Tricameralism is the practice of having three legislative or parliamentary chambers. It is contrasted to unicameralism and bicameralism, both of which are far more common.

The term was used in South Africa to describe the Parliament established under the apartheid regime's new South African Constitution of 1983. Other instances of tricameral legislatures in history include Simón Bolívar's model state. The word could also describe[citation needed] the French Estates-General, which had three 'estates'.

South African tricameralism

In 1983, South Africa's apartheid government put forward a constitution providing for a tricameral legislature. On 2 November, around seventy percent of the country's white population voted in favour of the changes – black South Africans were not consulted, and under the proposal they continued to be denied representation since in theory they were citizens of independent or autonomous bantustans.

The South African tricameral parliament consisted of three race-based chambers:

  • House of Assembly – 178 members, reserved for whites
  • House of Representatives – 85 members, reserved for Coloured, or mixed-race, people
  • House of Delegates – 45 members, reserved for Indians

The creation of the tricameral parliament was controversial on two fronts. On the one hand, many white conservatives disliked the idea of non-whites participating in Parliament at all. The dispute was a factor in the creation of the Conservative Party, a breakaway from the dominant National Party. On the other hand, many coloureds and Asians rejected the system as a sham, saying that the chambers reserved for them were powerless.

The tricameral parliament was not particularly strong. The 1983 constitution significantly weakened the powers of parliament, and abolished the position of Prime Minister. Most authority was transferred to the State President, including the ability to appoint the Cabinet. This was seen by many as an attempt to limit the power of coloureds and Indians – not only were the 'non-white' Houses of Parliament less powerful than the 'white' one, but parliament itself was subordinate to a white President.

Bolívar's tricameralism

Simón Bolívar, the South American revolutionary leader, included a tricameral legislature as part of his proposals for a model government. Bolívar described the three houses as follows:

  • Chamber of Tribunes, holding powers relating to government finance, foreign affairs, and war. The tribunes would, unlike the other two houses, be popularly elected.
  • Senate, an apolitical body holding powers to enact law, supervise the judiciary, and appoint regional officials. Bolívar believed that the senate should be hereditary, saying that this was the only way to ensure its neutrality. There are parallels between Bolívar's Senate and other chambers such as the British House of Lords.
  • Censors, a group who would act as a check against the powers of the other two. Bolívar described them as "prosecuting attorneys against the government in defense of the Constitution and popular rights". He also said that they should ensure that the executive was functioning satisfactorily, perhaps having powers of impeachment.

Bolívar intended his model government to function as a parliamentary system, and so the tricameral parliament was expected to govern through the active administration of the cabinet ministers who would be accountable to it. Bolívar was explicit in many of his writings, particularly in his Message to the Congress of Angostura on how his proposed system was meant to reflect the way the British parliamentary system works. His proposal for Censors was not for them to act as legislators but rather to act as an office similar to an Ombudsman. As such, some opinions differ on whether his system could truly be classified as a tricameral parliament, considering that the Censors weren't true legislators, but seemed to represent a separate branch of government altogether.

Despite Bolívar's huge influence in South America, no country in the region employs his tricameral parliament. Early attempts to implement the model, such as in Bolivia, were not successful, although the chaos of the period was likely a factor in this outcome.[citation needed] As a result of not adopting Bolívar's British-inspired parliamentary system, numerous celebrated political scientists like the late Juan Linz and many others have observed that the decision of many Latin American countries to model their systems of government on the presidential system of the United States has led to numerous examples of political instability and subsequent descent into dictatorship or anarchy.[citation needed]

French tricameralism

Ancien Régime

Some historians view the French States-General as an example of a tricameral legislature. The States-General evolved gradually over time, and provided advice on various matters (including legislative issues) to the King. The three Estates were the simply labeled First (consisting of clergy), Second (consisting of nobility), and Third (consisting of commoners). (The term "fourth estate", referring to the press, derives from this system, but was coined long after the revolution that abolished it.)

There are two distinct problems with regarding the States-General as a tricameral legislature, however. First, the States-General never had any formal powers to legislate, although at times, it played a major role in the King's legislative activity. Second, the division between the three estates was not always maintained – the estates sometimes deliberated separately, but at other times, they deliberated as a single body, undermining the idea of tricameralism.


The French Consulate (and later First French Empire, although the lower two chambers were by then entirely without power) had a tricameral legislature, consisting of:

  • the Sénat conservateur (Conservative Senate), the highest chamber, whose duty was to guard the constitution, and which upon the consul's proposal could enact special laws known as sénatus-consultes,
  • the Corps législatif (Legislative body), successor to the Directoire's Conseil des Anciens (upper house), which was to vote on laws without discussing them (or, after 1804, with only a strictly curtailed discussion),
  • the Tribunat, successor of the Directoire's Conseil des Cinq Cents (lower house), which was to discuss laws and only vote on whether to "recommend" them for the Corps législatif.

Whether the Sénat was part of legislature, however, is open to doubt, because Sieyès (the main instigator of the Consulate's Constitution and later president of this Senate) described it as belonging to an altogether different power beyond the executive, legislative and judiciary: the conservative power. In effect, Napoléon made the Sénat into a political élite to back his power as Consul and later as Emperor, whereas the other two chambers were subdued into submission. In 1807, the Tribunat was definitely abolished.

Chinese tricameralism

According to the original Constitution of the Republic of China, now based in Taiwan and the outlying islands (which is drafted according to the idea of Dr. Sun Yat-sen), under the National Assembly, there are five branches of government, named Yuan (院), which are: the Executive Yuan, Legislative Yuan, Judicial Yuan, Examination Yuan, and Control Yuan.

The National Assembly represented the entire nation and exercised the political rights thereof, but its legislative functions were considered "reserve" powers that were meant to be exercised on an ad-hoc basis; the Legislative Yuan is the principal and standing legislative body, and the Control Yuan is the monitors of the government.

However, the constitution did not mention which is the parliament of the country. The Judicial Yuan decided that the National Assembly, Legislative Yuan, and Control Yuan resembled the parliament.

Originally, the Control Yuan was elected by indirect election, but since 1992 members are nominated by the President. After the suspension of the National Assembly in 2005, the Legislative Yuan became the current unicameral parliament.

Other examples

Former Yugoslavia

The Socialist Republic of Croatia (according to the provisions of the 1974 Cinstitution) had three houses of parliament (Sabor Socijalističke republike Hrvatske, now Hrvatski sabor): Socio-Political Council (Društveno-političko vijeće), Council of Municipalities (Vijeće općina) and Council of Associated Labor (Vijeće udruženog rada). This was abolished by the new constitution as Croatia gained independence in 1990.

Isle of Man

The parliament of the Isle of Man, Tynwald, is sometimes called tricameral, but this description is not universally accepted. The two branches of Tynwald are the House of Keys and the Legislative Council. The Tynwald Court consists of the members of both houses meeting together regularly. Some argue that this counts as a third house. Others disagree, saying that as there are no members of the Court who are not also members of the other houses, the Court should not be considered separately (by comparison, in Australia, Switzerland and India deadlocks between the two Houses can sometimes be resolved by a joint sitting, but experts[who?] would not classify either of those countries as "tricameral").

Church of England

The General Synod of the Church of England is sometimes described as tricameral. It is divided into a House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. As the Church of England is the state church of England, the Parliament of the United Kingdom has given the General Synod the power (subject to veto) to make law relating to the Church.

However, a Diocesan Synod is not a tricameral institution. It is a bicameral institution, as it consists of the House of Laity, who are directly elected by the parishes, and the House of Clergy. The Bishop is not a member of either House, even though he is constitutionally a member of Synod.

Medieval Ireland

In the fifteenth century, secular clergy of each diocese sent two proctors to the Parliament of Ireland, who met separately from the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In 1537, their right to membership was revoked after they opposed the Reformation in Ireland.[1][2]

Labor unions

Tricameral meeting arrangements are a growing trend in labor unions where some members will always be working on one of three shifts. Under such arrangements, each shift will have its own meeting, but the action of one meeting will have to be adopted by the other two.[3]


  1. ^ Richardson, H. G. (October 1943). "The Irish Parliament Rolls of the Fifteenth Century". The English Historical Review. Oxford University Press. 58 (232): 448–461: 451. JSTOR 553673. 
  2. ^ Bray, Gerald Lewis (2006). Ireland, 1101-1690. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. pp. 18, 52. ISBN 9781843832324. Retrieved 17 June 2017. ; "[1537 (28 Hen. 8) c. 12] An Act against proctors to be any member of the Parliament. Rot. Parl. cap. 19.". The Statutes at Large Passed in the Parliaments Held in Ireland. Vol.1: 1310–1612. B. Grierson. 1765. pp. 102–103. 
  3. ^ Meetings of Members Working in Shifts

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