Who's running the show?
May 16, 2012 6:14 AM   Subscribe

How does a parliamentary democracy function during the time between a government's dissolution and new elections?

Presumably the civil service can carry on core functions, but how would a parliamentary nation handle a sudden crisis? Can the dissolved parliament get called back into session?

In particular, who handles military and economic decisions during this critical period? Is the PM still the PM up until the new parliament is sworn in, or is he effectively out of power the moment he calls for new elections?

My question is inspired by Greece, but I'm interested in learning how this works generally across Europe and the world.
posted by helloimjohnnycash to Law & Government (9 answers total)
See Caretaker Government.

Re: Greece, The head of Greeceā€™s Council of State will take the reins of the country until it holds new elections on June 17
The caretaker government will have no mandate to take any internationally binding commitments, with emergencies to be handled in consultation with party leaders.

posted by Gyan at 6:32 AM on May 16, 2012

In can only speak for the Dutch situation (we're also awaiting elections, to be held in September).

Some topics will be declared "controversial", i.e. the opinion of the current members of parliament and government (PM, ministers and secretaries of state) might be very different from those that may come into power. In these cases, no new policies will be made in these fields. Sometimes this also means that civil servants will indeed drop their work (much to their chagrin) on these topics. This avoids that the current majority will push ahead important political decisions against the will of the opposition (who will likely reverse the plans, not very efficient). For the rest, it's business as usual. This means that "minor" legislation will go ahead as planned.

As an alternative, the Dutch now have an ad-hoc coalition of 5 parties that try to make work of economic reform. They feel that they cannot wait until the new elections. They can do this, as long as there is sufficient support from the current parliament.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 6:34 AM on May 16, 2012

In the Netherlands, the previous government remains in control until the elections and the formation of a new governing coalition.
posted by atrazine at 6:35 AM on May 16, 2012

In nearly all parliamentary systems, the previous gov't remains in power until a new one is formed. However, they are like a lame duck president, and have little power to implement long term or sweeping legislation.
posted by Flood at 6:51 AM on May 16, 2012

Best answer: New Zealand (and I imagine others): Parliament is dissolved; the government isn't. The Government gets on with the day-to-day business of governing, but no new laws are made, because Parliament isn't there to pass them. By convention, Ministers and civil servants won't make major decisions at this time (known as "Caretaker" government, as Gyan said).

Also, Parliament can agree to "roll-over" some decisions until after the election. For example, a few years ago the Governor-General's term of office was due to finish just before an election, meaning that the next G-G would be appointed by a Caretaker government. The parties all agreed to extend the incumbent's term, so that the next G-G could be appointed by the incoming government.

Where this gets interesting is after the election: the incumbent Prime Minister is still the Prime Minister until the new one is sworn in. This can take a while - if the election is close, it could take days to work out who has actually won, and conduct the swearing-in ceremony. And now that NZ uses proportional representation, it's even worse, because the government will almost certainly be a coalition of some kind, and negotiations to form the government have taken up to 7 weeks.

By convention, the incumbent acts on the advice of whoever won the election. But this has been controversial: in 1984, Labour defeated National and tried to implement some urgent reforms. Outgoing Prime Minister Muldoon refused to accept the instructions of incoming PM Lange, causing a constitutional crisis.
posted by Infinite Jest at 7:08 AM on May 16, 2012

So Belgium puttered along with no government for a year and a half recently. They had elections and then couldn't form a government afterwards. It takes a little close reading, but the Wikipedia article on the formation of a government says that the king kept the old government in power, though with restricted powers. (They had to renew the 2010 budget every month, but eventually the king told them to make a 2011 budget.)

Since I've started looking, in Britain it seems Parliament is dissolved 17 days before an election at which point, the government still exists, but there cease to be MPs. (That page also has a not very useful answer to the 'who's running the country' question.) There's a 'pre-election period', historically called 'purdah', where the government (i.e. ministers and civil servants) don't make new policy announcements. According to Wikpedia (a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_the_United_Kingdom">here) it's proclaimed by the Cabinet Office. Historically this has been after the announcement of an election (which can happen more than 17 days in advance). How this will work now that there are fixed term parliaments, I can't find out.

I believe, in Britain, it's theoretically possible to recall Parliament if an emergency. During the First and Second World Wars, the time limit on a Parliament was five years (down from seven in 1910), but Parliament was extended to avoid calling an election during the war.
posted by hoyland at 7:10 AM on May 16, 2012

New Zealand (and I imagine others): Parliament is dissolved; the government isn't.

In the Netherlands, the PM (appointed by the Queen) and his cabinet resign, the parliament retains its normal powers (controlling the government, but they can also propose new legislature). The cabinet becomes "demissionair" until a new cabinet is formed after elections.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 7:19 AM on May 16, 2012

In the UK, the old government remains in office until the new one is ready to take over.

Case in point, the last British election in 2010. Normally a UK General Election takes place on a Thursday, the votes are counted overnight, it is clear by early Friday morning who won, and the leader of the winning party goes to Buckingham Palace to be meet the Queen who asks them to form a government.

Last time, it was slightly more complicated, as no party had an overall majority, and there were negotiations about what coalitions could be formed. While those negotiations went on, a period of a few days, the incumbent Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, remained in office, as did all his ministers.

By convention the outgoing government wouldn't do anything major during the transition. Parliament would not be sitting, so legislation can't be passed anyway. But there is never a doubt about, for example, who at any given moment has authority to launch Britain's nukes, in the unlikely event that WW3 happened to break out in the days after the election.

Incidentally, in the ceremonial niceties of a constitutional monarchy, it is the Queen who appoints Prime Minsters. If the Queen says you are the PM you are, and you remain so until she says someone else is. The election theoretically plays an indirect role in that, as it is a key factor that "guides" the Queen's considerations, and there isn't much point in having a PM that will be voted down on everything they want to do in the House of Commons. But hypothetically, and maybe in reality in extraordinary circumstances, the Queen could appoint someone if needed to fill a political vacuum.
posted by philipy at 9:52 AM on May 16, 2012

Canada is the same situation as New Zealand, above, (except that it's a simple plurality/first-past-the-post rather than proportional representation) but I will add that any requests for new funding - typically in case of really pressing needs only - that are still in the midst of approval that have to be approved by parliament can be approved through an emergency measure called Governor General's Special Warrants.

In countries where the Queen of England is the Head of State (like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, etc.), the Governor General is her representative, so for all intents and purposes the government is still in place. This is one of those cases where the GG's role is less than largely ceremonial.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:15 AM on May 16, 2012

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