While the state, a creation of humankind that is as old as agriculture, was considered from its beginnings as essential for organizing and stabilizing daily community relationships, the parliament, as a legislative institution sharing power with the executive branch, did not arrive on the European political scene until the Modern Age, though it has feudal antecedents in the Middle Ages. In the ancient world, the Greeks created systems for sharing political power and governing while being responsible to the governed. They invented the term “tyranny” to delegitimize regimes that exercised autocratic political power, did not abide by the laws and interests of the community and were arbitrary in exercising power. Tyrannical regimes justified themselves under the principle that only force exercised by the political authorities, even when arbitrary, is capable of ensuring the wellbeing of society: internal peace and defense against external enemies. According to Aristotle, an aristocratic government is a government by the few for the benefit of all, while oligarchies govern for their own benefit, which represents a distortion of the aristocratic tradition and tends to lead to tyranny. Later, in Rome, before it became an empire, ways of pluralizing the exercise of political power were implemented through aristocratic institutions such as, for example, the Roman Senate during the Republic.

In the classic world, however, the idea of an aristocratic state did not include the idea of reciprocal obligations between the governing and the governed that were applicable to the entire pyramid of society. On the contrary, it was believed that those who were part of the aristocracy, because they were superior (and therefore deserved privileges legitimized by birth), were called on to govern in virtue of their superiority to the common people. It was not until the Middle Ages, after the disappearance of the Roman Empire, that the idea was introduced in the Western world that the legitimacy of the relationship between the rulers and the governed was based on reciprocity, on mutual duties and obligations. The governed owed loyalty to the rulers and in exchange the rulers guaranteed social peace and stability and assumed political (and moral) responsibility for looking out for the security and wellbeing of the governed. This political and social contract took legal and moral form in what was known as vassalage, a relationship in which one individual pledges fealty to another. In other words, one was subordinate to, and swore personal loyalty to, another person (including material tribute and military service) in exchange for security and protection. The institution of vassalage, validated by tradition, expanded throughout all of Europe and came to rule the entire social and political structure, including the institution of the monarchy. Higher ranking subjects participated in the kingdom’s affairs, particularly in terms of the legal code, taxes and military issues.

Eventually, this practice of sharing political power with important sectors of society evolved into the parliamentary institution, which became, after the French Revolution, the institutional focus of political freedom. Because of this great revolution, it is impossible to conceive a democratic order, in theory or in practice, that lacks the presence of an autonomous parliamentary institution that is independent of the state’s administration (the executive power). Today, after two centuries of democratic experience, and despite countless and traumatic formative experiences of conflict, the parliament — as a representative institution with the exclusive power to approve the laws of the state — is considered essential for democracy. In other words, without a functional and vigorous legislative assembly that serves as a counterweight to the state’s executive power, it is not possible to live in freedom. In Puerto Rico, the parliamentary institution is known as the Legislature or Legislative Assembly, which is the name assigned by Article III of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1952). It is a complex institution, plagued with contradictions and subject to continual transformation, but it remains, as in any democratic society, an indispensible political institution because it is the only one capable of approving laws that govern life in the territory.

This section of the Puerto Rico Online Encyclopedia contains articles about the nature and historical antecedents of the parliamentary institution, its origins in Puerto Rico and its particular historical development, constitutional configuration, as well as the principle of representation and operational structure. It also incorporates some controversial issues about its current condition, its current organic relationship with the political parties and its permanent state of conflict with the executive power.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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