No. 14




The Position of Member of Parliament: Independence and Dependence

18 December 2006


RiTo No. 14, 2006

  • Mihkel Solvak

    Mihkel Solvak

    University of Tartu, Institute of Government and Politics, Researcher

Parliament is a central institution in representative democracy. But are the members of parliament themselves central to the functioning of the institutions or are they merely vehicles for the will of someone else (party)?

The aim of this paper is to assess to what degree we can look at an individual member of parliament (MP) as an independent variable in influencing the output of a legislative institution in a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The procedural rules of the parliaments of Estonia, Lithuania and Poland are analysed to determine whether, and if so, then in what way, an individual MP can be considered to be a relevant actor in parliament. Special aspects under study are means of parliamentary oversight, right to initiate legislation and the committee system.

The main means of parliamentary oversight available to individual MPs are interpellations and questions (written and oral). In all three parliaments under study there are constraints to the content of questions and interpellations, and in all of them a third party has to give his/her approval. Only in Poland is the number of MPs permitted to ask oral questions limited to a minimum 15 persons, in all other cases there are no numerical limits. MPs use those means extensively, strengthening the argument that the individual and his motives are relevant to the study of parliamentary oversight.

The right of a MP to initiate legislation is crucial in influencing parliamentary output and should therefore be of central importance to every MP wanting to implement their political agenda. Only in Poland, the number allowed to initiate a draft is limited to a minimum of 15 MPs. There are complex technical requirements in all three parliaments and limitations to the content of drafts in Poland. The number of drafts sponsored by MPs is close or more than the number of government-sponsored drafts in all three parliaments. The rate of success is however dramatically lower than that of government. The fact that MPs still initiate a significant number of drafts shows that, when it comes to the production of legislation to implement a political agenda, the individual MP is relatively meaningless.

Since an MP’s chances of seeing his or her own drafts being accepted are slim, one should look at other ways in which (s)he can directly influence legislation. Those ways are provided by the committee system. The personal preferences of MPs determine their committee membership in all three parliaments, despite the fact that formal rules state that membership is determined by the party faction in parliament. An important means at the disposal of MPs is the right to attach minority opinions – easy in Poland, where every member can make his disagreement public, and relatively easy in Lithuania, where a small group is required. Estonian MPs do not have such a possibility.

Limited importance can be attached to committee size, where a smaller size can help an MP to specialize and add to his or her relevant weight in committee decision making. Here the Polish Sejm as a large parliament stands out with large committees, but that is balanced by the possibility to form subcommittees which allow for a high degree of specialization.

All in all, an individual MP can be considered to be of importance in understanding the motives behind government oversight, initiating legislation for purpose of publicity and the functioning of the committee system. His or her weight diminishes radically when we look at which drafts will turn into laws or who determines the parliamentary agenda. Nevertheless in some important aspects we should not underestimate the role, importance and motives of individual MPs in a multiparty parliamentary democracy.

Full article in Estonian