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Electoral Systems and Failed Democracies

Ukraine and Russia’s dysfunctional democracies both share a common feature—their electoral systems use proportional representation (PR). Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal also use it. Proportional representation is a system whereby elected congress persons (or parliamentarians) owe their primary loyalty to their party rather than to constituent voters in separate geographical districts. Each party puts up “lists” of its candidates, the names usually decided by old Party bosses. Voters are only given the option to vote for one list or another, rarely for individual members concerned with their local, specific interests. Parties that gain more than (usually) 5 percent of the total vote get a number of seats in the legislature proportional to their percentage of the popular vote. Multiple parties, constantly changing coalitions, and political instability usually then results in incompetent, often corrupt governments dependent upon minority coalitions to survive.

Who gets on the lists is the key issue. Usually they are old-time loyalists and favorites of the leadership; rarely will reformers or up-and-coming younger persons who might challenge archaic economic or political interests make an appearance. It’s almost impossible to unseat the old party leadership or to vote them out. Professional politicians love the system because, with their names at the top of their list, they rarely lose power even if their party only retains a few seats in parliament.

In Russia the proportional system enabled President Putin to put the name of his alleged girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, a beautiful gymnast, on his party’s list for a seat in the Duma. Andrey Lugovoy, a former KGB agent wanted by England for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, was chosen by a small nationalist party’s leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the so-called Liberal Democratic Party, to run close to the top of its list. He thus became a member of the Duma with consequent immunity from arrest. Russian voters can only vote for the whole list, not individual members. Ukraine and Russia have among the world’s lowest ratings in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. Ukrainians are apparently aware of PR’s problems, as they changed their system to be only half proportional and half direct representation for their last, 2012, election. A major new study, Proportional Western Europe: The Failure of Governance explains how the PR system makes it almost impossible for South European nations to reform their economies.

Interestingly both the failed Weimar Republic, which preceded the Nazi electoral victories, and the failed French Third Republic, which French voters reformed when they brought in de Gaulle and the Fourth Republic, used pure proportional representation systems.

The English-speaking world, including former British colonies and the successful Asian “tigers,” mostly uses direct voting, whereby individual representatives are chosen by and beholden to voters in their separate districts, called constituencies. Thus they are concerned with how laws and government actions directly affect their constituents. This system has the cumbersome names “winner takes all” or “first past the post.”

One almost never reads in American analyses of foreign nations any discussion of their electoral systems as factoring into their unresponsive and irresponsible governments. One reason is that electoral systems are dull and complicated subjects for mass media. Also, academics generally support PR because the system fosters parliamentary/congressional representation for every fractional political or ethnic group. The March 1st Economist ran an important essay “What’s gone wrong with democracy” that makes many important points, but does not even mention proportional representation as being a problem.

In Greece there was no competent tax collection nor even a proper register of property ownership. Every small profession and interest has its government-guaranteed monopoly; for example, one needed to pay a tax of some $50,000 to start even a tiny trucking company. In Italy any company with more than 15 workers is not allowed to lay anyone off, civil court cases average 20 years for a judicial decision, and employment taxes take some 55 percent of payroll. In Spain there were similar laws with a consequent 50 percent unemployment rate among younger citizens. All sorts of rules, some even from medieval times, hamstring and paralyze economic entrepreneurship. Laying off employees is prohibited unless a judge agrees that it is for “just cause,” which does not include going bankrupt. Few dare to start any business beyond one that only needs family members to function; hiring outsiders is too costly and risky because of labor laws, except for large corporations with the lawyers and money to navigate the administrative and judicial labyrinth.

Incredibly, Washington installed proportional representation in Iraq. It proved to be a disaster as we can already see with the nation falling into chaos again. My earlier article, “Iraq’s Dysfunctional Democracy,” explains the details. Iraq’s former president Ayad Allawi, now excluded from the government, explained the system well in a November New York Times op-ed, “How Iraq’s Elections Set Back Democracy.” Iraq also was afflicted with the very worst kind of PR, a single nationwide list of candidates for the whole country.

Democracy means far more than majority rule. It involves constraints and delays on majority rule, protection for minority rights, diffusion of power, free speech, free assembly, and accountability for elected officials. This means clear lines of authority. Politicians everywhere do all they can to avoid accountability for their actions. Interestingly, there is not even a word for “accountability” in the Latin languages French, Spanish, or Italian. It is always translated in dictionaries as “responsibility.”

Hernando de Soto, the famous Peruvian economist, explained that PR was the reason that Latin American democracies do not work well. He argued that Latin American poverty was not a result of Latins just preferring to sit around in the sun and play music. He explained in his famous book The Other Path how it was their laws, their proportional electoral systems that discouraged hard work, savings, and entrepreneurial effort. The rousing economic success in America of immigrants from many such dysfunctional countries shows that there must be reasons for economic ill-fortune other than just race or culture.

With PR, winning congressional candidates need have little concern for the very real day-to-day problems of their constituents, e.g., abusive, corrupt bureaucrats, labor and business monopolies, and crippling government taxes and regulations. They are simply not held individually accountable for their votes. This creates a hopelessness and cynicism about government that stifles reform and even hope for a better life. Polls in such nations show waning support for democracy itself.

Venezuela, before electing its demagogic, Marxist President Chavez, was typical of nations with such systems. For 20 years, their only option was to bring back pretty much the same list of representatives to Congress whom they had just voted out in the previous election. Young reformers who might have reformed the static, oligarchic, semi-socialist prior regimes were kept off the lists. The same happened in Greece. In Venezuela from the 1970s to the 1990s, two old men, Carlos Andres Perez and Rafael Caldera, each won the presidency twice as voters had no other choices: in rejecting one, they got the other. In their desperation to be rid of the corrupt, incompetent, statist, and paralyzed old parties, Venezuelans voted for Hugo Chavez. Vladimir Chelminski, former director of the Venezuela’s Chamber of Commerce, described the situation in the Wall Street Journal:

For decades, the quality of life had been deteriorating. The democratic process seemed to function well only for the benefit of politicians and their friends. The political parties that had alternated in power since 1958, Social Democrats and Social Christians, were very much the same. Both offered socialism with political freedom. Their policies paid lip service to the poor but always proved counterproductive. Private property and contracts meant little in their laws. Two-thirds of willing workers could not find employment in the formal economy …

There is a less dysfunctional PR system, such as exists in Turkey, whereby lists are selected in each state or province so that representatives do have knowledge about and an interest in supporting local concerns. Parties also must surpass a 10 percent threshold nationwide in order to be on the ballot. The higher threshold addresses part of the problem of splinter parties compared to nations where the limit is 5 percent, or even less. A higher threshold forces small parties to unite and work together, an important step towards building functional democracies. This is the reason one sees constant negotiating for coalition governments, as one party rarely gains 51 percent of the total electorate. A higher threshold also reduces the power of tiny special interest parties, religious or ethnic, which sometimes exert extraordinary power as the swing parties in coalition governments.

There are some small nations where PR “works,” particularly those with a homogeneous, educated population, where most citizens know and trust each other and have high levels of personal responsibility: Scandinavia and Holland, for example, or Israel in its early days. PR can also be modified to allow local regions to vote for lists of local candidates rather than a single nationwide list. Germany has a very complicated partial PR system too complicated to explain here. However, in large nations with diverse populations and interests, especially those with ethnic or religious divisions, PR does not work well. Polish writer Frank Glodek observed in the May 2000 Central Europe Review how America in 1789 was also a diverse nation with different national origins, religious beliefs, and regional interests. He explained in an excellent analysis:

Proportional representation is particularly dangerous in any nation that has suffered from ethnic, ideological or religious divisions, virtually compelling people to vote along these pre-established lines, regardless of whether they know it to be destructive and of their preference to do otherwise. Not even a five percent vote threshold for a party to hold seats in parliament is a barrier to these voting patterns and their negative impact.

Why? When you have proportional representation, you must assume the ‘others’ will vote ethnically (or tribally, Ed), putting you at risk. The only way to protect yourself is by doing the same…

A proportional representation system can never unite so many diverse nations and peoples effectively, as it is inherently and unavoidably biased toward extremism, instability, immoderation and ineffectiveness. … People forget that the United States was, from the outset, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

After direct representation, the second most obvious need for successful democracy is a federal system with a wide dispersion of powers so local citizens can govern themselves in accordance with their history and beliefs, provided they don’t inflict harm upon their neighbors. A federal system also allows different regions to experiment. India, with its relatively successful system holding together millions of vastly different peoples and religions, followed the British electoral system.

Choosing between a parliamentary or presidential system is a secondary issue, although parliamentary is probably better for third-world nations. A parliamentary system curtails stalemates and so allows for a more rapid change of government when one group or coalition is unable to govern effectively and so loses its majority.

Effective representative government is difficult and slow to take hold, but Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Arabs, and Latin Americans all want freedom, safety, and prosperity, just like us. Before we can actively promote effective government, we ourselves need to understand why so many foreign democracies don’t work well.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

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Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

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