History of Parliamentarism

The first parliaments date back to the Middle Ages. In 930, the first assembly of the Alþingi was convened at Þingvellir in Iceland,[1][2] becoming the earliest version of a formalized parliamentary system.[1] However, in 1188 Alfonso IX, King of Leon (in current day Spain) convened the three states in the Cortes of León and according to UNESCO it was the first sample of modern parliamentarism in the history of Europe.[3][4]

An early example of parliamentary government developed in today's Netherlands and Belgium during the Dutch revolt (1581), when the sovereign, legislative and executive powers were taken over by the States General of the Netherlands from the then-monarch, King Philip II of Spain.[citation needed] The modern concept of parliamentary government emerged in the Kingdom of England (1688) .

Proto-parliamentary institutions

Since ancient times, when societies were tribal, there were councils or a headman whose decisions were assessed by village elders. This is often referred to as tribalism. Some scholars argue that in ancient Mesopotamia there was a primitive democratic government where the kings were assessed by council.[5] The same has been said about ancient India, where some form of assemblies existed, and therefore there was some form of democracy.[6] However, these claims are not accepted by most scholars, who see these forms of government as oligarchies.[7][8][9][10][11]


The first recorded signs of a council to decide on different issues in ancient Iran dates back to 247 BC while the Parthian Empire were in power. Parthians established the first Iranian empire since the conquest of Persia by Alexander and by their early years of reigning, an assembly of the nobles called “Mehestan” was formed that made the final decision on very serious issues.[12]

The word "Mehestan" consists of two parts. "Meh", a word of the old Persian origin, which literally means "The Great" and "-stan", a suffix in the Persian language, which describes an especial place. Altogether Mehestan means a place where the greats come together.[13]

The Mehestan Assembly, which consisted of Zoroastrian religious leaders and clan elders exerted great influence over the administration of the kingdom.[14]

One of the most important decisions of the council took place in 208 AD, when a civil war broke out and the Mehestan decided that the empire would be ruled by two brothers simultaneously, Ardavan V and Blash V.[14] In 224 AD, following the dissolve of the Parthian empire, after over 470 years, the Mahestan council came to an end.


Ancient Athens was the cradle[clarification needed] of democracy.[15] The Athenian assembly (ἐκκλησία ekklesia), was the most important institution, and every male of Athenian citizenship above the age of thirty could take part in the discussions, but no women, no men under the age of thirty and of course no one of the thousand slaves are allowed to take part in the discussions. However, Athenian democracy was not representative, but rather direct, and therefore the ekklesia was different from the parliamentary system.

The Roman republic, established in the 8th century BC, had legislative assemblies, who had the final say regarding the election of magistrates, the enactment of new statutes, the carrying out of capital punishment, the declaration of war and peace, and the creation (or dissolution) of alliances.[16] The Roman Senate controlled money, administration, and the details of foreign policy.[17]

Some Muslim scholars argue that the Islamic shura (a method of taking decisions in Islamic societies) is analogous to the parliament.[18] However, others disagree, highlighting some fundamental differences between the shura system and the parliamentary system.[19][20][21][which?]

In Anglo-Saxon England, the Witenagamot was an important political institution. The name derives from the Old English ƿitena ȝemōt, or witena gemōt, for "meeting of wise men". The first recorded act of a witenagemot was the law code issued by King Æthelberht of Kent ca. 600, the earliest document which survives in sustained Old English prose; however, the witan was certainly in existence long before this time.[22] The Witan, along with the folkmoots (local assemblies) is an important ancestor of the modern English parliament.[23]

Early parliaments in the Middle Ages

The first parliamentary bodies involving representatives of the urban middle class were summoned in 12th century Spain. In 1187, the Castillian King Alfonso VIII summoned representatives of the nobility, the church and the 50 most important cities to a council in San Esteban de Gormaz, Soria. There was another meeting with representatives of the cities in Carrión de los Condes, Palencia, the next year.[24] However, all those meetings were exceptional and not leading to a regular attendance of town representatives in the Curiae.[4]

The Cortes of León from year 1188 was a parliamentary body in the medieval Kingdom of León. According to the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme, it is the oldest documentary manifestation of the European parliamentary system with some temporal continuity.[4][25] After coming to power, King Alfonso IX, potentially facing an attack by his two neighbors, Castile and Portugal, decided to summon the "Royal Curia". This was a medieval organisation composed of aristocrats and bishops but because of the seriousness of the situation and the need to maximise political support, Alfonso IX took the decision to also call the representatives of the urban middle class from the most important cities of the kingdom to the assembly.[26] León's Cortes dealt with matters like the right to private property, the inviolability of domicile, the right to appeal to justice opposite the King and the obligation of the King to consult the Cortes before entering a war.[27]

The second oldest recorded parliamentary body in Europe were the Portuguese Cortes of 1254 held in Leiria in 1254.[28] These included burgher delegates and introduced the monetagio system, a fixed sum to be paid by burghers to the Crown. Property rights of the king and his subjects, as well as of ecclesiastical bodies, were addressed in the previous Cortes of Coimbra in 1211 (which included members of the nobility and the clergy). The Portuguese Cortes met again in 1256, 1261 and 1273 under Afonso III of Portugal, always by royal summon.

In the realms of the Crown of Aragon, the institutional system effectively limited powers of the monarchs. Particularly, in the Principality of Catalonia, in 1283, the Catalan Courts (Corts Catalanes) became one of the first parliamentary bodies of Europe that officially banned the royal power to create legislation unilaterally. Along the next centuries, the Courts developed an extensive regulation of its internal operation and guarantee of rights for the citizenship; in 1481, the Catalan Courts approved the Constitució de l'Observança, which established the submission of the king and its officers to the laws of the Principality.[29][30]

In England, Simon de Montfort is remembered as one of the fathers of representative government for holding two famous parliaments.[31][32] The first, in 1258, stripped the King of unlimited authority and the second, in 1265, included ordinary citizens from the towns.[33] Later, in the 17th century, the Parliament of England pioneered some of the ideas and systems of liberal democracy culminating in the Glorious Revolution and passage of the Bill of Rights 1689.[34][35]

Britain and the Commonwealth

In the Kingdom of Great Britain, the monarch, in theory, chaired cabinet and chose ministers. In practice, King George I's inability to speak English led the responsibility for chairing cabinet to go to the leading minister, literally the prime or first minister, Robert Walpole. The gradual democratisation of parliament with the broadening of the voting franchise increased parliament's role in controlling government, and in deciding who the king could ask to form a government. By the nineteenth century, the Great Reform Act of 1832 led to parliamentary dominance, with its choice invariably deciding who was prime minister and the complexion of the government.[36][37]

Other countries gradually adopted what came to be called the Westminster model of government, with an executive answerable to parliament (fusion of powers), but exercising powers nominally vested in the head of state, in the name of the head of state. Hence the use of phrases like Her Majesty's government or His Excellency's government. Such a system became particularly prevalent in older British dominions, many of whom had their constitutions enacted by the British parliament; examples include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Irish Free State and the Union of South Africa. Some of these parliaments evolved, were reformed from, or were initially developed as distinct from their original British model: the Australian Senate, for instance, has since its inception more closely reflected the US Senate than the British House of Lords; whereas since 1950 there is no upper house in New Zealand.

France: swinging between presidential and parliamentary systems

France swung between different styles of presidential, semi-presidential and parliamentary systems of government; parliamentary systems under Louis XVIII, Charles X, the July Monarchy under Louis Philippe, King of the French and the Third Republic and Fourth Republic, though the extent of full parliamentary control differed in each, from one extreme under Charles X (a strong head of state) to full parliamentary control (under the Third Republic). Napoleon III offered attempts at some degree of parliamentary control of the executive, though few regarded his regime as genuinely parliamentary and democratic. A presidential system existed under the short-lived Second Republic. The modern Fifth Republic system combines aspects of presidentialism and parliamentarianism.

Parliamentarism in France differed from parliamentarism in the United Kingdom in several ways. First, the French National Assembly had more power over the cabinet than the British Parliament had over its cabinet. Second, France had shorter lived premierships. In the seventy years of the Third Republic, France had over fifty premierships.

In 1980 Maurice Duverger claimed that the Fifth Republic was a government in which the president was supreme, a virtual king. More recent analyses of France's system have downgraded the importance of the French president. During cohabitation, when the National Assembly of France and presidency are controlled by opposite parties, the French president is rather weak. Thus, some scholars see the French system as not one that is half presidential and half parliamentary, but as one that alternates between presidentialism and parliamentarism.

The spread of parliamentarism in Europe

Nineteenth century urbanisation, industrial revolution and, modernism fueled the political left's struggle for democracy and parliamentarism. Democracy and parliamentarism became increasingly prevalent in Europe in the years after World War I, partially imposed by the democratic victors, Great Britain and France, on the defeated countries and their successors, notably Germany's Weimar Republic and the new Austrian Republic. In the radicalised times at the end of World War I, democratic reforms were often seen as a means to counter popular revolutionary currents. Thus established democratic regimes suffered however from limited popular support, in particular from the political right.

Another obstacle was the political parties' unpreparedness for long-term commitments to coalition cabinets in the multi-party democracies on the European continent. The resulting "Minority-Parliamentarism" led to frequent defeats in votes of confidence and almost perpetual political crisis which further diminished the standing of democracy and parliamentarism in the eyes of the electorate.

Many early twentieth century regimes failed through political instability and/or the interventions of heads of state, notably King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy's failure to back his government when facing the threat posed by Benito Mussolini in 1922, or the support given by King Alfonso XIII of Spain to a prime minister using dictatorial powers in the 1920s. Finland is sometimes given as a counter-example, where a presidential democracy was established after a failed revolution and more than three months of bitter Civil War in Finland (1918). In 1932 the Lapua Movement attempted a coup d'état, aiming at the exclusion of Social Democrats from political power, but the Conservative President Svinhufvud maintained his democratic government. Parliamentarism was (re-)introduced by Svinhufvud's successor Kyösti Kallio in 1937.

See also


  1. "A short history of Alþingi - the oldest parliament in the world | European Youth Portal". europa.eu (in Estonian). Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  2. bryndis (8 July 2013). "Althingi". visitreykjavik.is. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  3. UNESCO, Memory of the World. The Decreta of León of 1188 - The oldest documentary manifestation of the European parliamentary system
  4. "The Decreta of León of 1188 - The oldest documentary manifestation of the European parliamentary system". UNESCO Memory of the World. 2013. Retrieved 21 May 2016.
  5. Jacobsen, T. (July 1943). "Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia". Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2 (3): 159–172.
  6. Robinson, E. W. (1997). The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens. Franz Steiner Verlag. ISBN 3-515-06951-8.
  7. Bailkey, N. (July 1967). "Early Mesopotamian Constitutional Development". American History Review 72 (4): 1211–1236. https://www.jstor.org/pss/1847791.
  8. Larsen, J.A.O. (Jan. 1973). "Demokratia". Classical Philology 68 (1): 45–46.
  9. de Sainte, C.G.E.M. (2006). The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-1442-3. https://books.google.com/books?id=LkYIAAAAIAAJ.
  10. Bongard-Levin, G.M. (1986). A complex study of Ancient India. South Asia Books. ISBN 81-202-0141-8.
  11. Sharma, R.S. (1968). Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. https://books.google.com/books?id=sQKNAAAAMAAJ.
  12. "Parthians' Achievements". Retrieved 1 January 2019.
  13. "مهستان". Retrieved 1 January 2019.
  14. HAMAZOR Publication of the World Zoroastrian Organisation: Will the issue of Dokhmenashini ever be resolved in the sub-continent?: ISSUE 3 2006. Page: 27
  15. John Dunn (2005), Democracy:a History, p.24
  16. Abbott, Frank Frost (1901). A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions. Elibron Classics. ISBN 0-543-92749-0.
  17. Byrd, Robert (1995). The Senate of the Roman Republic. US Government Printing Office Senate Document 103–23.
  18. "The Shura principle in Islam" by Sadek Jawad Sulaiman
  19. The System of Islam, (Nidham ul Islam) by Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, Al-Khilafa Publications, 1423 AH - 2002 CE, p. 61
  20. The System of Islam, by Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, p. 39
  21. Shura and Democracy, by M. A. Muqtedar Khan
  22. Liebermann, Felix, The National Assembly in the Anglo-Saxon Period (Halle, 1913; repr. New York, 1961).
  23. Birth of the English Parliament
  24. Ruano, Pedro Martínez (26 January 2009). La Administración Electoral (in Spanish). Universidad Almería. ISBN 9788482409085.
  25. "La Unesco reconoce a León como cuna mundial del parlamentarismo". El Mundo. 19 June 2013. Retrieved 21 May 2016.
  26. Spain (February 2012). "International Memory of the World Register [Nomination form] - The Decreta of León of 1188 - The oldest documentary manifestation of the European parliamentary system" (PDF). Retrieved 21 May 2016.
  27. Catedrático de la Universidad Estatal de León López González, Hermenegildo; Catedrático de la Universidad Internacional en Moscú Raytarovskiy, V.V. "The Leones parliament of 1188: The first parliament of the western world (The Magna Carta of Alfonso IX)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 21 May 2016. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  28. Livermore, H.V. (1966) A New History of Portugal, 1976 ed., Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p.81
  29. Ferro, Víctor: El Dret Públic Català. Les Institucions a Catalunya fins al Decret de Nova Planta; Eumo Editorial; ISBN 84-7602-203-4
  30. Palos Peñarroya, Juan Luis: Quin va ser el paper dels juristes catalans en el debat entre absolutisme i constitucionalisme?
  31. Jobson, Adrian (2012). The First English Revolution: Simon de Montfort, Henry III and the Barons' War. Bloomsbury. pp. 173–4. ISBN 978-1-84725-226-5.
  32. "Simon de Montfort: The turning point for democracy that gets overlooked". BBC. 19 January 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2015; "The January Parliament and how it defined Britain". The Telegraph. 20 January 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
  33. Norgate, Kate (1894). "Montfort, Simon of (1208?-1265)" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 38. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  34. Kopstein, Jeffrey; Lichbach, Mark; Hanson, Stephen E., eds. (2014). Comparative Politics: Interests, Identities, and Institutions in a Changing Global Order (4, revised ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 37–9. ISBN 978-1139991384. Britain pioneered the system of liberal democracy that has now spread in one form or another to most of the world's countries
  35. "Constitutionalism: America & Beyond". Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State. Archived from the original on 24 October 2014. Retrieved 30 October 2014. The earliest, and perhaps greatest, victory for liberalism was achieved in England. The rising commercial class that had supported the Tudor monarchy in the 16th century led the revolutionary battle in the 17th, and succeeded in establishing the supremacy of Parliament and, eventually, of the House of Commons. What emerged as the distinctive feature of modern constitutionalism was not the insistence on the idea that the king is subject to law (although this concept is an essential attribute of all constitutionalism). This notion was already well established in the Middle Ages. What was distinctive was the establishment of effective means of political control whereby the rule of law might be enforced. Modern constitutionalism was born with the political requirement that representative government depended upon the consent of citizen subjects.... However, as can be seen through provisions in the 1689 Bill of Rights, the English Revolution was fought not just to protect the rights of property (in the narrow sense) but to establish those liberties which liberals believed essential to human dignity and moral worth. The "rights of man" enumerated in the English Bill of Rights gradually were proclaimed beyond the boundaries of England, notably in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789.
  36. Dr Andrew Blick and Professor George Jones — No 10 guest historian series, Prime Ministers and No. 10 (1 January 2012). "The Institution of Prime Minister". Government of the United Kingdom: History of Government Blog. Retrieved 15 April 2016.
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