The prequel trilogy contained the kernels of several interesting ideas but suffered under George Lucas’s rudimentary understanding of politics. The system of government of the Old Republic infamously makes no sense and combines a random hodgepodge of elements of presidentialism and parliamentarism.
The confusion started in Episode I, which showed the Galactic Senate as the legislative body within a unicameral parliament which gave equal representation to both planets and third-sector organisations like the equivalents of Chambers of Commerce alike, irrespective of both population and the taxes that they pay to the Republic. The Chancellor of the Republic functioned like a speaker of a lower house, prime minister, and president all rolled into one office. And the Republic itself seemed more like a confederation without a standing army until Episode II, where Chancellor Palpatine turned the Republic into a highly centralised State (almost unitary in spirit rather than federative) that planets could not leave freely. He waged war to punish secession: “I will not let this Republic, which has stood for a thousand years, be split in two.”
The Senate did not seem to respect or enforce its own Standing Orders properly either even as early as Episode I. In the first scene within the Senate itself, we see Chancellor Velorum standing on the dais conducting legislative business like the Speaker of the House of Commons: “The chair recognises the Senator from the sovereign system of Naboo.” In other words, he acts like a Speaker of the House and recognises Senator Palpatine, who, in turn, yields the balance of his time to Queen Amidala. She addresses the Senate despite not being a Senator herself and then acts on the idea that Palpatine sneakily incepted in her mind in an earlier scene of “moving a motion of no-confidence in Chancellor Velorum’s leadership” – apparently without notice, given that Velorum reacts with great shock to her declaration. He also fails to enforce decorum in the chamber as hundreds of Senators chant “Vote now!” The Deputy Speaker (whom we later see under Palpatine’s control in Episode III) then had to call the chamber to order. This makes the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic like a Prime Minister subject to the confidence of the main legislative body. This procedure also shows that the Republic’s Senate appointed and ousted the Chancellor by confirmation vote, such as in the parliamentary systems of Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Scotland.
Parliamentary systems do not need to impose term limits on prime ministers because they can ultimately only stay in power as long as they maintain the support of their cabinets and a majority in the elected legislative assembly. Confirmation voting and constructive non-confidence, as we see in Episode I, should obviate the need for presidential termlimits. Yet Obi-Wan mentions off-hand in Episode III that “Palpatine has managed to remain in office longer after his term has expired.” Termlimits apply only to presidents elected independently of legislatures who therefore do not depend upon holding the confidence of legislative majorities. But since we never hear of an executive office higher than that of the Supreme Chancellor, this would make the Supreme Chancellor not only Speaker and head of government but also the head of state of the Republic. The Chancellor serves as a blend of a prime minister and a non-executive president in a parliamentary system like Ireland’s or Germany’s or Israel’s. He probably therefore also undertakes various ceremonial duties like receiving letters of credence of diplomatic delegations.
Having recently re-watched the scenes of Palpatine’s scheming in The Phantom Menace, Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of how Senator Palpatine engineers the ousting of Velorum and ultimately replaces him as Chancellor echoes that of his fellow Scotsman Ian Richardson, who played Francis Urquart in House of Cards and manipulated those around him in similar fashion.
The only difference is that Lucas did not allow McDiarmid to break the fourth wall and wink at the audience as he skillfully manipulated Amidala and other senators to his will. I guarantee that no Star Wars fanboy has ever asked Ian McDiarmid if he drew inspiration from Ian Richardon’s portrayl of Francis Urquart in how he played Senator and Chancellor Palpatine in the prequel trilogy, but I would love to ask him myself to confirm this interpretation. All British actors seem to know each other, and McDiarmid has doubtless always been aware of Richardson’s work.
But with Andor, Star Wars has finally gets politics right. Andor depicts life under a fascist dictatorship so accurately: dreary tedium and banal bureaucratic evil punctuated by bouts of intense violence and wanton cruelty. Most troops in the regular Imperial army (who wear the black uniforms) show little interest in politics and no enthusiasm for Emperor Palpatine’s dictatorship. The regular army consists of conscripts or apathetic volunteers. But the true-believing officers of the Imperial Security Bureau (ISB), who wear the white tunics, show a fanatical ideological devotion to the Emperor, even when they wage internal bureaucratic warfare against each other and jockey for the personal favour of their superiors and Emperor Palpatine himself. The sub-plot on Syril Karn’s investigation and botched attempt to arrest Cassian Andor shows how fascist dictatorships co-opt industrialists and sometimes delegate their authority to corporations. Communists own the means of production, but fascists remain content with merely controlling or influencing them under most circumstances. However, fascists will also outright nationalise corporations when necessary to exert greater control, as the Empire did here.
The short scenes in the Senate also illustrate fascism’s relationship to parliamentarism.
Under communism, only one party can act as a vanguard of the proletariat during the transitional phase from capitalism toward the withering away of the State, which therefore makes a multi-party system and all other political parties illegitimate, reactionary bourgeois attempts to seize back control of the means of production and political power. Yet Communist Parties themselves essentially also become the State because Communists usually come to power through violent revolution and coups d’etat against the ancien régime. Communists reject parliamentary institutions outright and instead hold shambolic party conferences, as China just did a few weeks ago where the Communist Party confirmed Xi Jinping for another five years.
But fascism in the 20th century arose in fragile parliamentary states like the Kingdom of Italy and Weimar Germany rather than from ousting outright autocracies like Czarist Russia, so they made use of existing parliaments and kept them around as creatures of the Leader when he found laundering his authority through them convenient. The Republic in Episode II passed an Enabling Act – on the motion of Jar-Jar Binks, as you might recall – that gave Chancellor Palpatine sweeping emergency powers and swept aside the term limits that logically do not need to apply to a prime minister. Mon Mothma’s scenes in the Senate illustrate how fascists keep legislative bodies around yet also hold them in contempt and regard them as corrupt and inefficient fronts for the liberal democracies that they wish to destroy or have already destroyed. At best, the Leader can cynically launder his responsibility through a legislative body to deflect criticism and give himself plausible deniability if things go awry. At worst, they can become an intolerable burden. Palpatine had accreted most of the authorities of the Senate to himself by the time he declared his Fujimori-style auto-golpe in Episode III after narrowing defeating Mace Windu with Anakin’s intervention. Padme said in Episode III that “liberty died to thunderous applause” as soon as Palpatine announced that “The Republic will be re-organised in the First Galactic Empire!” Yet but Palpatine kept the Senate around as a convenient rubber stamp until A New Hope, when the threat of the Deathstar finally made the political theatre irrelevant and he could abolish the Senate outright. But in the years between his auto-golpe speech and the Deathstar’s genocide on Alderaan, Palpatine kept the corrupted Senate around to give credulous politicians the false hope that they could curb the worst excesses of the Empire.
The Senate in Andor had long since ceased to control its own business and enforce its own rules because Palpatine accrued the Senate’s collective parliamentary privilege to himself. The Senate therefore no longer enforced any semblance of decorum in its proceedings. When we first see the hollowed out chamber in episode 6, “The Eye,” the camera draws our eyes to the vacant speaker’s dais as Mon Mothma begins her first speech; a sede vacante presides over the debates in the Senate because the debates in the Senate have become irrelevant. With no one to enforce rules of decorum, Mon Mothma’s earnest speech about defending the rights and liberties of Imperial subjects barely rises above the din of the idle chatter echoing through the chamber, and some remaining Senators then abruptly walk out mid-debate in a contemptuous mockery of the legislative process itself.
In the second Senate scene from episode 9, Mothma pointedly criticises Emperor Palpatine’s latest crackdowns and this time draws the ire of the Emperor’s placemen, who jeer at her and then ostentatiously and noisily flick off the lights of their pods before walking out of the chamber. Mothma declared: “Our second vow is to protect the power and independence of this remarkable chamber. I stand here today to speak to Senators who come with open minds, those of you who still believe that when we enter this building, we are in a temple.” Mothma finally saw at that moment that Palpatine had truly destroyed the Old Republic’s Senate and that she could achieve nothing through the the husk of that formerly august chamber; she resolved then and there to find a way to circumvent the Empire’s new banking regulations and fund the Rebellion through her personal wealth. The title of episode 9, “Nobody’s Listening!” ostensibly refers to Cassian Andor’s frustrated plea to his fellow-prisoners that they should actively plan their escape because the Empire cares so little for them that the guards do not even bother to monitor their conversations in the cellblock. But that frustrated lament applies just as poignantly to Mothma’s predicament: no one listens in the Senate either, which ultimately transforms her into the leading Rebel figure whom we eventually see in Rogue One and Return of the Jedi.
- When Hollywood Screenwriters Don’t Understand How Parliamentary Government Works (March 2020)
- Execute Order 66: The Royal Recommendation (September 2016)