“The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently,” Grand Moff Tarkin tells his cadre aboard the Death Star. “The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.”
For a long time after the release of the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, the only thing we’ve had to rely on to learn about the Imperial Senate and how it functioned was our imagination, but thanks to subsequent, movies, comics, books, and television shows like Andor, we have a much clearer view of how it works and why Emperor Palpatine would keep it around as long as he did.
The Galactic Senate
To understand the Imperial Senate, one needs to go back to its earlier incarnation as the Galactic Senate that was first seen in The Phantom Menace. This body represented the individuals of the Galactic Republic. Each system or planet would send representatives and senators to Coruscant to represent them in a wide range of issues. Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker and Senator Padmé Amidala went back and forth about the nature of the Senate once during a conversation on Naboo.
“We need a system,” Anakin said Padmé, “where the politicians sit down and discuss the problems, agree what’s in the best interests of all the people, and then do it.”
“That is exactly what we do,” Padmé informs him. “The problem is that individuals don’t always agree.”
The Galactic Senate worked for a very long time in this fashion, but when corporate entities like the Trade Federation were allowed to use their influence in the Senate with official representatives, it meant that profit and power often became more important than the beings of the galaxy. Add to that corruption a Chancellor like Palpatine who, according to Obi-Wan Kenobi, is eager at following the passions and prejudices of each senator in a bid to manipulate all of them, and you obtain a purposeful deadlock on getting anything effective done.
For a thousand generations, though, the Senate functioned capably — albeit with the occasional speed bump here or there — by generally making the lives of the average citizens of the Galactic Republic better, or at least mostly attempting to do so. It was when money, corruption, and overly burdensome bureaucracy took over that the institution decayed and allowed Palpatine to take power.
From Republic to Empire
There come times in history when a free individuals look at the safety of security and the correctness of democracy and decide to pick one over the other. The selection always feels very easy to create for numerous folks in the moment, but they always come to remorse it as the boots of fascism are quickly on the neck of their freedom. This is exactly what Palpatine organized. He manufactured the crisis of the Clone Wars while he was Chancellor of the Republic in a bid to stay in power long after his term had expired.
“The individuals demanded that he stay,” Anakin reminds Obi-Wan.
But that was also orchestrated and manipulated by Palpatine for the glory of his own power and the Sith’s grand plan.
By fabricating a story about an assassination attempt by the Jedi and eliminating them at the same time, he’s able to simultaneously end the Clone Wars, as he also destroys the remaining leadership of the Separatists. Palpatine created a situation where the Galactic Senate would be willing to give him all of the power he asked for. They allow him to reform the Republic into the first Galactic Empire and let him serve as Emperor.
The Illusion of Control
Instead of consolidating power completely, Palpatine knew he had to offer the illusion of control to all of the systems that had sided with him. There was no way to govern without their cooperation. Palpatine found it much easier to keep control of the universe by giving them the false belief that he was sowever allowing them to control their own destiny. They could offer whatever legislation they wanted and it could live or die in the Senate, which, in theory, was continuing on in the same manner it did during the Republic. But with Palpatine fully in control of the system of bureaucracy, only legislation that Palpatine wanted to allow would create it into law. For the most part, the Senate did his bidding.
In Andor, we see the Public Order Resentencing Directive (or PORD) swiftly passed to increase the condemn of anybody whose crook acts affected the Empire. It was passed in direct response to the heist on Aldhani that Luthen Rael orchestrated and Cassian Andor participated in. For those in our world, it feels like a direct corollary to the United States PATRIOT Act in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York.
For Senator Mon Mothma, the overreach of the Emperor is something that needs to be checked and at this point, she sowever believes the Senate is a place that can do that and have that power. But as we see her give speeches in the Senate chamber, hardly anybody is around and no one pays attention to the stirring power of her words, with some outright jeering her.
By the time of Andor, with the Battle of Yavin sowever five years away, the Senate merely creates the illusion of control for those trying to work within the system. But Palpatine didn’t need to maintain this illusion for much longer. When the Death Star was finished, he quickly moved to replace this petty bureaucracy with pure fear. Feeling he could maintain an iron grip on the galaxy with his terror campaign, he dissolved the Senate, which continued to be the case even after the Death Star was destroyed.
After all, he could always build another one…
The Post-Empire Senate
Palpatine’s reign wouldn’t last forever though, and after his death and the fall of the Empire, and the Rebels taking control, they establish a New Republic which in turn established a new Senate. At first, this Senate was housed on Mon Mothma’s home planet of Chandrila, before traveling around the galaxy, ensuring that the capital of the Republic was more equitable in its representation across the galaxy.
Mon Mothma became the first Chancellor of the New Republic and kept that post for some time. One of the cornerstones of her lasting legacy was pushing for the Military Disarmament Act, ensuring that a future Chancellor would not be able to have an army or navy at its disposal as Palpatine did. The New Republic flourished for numerous years, but sadly it did not last. While the capital of the New Republic had been relocated to the planet of Hosnian Prime, it was completely obliterated by the First Order when they fired their ultimate super-weapon from Starkiller Base, taking with it much of the galaxy’s leadership, including numerous of the Senate.
With the destruction of Hosnian Prime and the death of General Leia Organa, the most prominent leader in the Resistance, only time will tell what form of galactic government will next rise from the ashes following the end of the conflict with the First Order, and what role, if any, a Senate will play in it.