French and German Political Systems

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Different systems of governments have existed in different parts of the world. The most popular system in the 21st century is Democratic governance. Democracy simply refers to rule by the people where people from a society are involved in governance by being allowed to make important decision or by electing representatives through voting (Wilson, 2001). However, according to Lijphart (1999) there exist two different and competing concepts of democracy. These are majoritarian democracy and consensual democracy. This paper will begin by describing these two concepts and then it will proceed to analyze the French and German political systems based on the two concepts of democracy.


Majoritarian Democracy

This refers to a political system that asserts a certain degree of primacy to the majority group of people in a given society. Lijphart (1999) refers to this form of majority rule as the Westminster, a name derived from Great Britain which is a good representative of this system of governance. In majoritarian democracy, representatives are elected by simple majority and decisions are also arrived using similar considerations. Proponents of this system argue that decision making by the majority is the basic principle of democracy and any restriction to this is undemocratic (Wilson, 2001). In societies governed by this concepts important decision such as making laws and selecting leaders are decided upon by opinion taken by the majority. This system of governance seeks to advance the sovereignty of the popular.


According to Lijphart (1999) majoritarian system is mainly characterized by; (1) Concentration of power in a single- party majority cabinets. Majoritarian governments have powerful cabinets that have been formed from members of the dominant party. A good example is the British cabinet that is constituted by members of the party with the majority seats in the House of Commons (Lijphart, 1999). (2) An executive that is dominant over legislature. Since the executive is formed by the party that has majority of members in the legislature, the executive has a lot of backing in the legislature making it more powerful.  (3) Two party system. Societies using the majoritarian form of governments normally have two dominant parties competing for political supremacy.


(4) Pluralistic first past the post electoral rules and systems. These electoral systems follow the model that allows the candidate with the majority vote to win or the largest minority in cases where there is no majority vote. (5) Pluralistic interest groups. Power, conflicts and competitions that characterize the majoritarian parties also occur in typical interest groups.  (6) Unitary government structure. In majoritarian governments power to control resources and for decision making are concentrated in one central position. Though local authorities may exist, they have no autonomy and are usually creations of the central government. (7) Unicameral legislature. This means that the legislative power is concentrated in a single chamber or house.


 (8) Flexible and easily amendable constitutions. In majoritarian governments, the constitution can easily be changed by the legislature just like they change other laws. (9) Legislature determine constitutionality of own legislation. When it comes to making, changing and interpreting laws in a majoritarian government, the legislature has sovereign and supreme authority. (10) Executive control of central bank. The central bank is powerful economic tool in a country and in the majoritarian spirit of concentrating power on the majority party; the central bank is largely controlled by the executive.


Consensual Democracy

This refer to a political system whereby the decision making structure incorporate as many opinions and views as possible (consensus decision making) (Wilson, 2001). This system ensures that every member in the society including the minorities have been included in making important decisions concerning the society. Consensual democracy aims at protecting the rights of the minority and preventing domination by majority cultural or linguistic groups in political and other processes. This system of governance features high levels of citizen participation in matters political and societal importance (Lijphart, 1999). Countries that follow this system of governance are referred to as consociational states.


According Lijphart (1999) consensual governments exhibit the following characteristics; (1) Sharing of power in parties coalitions. In contrast to the majoritarian system, the consensual systems allow all important parties to share executive powers in a broad coalition.  (2) Balance of power between the executive and the legislature. In a consensual system there is formal separation of power between the executive and the legislature. No arm of the government can interfere with or influence the ways of business of the other. However, each arm of the government is given means for checking how the other arm of government is exercising its powers.  (3) A multiparty system. Unlike in majoritarian systems, in consensual systems, there are many parties with none coming close to being a majority party. This factor is what compels parties to enter into coalition with each others when they intend to form a government.


(4) Electoral systems that seek proportional representation. Electoral systems in consensual systems of governments seek equal representation of both the majority and the minority people in the society. (5) Cooperating interest groups systems. Consensual systems are usually characterized by few and relatively large interest groups which normally share the similar view and cooperate with each other in terms of lobbying and advocacy. (6) Decentralized government structures (Lijphart, 1999). Most governments that follow the consensual system have federal or devolved governments. This ensures that the power to make decision and to control resources has also been devolved therefore enhancing participation of more citizens in governance issues.  


(7) Bicameral legislature. Most consensual governments also have two legislative chambers. Having two chambers ensures that the rights of the minorities are adequately represented and that legislative process is adequately monitored and regulated.  (8) Rigid constitutions. Constitutional rigidity ensures that more people are involved in making the decision as to whether intended changes on the constitution are necessary. Constitutional changes in consensual governments are mainly decided in referendums. This aims at ensuring that the legislature does not impose their will on others.


 (9) Judicial review of constitutionality of legislation. Consensual systems also have a constitutional court that deliberate on matters concerning the constitutionality of legislations enacted by parliaments (Lijphart, 1999). This serves to introduce some aspects of separation of power between the legislature and the judiciary.  (10) Independence of the central bank. Consensual governments also have strong central back which function independently from the executive. Autonomous Central banks have been proven to be effective in playing their roles of controlling economic factors such as rate of inflation and interest rates


The French Political System

The current French political system was largely defined in 1958 in the Fifth republic constituted by its founder Charles de Gaulle (Kesselman, 2009). The current French political system provides mixed feeling on whether France falls under a majoritarian system or consensual system. Though French politics is made up of many political parties there are two mainstream parties. These are; the Socialist Party and the UMP (Kesselman, 2009). Dominance of a two party system is one characteristics of a majoritarian government. Another characteristic that gives the French political system its majoritarian feature is the existence of a powerful executive. The formation of fifth republic worked to increase the presidential powers so as to reduce interference in the functioning of the executive. The Fifth republic is termed as a semi presidential system. It allows fusion of powers between the executive and the legislature (Kesselman, 2009).


When fusion of power occurs the president has the power to control the activities of parliament yet parliament can not control the activities of the executive. Through this system the executive can by pass parliament powers to formulate or amend laws by directly calling for a referendum while parliament does not have systems to check presidential powers. This system of governance displays lack of separation of power and an imbalance system of check and balances.  Recently we have seen the excessive powers of the executive being exercised by Sarkozy announcing policies and proposal without even consulting his advisers (Kesselman, 2009). However, the constitution amendment passed in 2008 placed a limit to maximum presidential terms, a move that is expected to reduce the power of the executive over the legislature and the judiciary.


The Fifth republic also made France a unitary state (Kesselman, 2009).  The constitution created within the fifth republic defines France as  Republic, indivisible, secular, democratic and social. Though much has changed since 1958 in term of formation of devolved structures of government , the central government still possess absolute power granted by the constitution and France still remain a unitary state as opposed to a federal state. The French national identity is also strongly linked to state formation (Kesselman, 2009). Ethnic, racial, religious and gender identities remain in private spheres and play no role in governance. This views and beliefs also work contrary to the element of devolution of power.


Individual participation in direct decision making is also not much advocated for as it is viewed as an interference to the plans and ideals of educated elected leaders (Kesselman, 2009). Another factor that gives France a majoritarian nature is the existence of a Plurality electoral system where members of the legislature are elected from single member districts.


Though the above discussion portrays the French political system as Majoritarian system there are also features of the French system that represent concepts of a consensual system. One of them is the existence of a Judicial Review. Since, the formation of Fifth republic the judiciary was viewed as being far from autonomous and was accused of being influenced by the executive. However, these sentiments appear to have changed since the constitution amendments of 2008 that gave the Constitutional Council of France vital powers of Judicial Review.


There is also existence of bicameral parliament (Kesselman, 2009). The French parliament is made up of two chambers; the national assembly and the senate. This is an important feature of a consensual system of democratic governments. Although, there are element of the French political system that reflect the consensual system of governance majority of the elements represents a majoritarian governments. Therefore on the scale of 1 to 10, France would be rated at 7.


The German Political System

The modern German political system began to take shape in 1990 after the reunification of East and West Germany (Kesselman, 2009). The political system in Germany largely exhibits features of a consensual system of democratic government. A key characteristic s that gives Germany the feature of consensual government is existence of a Federal structure of government. Germany is divided into 16 states but has no sharp separations between different levels of government.


The German political system also exhibits a balance of power between the executive and the legislature (Kesselman, 2009). Germany has a parliamentary system of government and currently has a ceremonial president who is elected by the Federal Convention for 5 years term. The German Chancellor is the head of government and is usually the leader of the majority party in parliament or coalition. Since the head of the executive is selected from parliament there is a balance of power between parliament and the executive. Another feature of a consensual government currently displayed by the German political system is multiparty rule. After the Second World War, Germany was under the rule of two popular parties; the Social Democratic Party and Christian Democratic Party (Kesselman, 2009).. However, recent elections held in 2005 ended the rein of these two parties as the Chancellor who took over came from a coalition of parties. This trend established in 2005 is likely to persist in the future as the German society continues to develop diverse political ideologies.


The legislature in the German political system is also bicameral. Germany has two legislative chambers; the Bundestag which had 614 members in 2005 and the Upper house (Bundesrat) comprising of 69 members (Kesselman, 2009). How the members of the Bundestag are elected also indicate that Germany has a participatory electoral system. The members of the Bundestag are elected through dual- ballot system that combines single member districts and proportional representation (Kesselman, 2009).


Finally, the German political system also has an independent judicial system and judicial review. Germany legal system is made up of three levels; Special Constitutional court, Federal high court and Administrative court (Kesselman, 2009). Existence of the special constitution court creates a judicial review which ensures that there is a clear separation of power between the legislature and judiciary. On the scale of 1-10 the Germany political system would be rated at 2.


In summary, different system of governments exists in our societies today. Democracy has in modern days been advocated as the most ideal form of governance. Many people have come to understand the concept of democracy as simply the rule by the people. However, Lijphart (1999) argues that the concept of democracy can be further categorized into two; majoritarian democracy and Consensual democracy. These two systems of democracy are different and compete against each other and societies need to understand them and know which system will be most beneficial to them. This paper has described the two concepts of democracy, Majoritarian and Consensual democracy, and has gone further to analyze the French and German political system based on these concepts.


References

Kesselman M. & Krieger et al (2009), Introduction to Comparative Politics (5th Ed), Houghton Mifflin: NY,

Lijphart A. (1999), Patterns of Democracy, Yale University Press: New Haven

Wilson F. (2001), Concepts and Issues in Comparative Politics (2nd ed.), Prentice Hall: NY

 


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