OPINION: How Can We Best Represent Our Will through Elections? By Abdullah Elmaazi 17/02/2012 19:09:00
The major challenge facing Libyans today is how the various regions, tribes, oases, and major urban centres can participate in and be represented by a process of government which is effective* and reflects the will of at least the majority of the population.
The most obvious centre of representation is the legislature. Through elections, democracies can achieve the peaceful change of administration instead of the chaos accompanying the overthrow of dictators. Through legislatures, the public is kept informed of proposals for policy and law-making. Moreover, through the legislature, the executive may be kept under supervision and held accountable for its actions. Yet this still does not answer the question, how can representatives be kept responsible both to their own constituents and to the interests of the electorate as a whole? Whom should representatives represent, how should they perform this function, how should elections be conducted and on what electoral system?
Post ‘Arab Spring’, elections in North African states are the key to political power. Yet the issue remains: how to maintain a genuine link between representatives and those who put them into office? In reality one democratically elected person can never truly be said to represent the interests and wishes of all or even a majority of the voters in their constituency. Therefore the type of electoral system which is chosen for Libya must ensure the greatest amount of representation while ensuring that government can be both stable and effective.
One electoral system "first past the post" as it is sometimes called, is where elections are held in single-member districts. In this system, the decision is always clear. The candidate who receives more votes than any other candidate is chosen to represent the constituency. Alternatively, a system of proportional representation (PR) is more complex. Under PR, multimember constituencies aim to more accurately reflect the popular vote through a proportional distribution of seats.
Part of the advantage of “first past the post” is that the contest is understandable and often dramatic, as in any race where only one person can win. Moreover, in this kind of voting there is no doubt that the elected representative is directly responsible to a particular constituency as well as to the whole country in general. A further and very important point is that under this system powerful parties are more likely to win a high enough proportion of the seats in the legislature that they can easily fill the roles of government and opposition. This makes for effective government, since the party in power has the votes to carry out its program; at the same time, the opposition becomes responsible for the clear presentation of alternative policies and for efforts to keep the government sensitive to its responsibilities.
The problem of single-member constituencies is that the minority stands in danger of being disenfranchised. Beyond the apparent injustice that up to 40% of those who exercise their vote may not have their voices count in the final selection, the presence of third-party candidates may split the vote, so that the representative is chosen by as few as 34% of the electorate. This is the system currently used within the United Kingdom.
Under PR the electorate is represented in proportion to their support within the constituency and across the country. This may mean voting for a list of party nominees from which the top names are selected in accordance with the number of votes the party secures or the use of a single transferable vote, in which candidates are rated in order of preference and where second (or even third) choices are counted if first choice candidates fail to secure a decisive share of the vote. Regardless of details, the results of this system may seem fairer than those of contests in single- member constituencies.
However this system is not free of problems. Under the “list” system of PR, nominations become the preserve of entrenched party elites or bosses, over which normal party members have very little influence. Moreover, under PR it is much more difficult to determine to whom within the constituency the representative is responsible. Since proportional representation tends to maximize the voting power of small, closely knit minorities, it tends to split the legislature into so many parties that effective government becomes difficult, if not impossible. As a result, PR is more likely to lead to coalition governments.
Under the "majority rule" principle, which underlies the idea and practice of democracy, every vote should have equal weight. Few electoral systems, however, make any attempt to satisfy this concept of equality in an exact mathematical manner. But where discrepancy becomes too great, serious problems arise.
The most frequent cause of inequality in the actual weight of votes is the difference in the size of constituencies. In the context of Libya this issue should be examined extremely closely. Since the last parliamentary election to be held in the country in 1965 there have been great shifts in population. If elections are to take place under the single-member constituency system and using the old administrative divisions, there will be far fewer voters in the oasis and in rural constituencies than in urban constituencies. This will grossly exaggerate the political influence of these remote and rural areas. Conversely the amalgamation of small rural areas into one voting constituency, will lead to the break-down of a sense of community within a constituency which contributes so much to the reality of representation.
The fact is that in some countries, the redrawing of constituency boundaries is done with the deliberate aim of massing the opposition vote within constituency boundaries under the principle of similarity of interests, thereby reducing the number of close election contests and causing Parliament to look like a reflection of regions rather than people. This argument of the need to give representation to the specific needs of the various regions is still used by strongly entrenched political and economic interests that profit from the system. For example in the United States, many districts were made drastically unequal in size by provisions that ensured rural populations received greater representation than urban voters. Since redistricting in the United States is under the control of the same bodies whose members benefited from such constituency boundaries, it took the intervention of the courts to redress the situation. As such, boundaries were redrawn to reflect a greater degree of equality in population size. However, to this day within the U.S, many local and state elections are manipulated by incumbents through the use of redistricting. In essence, incumbents in many American states have the authority to redraw districts as they see fit every few years and do so in such a way as to reduce the number of votes of those deemed likely to vote in favour of opposition candidates. In Britain and many other countries, the responsibility for redistricting is “depoliticized” by vesting it in impartial bodies such as commissions of judges. Such a de-politicization of constituency boundaries will be essential if Libyan elections are to be as fair and representative as possible.
It is obvious that there exists no electoral system which exactly reflects popular views and divisions. What is important is to secure a rough approximation of popular sentiment through means which the public accepts as legitimate. Libyans do not need to worry about attempting to provide any exact mathematical reflection of the electorate (an attempt doomed to failure before it is begun) as much as we should be worried about obvious attempts by new actors in our fledgling democracy to secure advantage of particular groups over the electorate as a whole thereby undermining the legitimacy and public trust in electoral results and the democratic process itself.
Thus the question becomes not whether “first past the post” is inherently better than PR, or whether old administrative boundaries should be scrapped in favour of new ones, but to what extent any one of these options can best represent both the democratic choices of Libya’s multiple and diverse communities and the will of the Libyan people as a whole.
Comment: Let me assure you that under first-past-the-post, nominations are very much "the preserve of entrenched party elites or bosses, over which normal party members have very little influence."
It is a common myth to suggest that proportional representation gives extra power to party elites. On the contrary, proportional voting systems were developed expressly for the purpose of giving voters the power to hold political parties and party elites accountable.
Date: 18/02/2012 08:37:56
Comment: People are today invited to participate in the upcoming elections; it is their new experience with democracy. That participation, regardless of the outcome of the elections, is important and need to be encouraged. That is indeed one form of practicing real democracy. And if considering the effect of their participation on the decision-making process in the country, their refusal to participate will leave political vacuum that some others who seek personal interests may fill in. The decision-making process will affect equality of opportunities, injustice, peace, security and accordingly freedom.
Date: 18/02/2012 19:57:55
Comment: You say that with FPTP, "... up to 40% of those who exercise their vote may not have their voices count in the final selection". Here in Canada, in the the past three elections, it's been around 50% of votes were wasted in this way. It's a horrible system. See http://wastedvotes.ca/ for the full statistics.
Name:Chloe A Johnson
Date: 19/02/2012 00:06:51
Comment: Why not have a look at the Australian system. Voting is compulsory for all Australian citizens for state and federal elections. Preferential voting is used for House elections and proportional representation for Senate elections. Members are elected from single-member electorates at the same time as six senators are elected (in a half Senate election) from each state and two from each territory. Very few complaints
Date: 19/02/2012 00:50:53
Comment: On more than one occasion FPTP elections were decided by a coin toss. n 1990, the Des Plaines Republican tied incumbent state Rep. Penny Pullen, and Mulligan won the coin toss. Pullen went to court and — in a fight over ballot chads that would set case law for the 2000 presidential race — won a recount. Energized by her defeat, Mulligan beat Pullen two years later and has held office since. Mulligan still has the silver dollar. "It made a difference in a lot of things," she said. elections came down to chance because of voter apathy, said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, assistant professor of political science at North-western University. “The number of voters are so low, you can see where it can happen," she said. "For all those naysayers who say your vote doesn't count, this is one instance where it could have made a difference." So why don’t Libyans make voting compulsory as is the case in some countries
Date: 19/02/2012 01:06:46
Comment: Distorting the people’s will comes in different forms Florida recently passed a law which reduces early voting from 14 days to eight and requires voters to cast provisional ballots if their previous voting address was in another county. Supporters say the changes will reduce voter fraud at the polls. Rev Jesse Jackson is vehemently against it. He claims that "By restricting voting, they (Republicans) are able to determine the outcome," He described Florida as "ground zero for the voter suppression movement" in the United States
Name:Bha Eldeen Shawaf
Date: 19/02/2012 21:43:10
Comment: I am in favour of the single transferable vote for my country of Iraq. I do however accept that each nation chooses the system most suited to its needs as long as it is accepted that the system chosen offers the greatest degree of representation.
It is good to see that the Libyan people after 40 years of dictatorship are now engaged in such a discussion. Good luck to Libya
Date: 20/02/2012 00:03:46
Comment: I wish the Libyan people every success but I am alarmed by an article in the UK Independent which claims that a survey conducted recently in Libya shows that one third of Libyans prefer some sort of authoritarian rule. Is this just media hype or is there a yearning for law and order in Libya rather than democracy ?
Date: 20/02/2012 21:58:04
Comment: Libya HAD a system of direct democracy and was unique in the world because of it. And now you ask how " to represent best your will" How ironic
Date: 21/02/2012 01:14:28
Comment: Adriane I would like to hear some Libyans confirm your claim that ( Libya HAD a system of direct democracy and was unique in the world because of it ).
I have visited Libya on several occasions before the revolution and had and still have many Libyan friends. No Libyan I know has ever come even close to claiming that Libyans lived within a democracy.
Perhaps you might care to elaborate as what lesd you to come to your above conclusion.
Date: 21/02/2012 03:39:13
Comment: It is surprising how intelligent people have swallowed the former regime’s propaganda about “Direct democracy “ in Libya.
There is not one example of the so called “ people’s congress” freely debating and deciding upon one policy action of any major significance in Libya.
The form of rule itself and how best to establish the will of the people through direct democracy or otherwise was never the subject of debate which invalidates the notion that the so called “direct democracy” was decided upon by the will of the people.
Date: 21/02/2012 03:55:47
Comment: The alternative vote system plus compulsory voting should best insure the will of the people in Libya. Mandatory voting is important because there is nothing like voter apathy to undermine democracy and empowers small dedicated groups at the expense of the majority of the populace.
Ignore the naysayers and good luck to you
Date: 21/02/2012 05:18:26
Comment: I thing what the Hussain Kreiba has said is right .Youth must come forward for participation in election. when they got experience even they do the same what is happening today's political game. so the person who go to politics must have fear on the judicatory system. Today's max politicians are educated even though they are doing mistakes because they are not have any fear on judicatory systems.corrupted minister must be punished for the decade but he/she is punishable only for a days or months and they will get a bail. That's the main problem.....
Date: 21/02/2012 22:18:13
Comment: Why don’t you post comments which are critical of parliamentary democracy in all its forms ? I thought your new regime and newspapers now champion freedom of expression
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