Majority or Proportional Voting?

The current British election campaign shows that Britain’s old two-party system no longer fits the political landscape. The Liberal Democrats’ rise through the two rounds of party leaders’ TV debates has proved to be remarkably stable and attests to a widening dissatisfaction with the other two parties. The prospect of a “hung parliament” where neither Labour nor the Tories gain more than 50% of the seats in the Commons – thus necessitating a minority government or a coalition (horribile dictu!!) with the Liberals as kingmakers – is becoming more realistic every day. This has opened up a debate on the fairness and representativeness of the voting systems which leads to grotesqü divergences between the percentage of votes and seats in parliament, given the present structure of voting districts and their internal majorities. 650 seats are open for distribution, but in more than 500 either the Tories or the Conservatives have “safe” seats, having commanded a large majority in the previous election. Thus only 100 seats are really contested. Since the “winner takes all” applies, where a small plurality guarantees the seat (the other votes being “lost”), it makes sense for the parties to invest most of their election energies and resources in the contested seats only and essentially forget about the other ones. Is that the democratic and right way to go in a general election?

Based on BBC’s election algorithm, last Sunday’s Observer shows the following bizarre scenarios of possible outcomes and discrepancies between votes and seats. If (assuming that 10% of the vote go to Scottish and Welsh nationalists) all 3 major parties gain 30% each of the remaining vote, Labour would get 48% of the seats in parliament, the Tories 32%, and the LibDems 15% (100 seats). If, however, the LibDems won with 34% of the vote, with the Tories gaining  33% and Labor 32%, Labour would receive 300 seats (46%), the Tories 214 seats (33%) and the winning LibDems only 112 seats (17%), less than half of  third-placed Labour. If the Tories, however, won the popular vote with 33%, LibDems coming second with 30% and Labour third with 27%, Labour would still get the most seats (40%), theTories 39% and the LibDems only 16%.

Given these (hypothetical but realistic) outcomes, it comes as no surprise that LibDems have put election reform (towards a continental proportionality system) as one of their major manifesto pledges – and will demand election reform as the price for their cooperation with any of the other parties. Labour has so far promised a referendum on an election reform, the Tories (so far) have refused to go towards proportionality, but would like to reduce the number of constitüncies, in order to cement their leadership – as at present Labour’s is entrenched.

Media and experts are now starting to discuss the benefits of a proportional system and the benefits of coalition governments. These are two separate issüs, but somehow linked, because clear one-party majorities have become extremely rare.  It is clear that a system which is perceived as unfair alienates citizens from the political system and from voting. The British have been proud of their system which has – grosso modo – enabled them to have clear-cut one-party governments and quite freqünt changes in government and political direction. But they realize now that this two-party system no longer reflects the more fragmented and differentiated state of modern society.  Especially since New Labour from 1997 on emulated many of the Thatcher years policies, the old Left-Right divide of the population mirrored in Labour-Tory parties, is no longer valid. Labour has moved towards the Right, the Tories have also moved towards the middle, both have idolized the predominance of the financial sector over the real economy, such that now their programs are similar in wide parts. This has made room for a second progressive party, the LibDems, whose clear early recognition and strategy on fighting the crisis, plus their liberal stance on immigration and civil rights, have put them along and beyond(?) Labour as serious contenders.

For a Continental European, it is interesting to read the many comments on the purported benefits of proportional voting systems and ensuing coalition governments. Hope and disgust with the dysfunctional present system seem to dominate empirical analysis. Given Austria’s 65 year old after WWII experience, where only a dozen years were “coalition-free”, i.e. single-party governments, many of the perceived benefits seen by Brits seem illusory. It is interesting to note that in Austria exactly the obverse discussion is taking place from the UK: namely, whether the clear parliamentary majority rule of the UK/US system would not make governments and parliaments more accountable, enable difficult reforms and effect a clearer change in government.

Thus, we see that the clear-majority advantage in parliament must be weighed against the fairness of the election system, the clearer accountability of parliamentarians in a majority system against the accountability of the government to parliament, the alienation of the populace from the political system against stronger inclusion, and illusion against realism.

While it is clear that two parties can no longer represent all the different strata of society without losing their profile, while it is clear that on the other hand the multitude of parties in some Southern European countries make the ensuing coalitions very unstable and give tiny “kingmaker” parties inordinate inflünce on policies, it is also clear that today the accountability of politicians to the population is an absolute necessity in order to establish trust between the political class and the population. It is also clear that in Europe the additional layer of political representation which is the result of the strengthening of the European Parliament vis-a-vis the Council and the Commission in the Lisbon Treaty, need to be reflected in the national voting systems, where gradually more decision-making power is moving towards Europe. Unless the parties contesting an election do not reflect adequately the views of their electorate, voter abstention will increase further. This results – in both systems – in a rise in populist ad-hoc actions instead of clear strategies. The recent history of the EU shows, in addition, that any institutional setup at the deliberating and decision-making levels which channels decisions towards the least common denominator, leads to a hollowing-out of the political inflünce of the respective bodies. The slow reactions of the EU institutions towards the Greece crisis are a case in point. Much damage has been done in this case, both to the Greek population and economy and the Eurozone’s reputation and refinancing costs.

Corner solutions, either a “pure” proportional system or a “pure” majority system, will not be adequate. Both fairness, representativeness and leadership considerations need to enter the debate. While fairness speaks for strong proportionality, accountability issüs speak for strong parliaments and strong identifiability of representatives. The necessary decision-making expediency and power militate against large coalitions, as do transparency considerations. Part of a solution needs to contain the abolition of the strict separation between the “political” class and the citizens. The present crisis has shown that citizens cannot leave decisions on the role of the financial sector, on regulation, on crisis response with large-scale national ownership (without taking managerial control of these institutions) in the hands of politicians alone.

Das Gras ist immer grüner auf der anderen Seite des Zaunes…..

Der Aufstieg der Liberaldemokraten zur dritten”Grosspartei” in Grossbritannien verstärkt auf der Insel die Debatte um das Wahlrecht – und sie geht genau entgegengesetzt zu jener in Österreich. Das hiesige Mehrheitswahlrecht, bei welchem in jedem der 650 Wahlbezirke der (relative) Gewinner den Parlamentssitz erhält und somit die Stimmen der anderen Wähler “verloren” sind, führt in realitstischen Modellrechnungen zu grotesken Resultaten: wenn alle 3 Grossparteien dieselbe Stimmenanzahl erhalten, bekommt Labour 3 mal so viele Parlamentssitze wie die LibDems; gewinnen die LibDems die Stimmenmehrheit mit 34%, sind die Tories zweite mit 33% und Labour Dritte mit 32% (10% der Stimmen gehen an die walisischen und schottischen Nationalisten), so erhält Labour noch immer doppelt so viele Sitze (als Drittgereihte) wie die (führenden) Lieberaldemokraten.  

Angesichts dieser Diskrepanzen zwischen Stimmen- und Sitzverteilung ist es klar, dass die LibDems eine Wahlrechtsreform Richtung Verhältniswahlrecht zu einem ihrer grossen Anliegen, und wohl zum Preis der Duldung einer Minderheitsregierung oder zum Koalitionseintritt machen. Der Appetit darauf ist bei den beiden anderen Parteien gering.

Das bestehende Mehrheitswahlrecht geht von der alten Rechts-Links Teilung der Gesellschaft aus. Die gibt es heute so nicht mehr: einerseits ist die Gesellschaft viel fragmentierter und volatiler (Wechselwähler!) geworden, andererseits sind beide Parteien in die Mitte gerückt und hat New Labour seit 1997 viele der Thatcher ”Errungenschaften” nahtlos übernommen. Dies macht den Platz frei für den Aufstieg der Liberaldemokraten.

Jedoch: die Hoffnungen, die Kommentatoren sowohl in Koalitionsregierungen als auch in reine Verhältniswahlrechte setzen, scheinen einem Österreicher – aufgrund der Erfahrungen mit fast 55 Jahren Koalitionsregierungen in den 65 Nachkriegsjahren – weit überzogen. Zwar ist klar, dass aus Fairnessgründen, aber auch aus Gründen der Entfremdung der Wählerinnen mit Wahlergebnissen, die nicht dem Stimmenverhalten entsprechen, das “winner takes all” System nicht mehr tragfähig ist. Und dass Koalitionsregierungen, wie v.a. südeuropäische Erfahrungen zeigen, äußerst fragil sind, v.a. wenn sie aus vielen und kleinen Parteien zusammengesetzt sind. Die Erfahrung zeigt auch, dass die (auch österreichische) Erwartung, dass “Grosse Koalitionen” notwendig sind, um grosse Probleme zu lösen, in den letzten Jahren nicht verifizierbar ist, dass öfters der kleinste gemeinsame Nenner, oder die Junktimierung voneinander inhaltlich nicht zusammenhängender Materien, welche beide Klientelen gleich bedienen, Realität ist. Daher setzen einige in Österreich eher auf mehrheitswahlrechtsaffine Änderungen. Dort ist jedenfalls die Identifizierbarkeit und damit Rechenschaftsverpflichtung des “eigenen” Abgeordneten grösser, Regierungswechsel wahrscheinlicher – und eine klare unterscheidbare Linie sichtbarer.

Es geht also um Abwägung von Fairness und Repräsentativität, Rechenschaftspflicht der Abgeordneten und der Regierung, Eindeutigkeit der Regierungslinie, tatsächlich erfolgender Regierungswechsel, sowie Raschheit der Entscheidungen in unserer schnellebigen Welt. Wahrscheinlich sind Mischsysteme jene, die möglichst viele dieser Kriterien erfüllen. Ganz besonders wichtig ist jedenfalls die Schliessung der Entfernung zwischen Staatsbürgern und ihren Repräsentanten. Nichtwählen, ungültig wählen oder Juxwahlen sind gefährliche Zeichen für die Entfremdung der Politikkaste von der Bevölkerung. Dies führt in autoritäre Zukünfte.



Filed under Global Governance, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Majority or Proportional Voting?

  1. I hope you will keep updating your content constantly as you have one dedicated reader here.

  2. Gerhard Gunz

    Toller Artikel. Zum gap political class vs. citizens – Du denkst da wohl primaer an andere Dinge, aber wie waer’s zB mit einer gewissen Staerkung direktdemokratischer Instrumente? Setzt natuerlich voraus, dass man dem Souveraen grundsaetzlich zutraut, vernuenftige Entscheidungen auch zu komplexeren Themen treffen zu koennen. Und setzt voraus, dass polit. Kraefte verantwortungsvoll damit umgehen und solche Instrumente nicht zum Stellen von Suggestivfragen in Wahlkampfzeiten benuetzen.

    • kurtbayer

      Gerhard: ja, das passt gut als Ergänzung: es geht ja nicht nur um den Wahlmodus, sondern – und mE vor allem – um das was zwischen den Wahlen passiert: dazu gehört die Möglichkeit, Abgeordnete abzuberufen (bei Fehlverhalten); die Mitwirkungsmöglichkeit der Bevölkerung (direkte Elemente nach objektiver Information), Pflicht zur Gleichbehandlung von Oppositionskräften in Medienauftritten, etc.

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