What do “Dissolving parliament” and “Dissolving government” mean?


Over the years, I’ve heard of those events in many countries, even in democratic Western countries. Why did they happen so casually and regularly, although they sound like something that only happens in a chaotic, anarchic dystopia.

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It sounds worse than it is. In the Westminster system of parliament, you having to dissolve the parliament prior to having an election. In sense, the Queen (or Governor General) fires all the members of parliament. Keep in mind, the Queen or the GC does not do so unless the Primer Minister asks (in recent times). In order to replace those members, there needs to be an election. Now, the those who were “fired” can run for election and be re-elected, or new MPs can take their place. The whole procedure is more symbolic than anything else. Now, you may ask how the country can still exist without current members of Parliament? In reality, most of the government is run by the departments, and those remain unchanged. Parliament only meets a few times a year, so this period of dissolved parliament might go unnoticed in terms of actually running the country. Even after the election, the Parliament probably won’t meet for official business until a few weeks afterwards.

So, whenever you hear that parliament was dissolved, it only means that the first step was taken for a upcoming election.

It essentially means that Parliament’s closed and it’s time for all the MPs to go home. In older times, back when parliaments tended to be ad-hoc councils of nobles assembled at the king’s demand, it meant that the session was over and they wouldn’t reconvene until the next time the king summoned them. In a modern context, it means that essentially that there’s an election coming up where all the parliamentary seats are contested.

In parliamentary systems the word “government” is used for what we Americans would usually call the “administration.” When a government collapses or is dissolved, it usually means that government has lost a confidence vote or some of its members have resigned. In those countries, it is a normal part of the democratic process and part of the peaceful transfer of power.

There are lots of major differences between a parliamentary republic and a presidential republic, such as the following (although this is just a generalization, different countries have different laws and political norms, although I’ll be focusing on the difference between the US and Westminster countries like the UK and Canada).

1. A prime minister is not usually elected directly by the people. Instead, whichever party has the most seats in parliament forms a governing coalition, and they nominate one of their sitting MPs to be PM, e.g. Boris Johnson is MP for the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. In a presidential system it is not unusual for the presidency and the legislature to be controlled by different parties, but in a parliamentary system this is impossible.

2. In parliamentary systems there are usually more than two parties (even if two parties dominate, e.g. in the UK the largest two parties hold 86% of seats) and it is not uncommon for the party with the most seats not to have a majority. In this case they must form a governing coalition by inviting smaller parties to join their government, usually by giving their members cabinet positions. If they can’t get enough other parties to join their coalition to get a majority, another party might be given the mandate to form a government. Sometimes a minority coalition is allowed to form a government, but it means that they won’t be able to pass any legislation without some opposition support. Meanwhile in the US, it is sometimes said that the two dominant parties are themselves more like coalitions, with something of an ideological spectrum within them.

3. In parliamentary systems elections do not necessarily have to be held regularly (although in many cases there are constitutional rules which say they must be held at least once in X years). The governing coalition can usually call new elections whenever they want. The legislature can also usually call a vote of no confidence, which if it passes will require the government to resign and call new elections. In the US, elections are held on a specific schedule, and presidential elections are always held exactly every four years. Even if the president dies, there’s no way to move the date up. Prime Ministers also do not typically have term limits, and can theoretically remain in office as long as their party holds a legislative majority. Presidents almost always have well-defined term limits.

That’s the basics, but there’s a lot more.

It just means having new elections, having the post-election new parliament have to establish a new coalition among the various parties to have a ruling majority. While American elections are on a set schedule, parliamentary systems can trigger elections at other times based on other criteria. For example, if two parties were a coalition to have a majority and one party decided to stop aligning with the other and there was no majority coalition as a result, new elections would be held.

Many countries have a system where the head of government is elected by the parliament.

This means that the prime minister, premier or chancellor or whatever the head of government is called has a majority of the parliament behind them. It prevents such things like the one often happening in the US where the President can’t really do much because the tow houses of the parliament aren’t fully behind him.

In practice it meant that all the horse trading and haggling just happens at the beginning of the term when the members of parliament have to figure out who is supported by a majority among themselves. Mostly this happens by two or more parties forming a coalition.

It also means that if at any point in the term that majority falls apart and enough people no longer support the current government they can vote to kick the governmnt out. Usually this is called a vote of no confidence or similar. the exact mechanics vary from system to system.

In some system the current government can only be voted out if there is a replacement that has the support of a majority in other it is enough if a majority doesn’t support the current candidate. sometimes it means that the parliament itself has to be reelected.

At some point if the current parliament can’t agree on a government no matter what the head of state may decide to call for new elections in hopes of getting a parliament that can do abetter job.

Sometimes the current head of government can call for a new parliamentary election to, if they think it would help them.

There is usually some sort of balance of power between the parliament, the government and its head and the head of state, where the head of state is the one who formally dissolves the government or parliaments. This power is often just something that exist in theory and on paper and as long as they don’t actually try to use it on their own especially if said head of state is some unelected monarch.

Details vary widely between countries.