Legislatures in contemporary societies in general and in Divided societies in particular face great challenges That may erode their legitimacy and therefore undermine their abilities to contribte to a stable constitutional democracy. some of these challenges come from enemiesof legislatures, those who stand to lose from a viable, strong legislature. Many of these challenges however come from f riends of legislatures, those who support a strong legislature. Enemies of legislatures, whether from within the country or from outside, are normally a minority of elite who see their economic interest and political privileges threatened by the presence of a strong legislature. This is especially the case in developing countries where the majority of people if given the chance to freely elect and influence their representatives, would do so with the aim of promoting the interest of the majority and not the interest of the traditional political and economic elites. Historically this group has espoused a number of theories to justify its animosity to legislatures.
In Europe, the aristocracy fought against legislatures on the basis of its divine right to rule and has maintained that at the very least good statesmen are born and bred only within established aristocratic families . Education and training according to this logic, do not by themselves guarantee the qualities needed in a ruler. And since the masses are not to be trusted, elections were an exercise in futility and legislatures were not at all necessary.
Under the system of colonialism, the colonialists, although justifying their conquests and exploitations of the colonies by what came to be known as the civilizational mission and the superiority of their political insitutions, insisted in denying any form of self or representative government to the colonies. According to them, the representative form of government is so alien to the mentality of the people of the colonies, it may require a total transformation of their thought and perhaps thousands of years before it can become applicable to the colonies.
Since independence this elite has become sophisticated in its fight against legislatures. We are told by this group that a country is not ready for a legislature unless it has developed a large middle class. We are also told that a country with large percentage of its population illiterate can not afford a legislature. We are also told that before a country can afford representative institutions it should first achieve economic development. Furthermore we are told that modern societies require speed and expertise in solving their problems. A legislature, it was argued, is ill-equipped to have either. Finally this group has the audacity to argue that free election often brings the most conservative elements of society to the legislature. Those societies eager for rapid socio-economic changes, they tell us, can not afford the procrastination of a legislature. Instead those societies are better off under a strong executive, assisted by a so called technologically oriented bureaucracy. The above logic was an attempt, and I must say a successful attempt for this elite to establish and justify a political system that protected and perpetuated its socioeconomic and political privileges in the name of law and order, progress, science and technology and other seemingly desirable goals.
Yet this group could not have succeeded without the help that it received and continue to receive from those who support the existence of a legislature. Friends of legislatures unwittingly manage to undermine these institutions in a number of ways.
They naively assume , that legislatures are arenas for scientific discussions with the explicit purpose of arriving at the perfect answer to a particular problem. When this does not happen, as is often the case, they are frustrated and angered. Often the institution becomes the object of their frustration and anger.
Friends of legislatures, with a short historical perspective, often get disappointed when the cause they championed gets defeated. Rather than viewing the legislative process as a series of mini battles continuously being fought over the definitions of public policy, they view it as a cataclysmic event where there is always a permanent winner and a permanent loser.
The legislative process has certain inherent characteristics that makes it an easy target for well meaning critics both from within and without.
It is an open process where the various protagonists can state their positions and preferences and explain their reasons and their motives. For those in the press and among the public who view the legislative process as a scientific exercise, where alternatives are presented and debated objectively, without passion , preferences or biases, this public display of differences and biases is frustrating and demoralizing. As compared to the secretive way by which public policy is determined by bureaucracies and military regimes, the openness of the legislative process is all to revealing. While military regimes can claim that their policy choices are arrived at objectively by rational professionals and experts in the best interest of the nation, legislative decision making by contrast appears to be biased, partisan, and providing only half baked solutions to serious problems. As far as the press and the public are concerned, legislative decisions are made by non experts , non professional with each group trying to maximize its private, parochial goals instead of the general public good. It is for this reason that legislative debates especially at the committee level are still in most legislatures conducted in camera.
Even in US legislatures where a high premium is placed on openness, most committee debates, until recently were conducted in secret. The problem for legislatures is that whether the debate is conducted in open or in camera, it is impossible to guard against divulsion of information to the press or the public by one or more members attending. While bureaucratic and military regimes operate in secrecy and learn how to prevent any leaks, legislatures, even when they operate in secret, are an arena for open discussions and debate and that is HOW THEY ARE MEANT TO BE.
Another characteristic of legislatures that is at the basis of their strength and at the same time a source of disappointment for well meaning critics, is the DELIBERATIVE style of reaching a decision. Deliberation is a source of strength because it gives time to all of those involved in the process to express their views and present their case. In some cases like instances of filibuster, the minority can even slow the process of decision making and may bring it to a halt. In a rapidly changing world, where decisions regarding solutions have to be reached in a timely manner, the deliberation process becomes in the eye of the critic an unnecessary PROCRASTINATION, thus discrediting the legislative process. For those who were socialized under military regimes , the comparison and the contrast become unavoidable. Erroneously they conclude that military regimes are superior because they respond to crises promptly and resolutely.
Another characteristic of legislatures that is a source of strength and at the same time a contributing factor to their public perceived weakness is that they are COLLECTIVE rather than BUREAUCRATIC in their organization. As collective institutions they are composed of individuals who constitutionally have the same power, rights and prerogatives. Each member is the representative of the people. They deliberate on equal basis. Each position regarding an issue has the same legal validity as the other. This characteristic allows different and diverse views to be aired and expressed.
Theoretically no group in the population is denied access to the decision making process. That is what makes the legislative process a democratic process as distinct from authoritarianism or autocratism. That is what makes decisions reached through the legislative process legitimate and therefore acceptable and binding to the public, even to those who disagree with these decisions. Yet the COLLECTIVE nature of the institution has its negative unintended consequence, as far as the well intentioned critic is concerned. It make the decision process chaotic and without direction or purpose. In contrast with a hierarchically organized executive that " speaks with one voice", the legislature appears "unorganized, speaking with many voices without coordination, one part not knowing what the other part is doing".
Finally a legislature deals with the future, WITH WHAT SHOULD BE RATHER THAN WHAT IS, a task that makes its decisions important but controversial. These decisions are important because they tend to define future actions and priorities. They are controversial because there is no science that can lead us from WHAT IS to WHAT SHOULD BE. This means that legislative decisions can not be proven conclusively as right or wrong. Even after a decision is reached protagonists in the debate can hold to their former position and insist that they are right while their opponents were wrong.
As we can see , the same characteristics that make a legislature a democratic institution , also contribute to its limitations. Hasty attempts at reform adopted prematurely without taking into consideration the very essence and needs of the institution, are not the answer. Such reforms undermine the legislature's strength without correcting its limitations. All of us in this conference, I am sure , are aware of recent reform attempts that on the surface were intended to create a smooth, coordinated institution, capable of reaching so called rational and timely decisions in the public interest, but instead led to the bureaucratization of the legislature. A bureaucratized legislature, as we all realize has very little capability to respond futuristically and innovatively. Worst still, a bureaucratized legislature, can not provide the proper arena from resolving and managing conflict in a peaceful manner. Transform the legislature into a bureaucracy and you transfer the conflict to the streets or to some other arena.
If the legislature is an arena for reaching some temporary agreements among groups in society regarding a whole variety of issues, the question then becomes, how to create a legislature that includes in its members representatives of the significant groups in society to negotiate their differences. In many cases abstract principles of democracy may have to be balanced against political realities. Practices thjat may seem at first glance undemocratic, may be necessary to insure political viability.
For example in designing electoral laws, the question becomes how to design a lwa that insures representation of significant groups insociety. This may be done by assigning a number of seats for each group, sometimes disproportionate to its size in population, sometimes by dividing districts in such a way to minsure the representation of certain groups and other similar mechanisms. This is important in devided societies with mixed polpulation. Unless extreeme care is taken in designing the electoral laws, certain groups may be denied representation, and therefore denied representation. The best illustration of an institution that sacrificed the generally acclaimed democratic principle of one person one vote, is the US Senate. There are many examples in other countries.
Another important question, becomes how can one structure the legislature to facilitate this process of negotiation. Should the majority group (if one exists) take all the leadership roles, or should these roles be allocated among the various componenets of the legislature?
How does one manage a multiparty, multigroups legislature with no clear majority? We are all familiar with the way a two party system legislature is run. We have little experience running a multi party multigroup legislature with no clear majority.
What type of resources are to be given to groups represented in the legislature?
How to keep the legislature informed, while keeping its political character and responsiveness to public needs?
How to enrich public debate within the legislature, without transforming it to an academic institution,?
How to keep the legislative process open, without compromising confidentiality or undermining its seriousness and credibility?
How to equip it to respond to crises in an informed and timely manner, without sacrificing its deliberative style?
How to develop specialization among members , nurture leadership and insure coordination, without turning the institution into another executive bureaucracy?
How can the legislature get hold of the budget process and make some sense out of it?
How can a legislature control the actions of the bureaucracy and hold it accountable?
The answer to these questions necessitates structural and procedural solutions that may constitute significant adaptations of the generally accpeted liberal defination of what a legislature is , how should it be constituted, and how it needs to be structured and equipped to facilitiate the process of reaching agreements, not only among the various groups withion the legislature, but also between the legislature and the executive.
In the final analysis the survival of constitutional democracy depends on the ability of significant groups in society to reach agreements regarding a whole variety of issues that confront them. If agreements can not be reached and a long impasse is developed, democratic stability is likely to suffer.
Dr. Abdo I. Baaklini is a Professor in the Department of Public Administration of the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York. Dr. Baaklini, a professor at the University at Albany since 1972, is also Director of the University's Center for Legislative Development, founded over 25 years ago to help build and strengthen legislative institutions in the U.S. and abroad.
Dr. Baaklini's field of expertise include Legislative Administration and Policy, Development and International Administration, Comparative Politics and Administration, and Organizational Theory. Dr. Baaklini has published extensively in the areas of legislatures, their roles, and their administrative and research needs, and is well-known and respected for his legislative work in Africa, the Middle East, Central Europe, Asia and South and Central America. He has organized and implemented over 100 seminars and workshops for legislators in these areas, and has presented over 50 papers at professional conferences around the world.
Dr. Baaklini has also consulted with U.S. Federal agencies (USAID, USIS, NSF), as well as with the governments of Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cameroon, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, So. Korea, Senegal, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Morocco and Egypt regarding their legislative development issues. He is currently focusing on legislative institution building activities in Egypt, Lebanon, Haiti, and Guinea-Bissau
Dr. Baaklini's professional affiliations include the American Society for Public Administration, the American Political Science Association, the International Studies Association, the Middle East Studies Association, the Middle East Institute, and the Organization for the Promotion of Social Sciences in the Middle East. He has served as Secretary of the International Political Science Association's Committee on Legislative Development. Dr. Baaklini earned his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He received his B.A. and M.S. in Public Administration at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon.
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