Democracy: What’s it All About?

Frequently, when he speaks about why the United States is in Iraq, President Bush states that he’s attempting to bring democracy to the country. As a goal, it certainly sounds appealing. However, what type of democracy is he referring to?
After all, India, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, for example, are all considered to be (along with the United States) democracies . But the structure of government existing in these countries differs from each other.

Compare the U.S. structure with that of its leading ally in Iraq, the United Kingdom (U.K.). First of all, the U.K. has a head of government who is not its head of state. Prime Minister Tony Blair is the head of government, but Queen Elizabeth is the head of state. She has been a reigning monarch since the 1950s, while Tony Blair has been in power since the 1990s. In terms of actual political power, Tony Blair has much, but the Queen has effectively none. In contrast, the president is both the head of state and the head of government in the United States. He also has a great deal of political power.

The British system is often referred to as a parliamentary democracy, while the U.S. system is called a presidential system. This stems from the fact that the head of the U.S. executive branch of government is the president. In the UK system, it’s the cabinet which is headed by a prime minister. Every member of the governing cabinet is a minister, but the prime minister is clearly first among equals. While some ministers have direct responsibility for an executive level department, such as the treasury, or defense, or agriculture, others are without portfolio (meaning that they have no such responsibility).

Usually, the U.K.’s Prime Minister is the head of her/his political party. This is an important consideration. For each member of the lower house of parliament–the House of Commons–has to stand for election. Whichever party has the largest number of winning votes in elections becomes the governing party. Cabinet ministers come from the ranks of the winning party, chosen by the party leader, the prime minister.

Although the members of the House of Commons are elected for a term of a specified number of years, it’s possible that they will have to leave office before that term is over. The most common reasons why this occurs are (1) if a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, or (2) if a Prime Minister resigns (for whatever reason).

The fragility of a government stands in marked contrast to what occurs in the U.S. system where a president is elected to a fixed term of four years. Usually, U.S. presidents complete that full term. By law, they are limited to serving a maximum of two full terms of 4 years. And to date, only one president–Richard Nixon–has ever resigned from office. All the others who didn’t complete their terms died while in office. That differs from what takes place in the United Kingdom, where there is no limit on the number of terms that an individual can serve as prime minister. In fact, Tony Blair (in 2005) won electtion to his third term as head of government in that country.

Other countries, such as France and Germany, have parliamentary systems also. Each differs in structure and operation from the system prevailing in the United Kingdom. But each of them rates as a democracy in the international system.

Thus, when President Bush speaks of bringing democracy to Iraq (and the rest of the Middle East), just what does he have in mind? A presidential or a parliamentary system?

Or is he simply referring to the general idea of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” without indicating any other specifics?

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