest groups and the Political Systems:
Interest Groups are among the most influential groups in any political system. They are groups of individuals and interests that make certain claims upon other groups in society by acting through the institutions of government. Different interest groups have different goals and different ways of achieving these goals. They are usually considered as pressure groups that have certain interests, and to achieve these interests, they try to influence the government through the executive, administrative, judicial or legislative sectors, or even through the public opinion.
For example, feminists constitute an interest group whose interest is in promoting the rights of women and putting an end to inequality. They try to press for new laws and regulations in the country, influence the press and other media and so on. Other important interest groups in the US are the “Pro-Life” which is against abortion, and “Pro-Choice” which calls for abortion. Another important interest group in the US is the Jewish Lobby which tries to influence American foreign policy in favor of Israel against the Arab countries. In Lebanon, some interest groups include the Bankers Association or the Labor Union.
Interest groups differ from parties in a number of ways:
Goals: parties have the goal of getting power for the elections, and eventually ruling. Interest groups only care for certain interests which they want to see satisfied.
Nature of memberships: membership in political parties is usually hierarchical and permanent, whereas an interest group is formed when there is a need for it, and once the interest is met, membership is terminated, especially that interest groups are not permanent formal organizations.
Numbers: Political parties depend on numbers of members who are formally registered, and this number is usually limited. Interest groups are joined by anyone who sees his interest represented by this group, and the number is unlimited.
Strategies of Interest Groups
Approaching the Law makers (parliament or congress): Lobbyists from the interest group watch the parliament and the tendencies it is making in order to make find out whether the laws put by the parliament is with or against the interests of the group. Interest groups try to keep channels of communication with legislature open all the time in order to remain informed, and at the same time, to influence the opinions of the law makers in favor of the interest groups. For example, feminists may lobby by providing support for a candidate to the parliament if this candidate promises to support feminism when he gets elected.
Approaching the government: Usually, interest groups have certain interests with certain departments in the government. For example, farmers and land owners as an interest groups have their interest with the Ministry of Agriculture. Therefore, they tend to build relations within this department, and not with the government as a whole.
Approaching the Judiciary: interest groups follow two approaches here; the first approach is to start a law suit on behalf of a person or group whose interests are represented by the interest group, such as when feminists help a woman start a suit against her husband because he bruised her; and the second approach is to file a brief as a “friend of the court” by the interest group in support of a person who has the same interests as the interest group, such as when feminists send such a message to the court to express their support of a woman facing her husband in court.
Appeals to the public: through the media, TV, press and other public campaigns to make the public aware of the interests of the group, and in order to win public sympathy.
Demonstrations: going down to the streets, raising slogans and declaring interests. For example, demonstrating against nuclear weapons, abortion, or war.
Violent protest: this involves violent attacks and demonstrations by a frustrated interest groups. For example, the demonstrations of the blacks in South Africa during the rule of the whites.
By definition, a political party is any group, however loosely organized, seeking to elect governmental office-holders under a given label. This means that political parties aim at electing decision makers in the government and hence reaching power.
Functions of Political Parties
Bridge between people and government: political parties represent wide sectors of citizens. Hence, they represent the interests of citizens in front of the government by building channels of communication.
Aggregation of interests: parties allow different citizens with similar interests and views to express their views and support their interests. For example, citizens who are interested in reforms and better salaries will join the labor party because it represents the interests of labor.
Integration into the political system: When citizens are involved in parties, they become supporters of the political system and loyal to it. This reduces the possibilities of radicalism, revolutions and violence in society.
Political Socialization: Parties mobilize people to participate in politics. Parties recruit individuals who in the future become presidents, ministers and deputies in the parliament.
Mobilization of voters: parties mobilize voters to vote for their representatives, hence letting people involve in political actions. This is a very important part of any democracy.
Organization of government: When a party wins the elections, it forms and organizes the government for several years. Hence, one of the functions of political parties is to organize governments and to participate in decision making.
The One-Party System: as in the USSR before and in China now, only one party is allowed to exist. This is known as totalitarianism. The state is formed, organized, controlled and directed by the party. No one from outside the party can join the upper levels of the state. Elections are made within the party to choose decision makers who also have to be members of the party.
The Dominant Party System: this appears in systems where there is one very strong party, and other very small and fragmented parties. An example of this is Mexico where the PRI (Party of Revolutionary Institutions) dominates politics whereas the opposition parties are very small. Such systems may not be very democratic.
The Two-Party System: as in the US (Republicans and Democrats) and Britain (Conservatives and Labor), where only two parties are effectively represented in the system because they represent almost all the population. Other small parties may exist but they are too small to be represented in parliament.
The Multiparty system: as in Germany, Italy, and most other democracies. There are parties of the right, the left and the middle, allowing all kinds of opinions and representations. However, such a system is unstable because no one party can win the elections alone to form a homogeneous government. As a result, several parties have to form a coalition government, which means that when these parties dispute, the government immediately collapses.
The Two-Plus Party System: This is a system where there are two major parties and other smaller parties. Always, one of the two big parties forms a government with the help of one or more of the smaller parties. For example, in Israel, the Labor or the Likud parties form governments by making coalition with the religious parties because neither of them can get a sufficient majority to form a government alone.
Chapter 12: Voting
Voting is considered to be one of the most basic and important rights of citizenship. To vote means that a person is practicing his rights as a free person in a democracy, expressing his political will and opinion in a system that will respect this opinion. It is through voting that representatives of the people are chosen, and later on, these will form the government. Hence, through voting, a person is electing the decision makers of the government.
Income and education: people who are more educated are more likely to vote because they are aware of the importance of voting. Those who are not educated do not care or know much about politics. People with higher income are more concerned because they have economic interests to protect and care for, whereas the poor do not have much to worry about.
Race: In the US, the whites tend to vote more than the blacks and other races, mainly because they are more influential, wealthier, and more effective in the American society.
Age: older people are more likely to vote because they are more involved in politics. However, in times of crises that involve younger people, such as times of high unemployment, this segment of population tends to increase its vote participation.
Gender: Men are traditionally more likely to vote than women because women have only recently the right to vote.
Area of residence: People living in cities tend to vote more than people living in villages and the countryside. This is because the facilities for voting are more accessible in the cities than in the rural areas. Moreover, people who have lived for a long period in the same place are more likely to vote because they are more involved in the politics and problems of the area.
Monarchy or Republic: A monarchy is a political system where the king, queen or a monarch stands on the top of the political institutions in a country, such as in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc.
A Republic is a form of state that does not have a monarch. It could be democratic or undemocratic.
Unitary Systems: A unitary system is form of state where all the powers and authorities are in the hands of one government ruling the state, eg. Lebanon (government of Beirut), Italy, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, and most other countries of the world. The unitary government has a lot of control over the local authorities in the state.
Advantages/Disadvantages of Unitary System: When the authority is concentrated in the hands of the local government, citizens feel that it is useless to participate in politics since everything is concentrated in the capital. This leads many citizens not to vote or participate. However, a government which has full control in its hands is more likely to make best use of economic resources and to coordinate planning and development. Besides, legislation becomes much easier.
Federal Systems: These are systems where the local authorities have a considerable degree of authority while at the same time, the central government has also enough power to run the state. For example, the US is made up of 50 states, each with significant local authority, while at the same time, the federal state governs the whole republic of the US. The Soviet Union had the same system, and so does Mexico. Such kind of a state was needed to avoid the danger of military attack since all the states would unite their power against their enemies. It also could be the only way to protect national unity.
Federal systems give citizens the advantage of participating in making decisions on the local level. Besides, this system enables the government to experiment new programs on local levels before trying it on national levels. Nevertheless, there are a few problems. First of all, the local government might not have enough money to finance its programs. Its officials may also be corrupt and poorly trained. Moreover, there is always the possibility of poor coordination between the local and federal authorities, which leads to the duplication of services, and it can result in a bureaucratic mess.
Electoral Systems (Very Important)
Single-Member Districts (SMD): One member of parliament is chosen to represent the entire district by winning a plurality (highest number) of the votes. This means that winner takes all. This usually results in two parties fighting for the same seat.
Advantages: the two parties are forced to concentrate on politics in the center (to please all sides) rather than going towards extremism or radicalism. Those who move away from the center and become radical are punished by not having the chance to be elected. This system also gives majority in the parliament to one party, which results in forming strong and stable governments. Examples of this are the US (president belongs to either Democrat or Republican) and the UK.
Disadvantages: The majority in parliament is usually artificial because this system does not accurately reflect the public opinion (since the winner wins by getting the highest number of votes, and not the majority). Hence, if the highest number of votes is 17% (others are 14%, 13%, 12%, etc), this means that the winner only represents 17% of the people. Moreover, political parties have to please everybody in order to make sure they win enough seats, hence making politics inefficient and dull.
Proportional Representation (PR): The country is divided into districts. Each district can get a certain number of seats in the parliament. In each district, the party makes a list of candidates (if the district has 10 seats, the party makes a list of 10). Thus, if a party wins 60% of the votes in the district, the first 6 names on its list go to parliament. The problem is if the party gets 63%. Two systems are used. One way, known as the d’Hondt system, gives advantage to bigger parties. In Sweden, all the percentages are added and additional seats in the parliament are given according to these percentages. To prevent radical parties from reaching the parliament, a party is required to get a “threshold clause” in order to reach the parliament. Thus, in Poland, a party should get a least 5% of the whole nation’s vote in order to have the right to get a seat in the parliament.
Advantages: PR accurately reflects the public opinion and party strength. It provides opportunity for small parties to win seats in the parliament (In the US or UK this is impossible).
Disadvantages: PR encourages divisions of many parties. This prevents a single party from winning sufficient majority to form a government, and results in coalitions, which in turn result in weak and unstable governments that collapse quickly.
During the Age of Enlightenment, theorists such as Montesquieu and Jefferson declared that there could be no liberty if the state was not divided into three sections: executive (government or president), legislature (parliament), and judicial.
Presidential Systems: In a presidential system such as the US, the people choose the president who has the executive powers. He is the head of government; he is strong and functional. The president is directly responsible to the people who elected him. Both the president and the parliament are separated, hence, neither side can control or dissolve the other. This system is more stable than parliamentary systems.
Parliamentary Systems: The majority in the parliament (one party or a coalition) chooses the executive (prime minister) from its ranks. The prime minister is strong because he his party has the majority in the parliament. On the other hand, the president is not functional. He is only the head of state. For example, in Lebanon, Israel and Germany, the President does not rule; he only asks the head of the party with the majority to form a government (but he has no other choice but to do this). The parliament and the government can control and dissolve each other. This system is less stable than presidential systems.
Advantages and Disadvantages: The presidential system is more stable than the parliamentary system. However, in a presidential system, the president and the parliament may have similar powers. As a result, decisions that require the approval of both sides (such as taxes) may never be made. In a parliamentary system, the government does not fight with the parliament, because the government has the majority in the parliament. Hence, decisions are more practical.
In the presidential system, both the parliament and the president serve their full terms in power. In the parliamentary system, it is different: government can dissolve the parliament or parliament can discredit the government if disputes arise. Besides, government collapses immediately if it loses majority in parliament.
In parliamentary systems, the leaders of parties have the upper word, and members of the party in the parliament are usually rubber-stamps in the hands of party leaders. Besides, in a parliamentary system, most governments are made up of a coalition between several parties at the same time. The problem is that a coalition might collapse because of differences between the parties in the coalition. As a result, the government immediately collapses. Thus, coalition governments are usually unable to decide on major problems because most parties usually differ on major problems.
Roles of the Legislature
Law making: The legislature makes law through several steps. First of all, a bill is drafted and then proposed in parliament. The rule initiation usually is made by the government which needs to make a law to meet a situation. Hence, it proposes a draft bill to the parliament which meets and discusses the bill, and either approves it (hence turning it into a law) or simply rejects it. Sometimes, however, the rule initiation is made by a member or members of the parliament itself.
Constituency Work: this involves services done by the members of parliament to those who elected them (eg. Providing medical and financial support through government, taking care of problems, etc.
Supervision and Criticism of Government: The parliament keeps the government in check by criticizing it all the time, especially when it acts in ways not acceptable to parliament. The parliament has the right to question government in parliamentary systems, and it has the right to reject or approve proposed bill drafts as well.
Education: members of parliament usually instruct and inform citizens on the affairs of the government. They attract attention to problems and issues through the mass media.
Representation: members of parliament are supposed to represent the opinions, wills, and desires of those who have elected them. If they do not, they are not elected another time.
The Structure of Parliaments
Bicameral or unicameral: bicameral means that parliament has two chambers (upper house and lower house). Usually the upper house has much less power than the lower house. In the US, both houses (upper = senate) and (lower = representatives) of Congress are equal in power. In Britain, upper house (House of Lords representing those with inherited titles) has no power against the lower house (House of commons representing the people). In the US, the senators in the Senate represent the states, whereas the representatives in the House of Representatives represent the population.
The Committee System: committees are created for special functions. Some committees in parliaments are permanent (although the members change), whereas other committees are created to meet certain issues or problems (known as ad hoc committees). In the presidential system where the government is independent of the parliament, committees are very important because they study each and every bill proposed by the government. Hence, there is a committee on foreign affairs, a committee on economic development, a committee to deal with a certain problem, and so on. Committees study bills and make their recommendations on them, leading to approval or rejection of the bills by the parliament. In parliamentary systems, committees are less important because the government is represented by the majority in parliament and does not need its proposed bills to be studied. Sometimes, committees have sub-committees inside them that deal with more specific situations or issues.
The Decline of Legislatures
Parliaments have been declining due to several causes:
Structural disadvantages: In parliamentary systems, parliament members vote as their parties ask them to do, otherwise they are fired from the party, and in the next elections they are not elected. Besides, government has majority, and hence does not have a problem with resistance in parliament.
In presidential systems, they are too divided into committees, subcommittees and other interests to be effective against the government. Moreover, members of parties lack party discipline, which makes parliament even more divided.
Lack of Expertise: Most members of parliament tend to be lawyers or politicians, but with little or no technical expertise in medicine, engineering and so on. As a result, they can do nothing to support independent research work, and hence, they are not effective in proposing needed laws or bills.
Psychological disadvantages: Citizens are usually unaware by parliament and what it does. It is more concerned about the president or the government. Hence, psychologically, parliament is neglected.
The Absentee Problem: Parliament does not require that its members attend meetings, and many of them are usually absent because they are busy visiting constituents, giving speeches to interest groups and sitting on committees. Usually, one member present from the party can vote on behalf of the whole party by flicking the voting switch of the absent member.
Lack of turnover: Most elected members in democratic countries remain members all their lives and automatically re-elected. This does not allow young and fresh members to enter the parliament. This is mainly because a party continues to support the same members until they retire. A member is usually removed from parliament due to a scandal or because he is fired from his party.
The Dilemma of Parliaments
The problem in democratic (especially parliamentary) systems is that power must be concentrated in the hands of the government in order to get things done. At the same time, power must be divided between government and parliament in order to maintain democracy. Hence, there is a dilemma to choose either getting more work done or having more democracy. Different countries have different balances with respect to this problem.
Roles of the Executive:
Chief of state: he is the symbol of the nation and the spokesman of the people. He represents the country in important international conferences and occasions.
Head of government: He is responsible for carrying out decisions in the state. He must supervise the bureaucracy and its function.
Party Chief: he is the head of the party that has the majority in the parliament. He represents the legislative functions of the party.
Commander in Chief: this is usually restricted to countries with presidential systems such as the US. Chief Diplomat: he is the head of the diplomacy of his government and nation. He can grant diplomatic recognition to other countries, and sign international contracts with foreign nations.Chief Legislature: effectively, it is the president or prime minister (and his cabinet and other teams) that usually propose most of the draft bills that in the end become laws after they are ratified (approved) by the parliament.