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Unicameralism: Merits, Demerits And Practical Experiences

A unicameral is a form of government having only one legislative house. Unicameral is a Latin word that is used to describe a one-house legislative system. Countries having unicameralism form of government include Denmark, Hungary, Ukraine, Turkey, and Sweden. Unicameral systems became more popular during the 20th century and some countries such as Greece, New Zealand, and Peru, switched from bicameralism i.e. a body with two chambers, into a unicameral system.

Smaller countries with long-established democracies tend to have unicameral systems while larger countries may have either a unicameral or bicameral system.[1] '. The law-making processes in both the forms of legislature i.e. unicameral and bicameral are similar in nature, hence the role of the second chamber in the legislative process is unclear and a one chamber parliament can perform the legislative function sufficiently[2]. This paper further discusses the merits and demerits of unicameralism.

One of the most prime merits of unicameralism is its cost-effectiveness, Lawmaking is done through a process that is very tedious and lengthy. If there is one house the process is followed once only. There is no repetition of the same process. So time is saved, money is saved and energy as well. Unicameral legislature aids to the faster process of lawmaking and proves to be a boon in moments of emergency or when there is a restriction of time and money. Also, since the maintenance is only required only in one chamber that makes a unicameral legislative easier to maintain.

Benjamin Franklin once said:

Legislative body fractioned into two branches is like a carriage drawn by one horse in front and one behind pulling in opposite directions.[3]

In a bicameral form of government, some sort of rivalry usually exit and is unavoidable as the two chambers struggle for superiority. Unicameral legislature prevents competition as to which house is more superior. It also adds to the standard and honor of the legislators by avoiding a clash of opinions between the two chambers. The single chamber is responsible for all legislative matters. There is no distributed responsibility as found in a bicameral legislature.

The unicameral legislature can be composed of members that are the real representatives of the people. The composition is in most cases, simple. Because of the legislature being unicameral, the double cost for the maintenance of two houses is not required. This results in more representatives at a considerably less expense. Having just one house results in a quicker and effortless decision- making.

While there are many such advantages of having a unicameral legislature, this legislative system also comes with its own set of disadvantages as well.

Some of the disadvantages of unicameralism include:

The unicameral legislature does not provide room for proper and transparent representation in large countries such as India, China and The U.S.A etc. A single house legislature does not provide any opportunity for revision of bills [4]as there is no scope for a second thought and there is very fewer chances of amending or opposing the bill being made in a unicameral form of the legislature where there is no opposition and the people many times have to follow blindly the bill being made as there is a very less chance of changes being made in the bill.

It also creates the chance for a government or a party to use the single chamber to force objectionable and corrupt laws through, especially if it has dominance in the chamber, which in turn, weighs down on the general public which is bound to follow them. This takes away the very spirit of freedom and democracy and makes a country quasi monarchial.

Large countries like India having large and diverse populations require more laws of complex matters to be made. A single house cannot give adequate time for thorough discussion as to the making of those complex laws. A second chamber would reduce the burden of a single chamber considerably and make sure that the law being made is not only beneficial for just one sector of the state but to all the individuals belonging to that nation.

Another drawback of a unicameral form of the legislature is that the members of the unicameral chamber can be unduly swayed especially by the ruling government that has a majority in parliament as well by the minority party sometimes which can in turn lead to very biased laws which are unfit for democracy.

In a unicameral chamber of legislation, since there is only one legislature making the rules, there are usually instances when bills are not appropriately debated and analyzed before they hastily passed down[5] which often results in the implementation of acts that are not properly accessed and may have loopholes and glitches.

Hence, it can be said that unicameral legislature has its own set advantages and disadvantages. While a unicameral government is largely beneficial for a small and scarcely populated country, by being less costly and being equally effective, a unicameral legislature might not be the right choice when it ranges to large countries such as India and the U.S, where a single parliament can create chaos and prove to be ineffective in making complex laws that can suit the needs of such a large and diverse population.

While some say that a bicameral legislature is outdated, inefficient, and unnecessary, the disadvantages of having just one legislature cannot be ignored. While some countries with unicameral systems have always held the system of having just one legislature, others have changed at some point by merging two houses or abolishing one. New Zealand abolished its upper house in the early 1950s when the Opposition party took control from the Labour party and voted to do away with the upper house[6].

On the contrary, in the American states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Vermont the single-chamber legislatures that were set up were transformed into bicameral legislatures in 1789, 1790, and 1830, respectively[7]. A number of such examples of cameral change exist. Iceland restructured its bicameral legislature into a unicameral legislature in the year 1991[8]. In 1953, Denmark transformed into a bicameral system following the enactment of a broad scope of constitutional reforms[9].

And in the year 1950, after 96 years with a bicameral legislature, New Zealand transformed into a unicameral system, reflecting a public agreement that the imperially-appointed upper house was both politically and legislatively non-relevant[10]. So it may be concluded that countries as large as India which has a non-unitary form of government cannot function effectively under a unicameral legislature.

Unicameralism: Practical Experiences

Out of the roughly 240 countries with legislative bodies, more-or-less two-thirds are unicameral, and the remainder is bicameral. The selection of legislative members is usually governed and guided by a country's constitution and/or its electoral policies. usually, members are either directly elected by a country's eligible list of voters using a defined electoral system; indirectly elected or selected by its province, state, or department legislatures; or appointed by the nation's prime executive body.

Legislative members in many countries are selected both directly and impliedly, and the electoral laws of some countries reserve seats for females and different ethnic and minority groups[11]. The concept of unicameralism is followed in countries such as China, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Uganda, Iceland, Costa Rica, and Portugal etc. This paper tries to focus on some of these countries and explain the working and practicality of unicameralism.

The Chinese Unicameralism

The people’s republic of China is a large country with an estimated population of around 1.4 billion people[12], just like its population, the government in China is also massive in size and number. China is mostly controlled by the Quanguo Renmin Daibiao or National People's Congress or Dahui. There are several other components that make up the government or legislature by law, but these branches essentially are basically just in writing and much less in practicality.

The National People's Congress is the most major branch of government in China, consisting of 2980 members[13]; it is the largest parliamentary body in the world making the national legislative branch unicameral. The NPC, by many accounts, stands for the rubber stamping body for the state council, the main executive organizations, and the standing committee of the communist party, which consists of the highest officials of China.

It is to be noted that in reality, only representatives of the Chinese Communist Party or the C.C.P, it's 8 allying independent parties, and CCP-approved independent candidates are approved to contest in the election making it turn unicameral in practicality.

The executive branch of china is chaired by the premier and incorporates the heads of each of the cabinet-level executive departments. Currently, the council has 35 members: the premier, one executive vice premier as well as three other vice premiers, five state councilors (of whom two are also ministers), and 25 in charge of the Council's constituent departments.

In the diplomacy of the People's Republic of China, the Central People's Government forms one of three interrelated branches of power, the others being the Communist Party of China and the People's Liberation Army. The State Council directly commands the various subordinate People's Governments in the provinces and in practice maintains integration with the top levels of the Communist Party of China.[14]

The reason for the current president Xi Jinping holding the supreme authority of the nation is because the government is overshadowed by the party at all levels. On the primary level, there is the provincial secretary, who is shadowed by the party secretary. The same applies to the mayor of cities, and township heads.

One way to think of it is that the provincial secretary and township heads are local government appointments, but if they make a major error or misjudgment, the party secretary can immediately step in and dismiss him/her without even providing a reason. This is how the party controls everything from the central government level down to the local government level.[15]

This is how the unicameral government functions in china; now let’s take a look at unicameralism in Sweden.

Unicameralism In Sweden

The journey of the Swedish legislature from multi-cameralism into unicameralism is rather a puzzling one; Sweden’s conversion to a unicameral legislature demonstrates the formidable nature of institutional inertia. In 1867, Sweden transformed from a four-chambered legislature into a bicameral legislature based on the U.S. and Norwegian models. The two chambers varied in the constituencies their members served, the manner in which representatives were elected, and their terms of office. However, the chambers exercised equal legislative power, in a manner similar to that of the U.S. House and Senate.

When conflicts emerged among the two houses, they steadily grew into two distinct ideological bodies, with the upper house controlled by a conservative majority and the lower house dominated by a liberal majority. The ideological divide provoked a legislative stalemate and, eventually, political stagnation. Although attempts to reform the legislature began in 1945, the process took more than 20 years. Not until 1967, after more than a century of bicameralism, did the Swedish legislature vote to become a unicameral body.[16]

Currently, Sweden is currently a constitutional monarchy parliamentary system of government and has a unicameral Parliament[17]. There are twenty-nine electoral provinces and elections occur every four years. Parties must have 4% of the national vote to get seats in the Parliament.

The legislation is initiated by the Government or individual representatives of Parliament and researched by parliamentary committees; it is often evaluated by the Law Council before being brought in for a vote. Bills are usually passed by a simple majority except for changes to the Constitution or the Parliamentary Working Order (Riksdagsordning), which requires two separate votes. Voting on the budget bill is controlled by special legislation. The Parliament has met in the same building since 1905.[18]

We observed a significant variation existing among countries in relation to the structure of their legislatures. While the smaller countries normally use unicameral legislatures, and larger, federal nations usually employ a bicameral model, these assumptions are not always the case. Each state incorporates its own unique reasons to adopt either a unicameral or bicameral model. These reasons can be varied and derive from historical, cultural, or demographic features that may apply uniquely to that country.

Existing institutional and political factors such as electoral methods and party dynamics have a significant influence on this process as well. Moreover, political personalities play a pertinent role in shaping legislative design. While China had a unicameral legislature since its independence; it wasn’t the same case with Sweden is a constitutional monarchy. Finally, it can be concluded that power, protection of interests, and compromise will undoubtedly contribute to the cameral design a nation will follow.

End-Notes:

  1. Will Kenton, Unicameral System, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/u/unicameral-system.asp (accessed December 13, 2020
  2. Majambere, E. (2010). Bicameralism or unicameralism: the case of the United Kingdom and Uganda. European Journal of Law Reform, 12(Issues - 4), 417.
  3. Samir, what are the Merits & Demerits of Unicameralism? https://www.preservearticles.com/political-science/what-are-the-merits-a-demerits-of-unicameralism/11636 (accessed December 13, 2020).
  4. Samir, what are the Merits & Demerits of Unicameralism? https://www.preservearticles.com/political-science/what-are-the-merits-a-demerits-of-unicameralism/11636 (accessed December 14, 2020).
  5. https://nigerianscholars.com/tutorials/arms-of-government/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-unicameral-legislature/
  6. Will Kenton, Unicameral System, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/u/unicameral-system.asp (accessed December 13, 2020).
  7. The editors of Britannica editorial, bicameral system, https://www.britannica.com/editor/The-Editors-of-Encyclopaedia-Britannica/4419 (accessed on December 16, 2020)
  8. Edward Schneier, Iceland, in Kurian, ed. p. 314, World Encyclopedia of Parliaments and Legislatures.
  9. David Arter, One Thing Too Many: The Shift to Unicameralism in Denmark, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991 pp. 77-142) Lawrence Longley and David Olson, eds., Two into One: The Politics and Processes of National Legislative Cameral Change,.
  10. Keith Jackson, The Abolition of the New Zealand Upper House of Parliament pp. 43-76, Longley and Olson, Two into One,.
  11. China Legislative branch, Index mundi, https://www.indexmundi.com/china/legislativebranch.html (accessed at 18/12/2020)
  12. Population of China (2020 and historical),
  13. https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/china-population/#:~:text=The%20current%20population%20of%20China,of%20the%20total%20world%20population, (accessed on 18/12/2020)
  14. State Council news, http://english.www.gov.cn/statecouncil/, (accessed on 18/12/2020).
  15. State Council of the People's Republic of China, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_Council_of_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China, (accessed on 18/12/2020)
  16. Paul Denlinger, Quora, https://www.quora.com/What-type-of-government-does-Beijing-China-have, (accessed on 18/12/2020)
  17. Keith Jackson, The Abolition of the New Zealand Upper House of Parliament (page- 43-76), Longley and Olson, Two into One
  18. Att styra, skatta och bedöma, ch.6, Statens Fastighetsverk, http://www.sfv.se/sv/bygg-pa-kunskap/vara-byggnadsminnen-berattar-historien/arkitekturens-stilar-och-ismer, (accessed at 19/12/2020).
  19. Sveriges Riksdag, The Committee on European Union Affairs, http://www.riksdagen.Se/en/Committees/The-Committee-on-European-Union-Affairs, (accessed on Oct. 7, 2014).

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