The perils of proportional representation

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I came across a very interesting piece setting out the U. S. military's eleven-point plan for victory in Iraq. Point 10 was surprising:

Electoral Reform: The old system of national parties selecting candidates for positions was believed to have unfairly tipped the balance in favor of the Shiites and led to too many Pro-Iranian, Pro-Achmedinejad candidates ( like the nutbag terrorist Al Sadr ) receiving too many seats in the parliament. A new system of local candidates simply stepping forward and adding their name to the ballot will instead prevail.

A commenter elaborates on the problem, which exists for all party-list proportional representation systems:

As someone who’s been involved with the Iraqi electoral process, I cannot stress enough just how bad the present system is.

Iraq currently has a fully proportional representation system for Parliamentary elections. Meaning, if your party (or coalition) gets 33% of the vote, you get 33% of the seats. This ensures that sectarian interests are represented in Parliament in roughly the same number as their population. Even small groups like the Yezidi or Sabeans get 1 or 2 members. This sort of ability to be “representative” is WAY big in the Islamic world.

If you want an electoral system that consolidates power in the hands of a few sectarian party bosses and prevents any representative from appealing to any population outside his narrow sectarian constituency - this is the perfect system. If you want an electoral system that makes representatives responsible to the actual people they serve, PR is very much the *worst* system you could possibly imagine that can still be called democratic.

This is because PR works by having the parties put forth “lists” of candidates. For instance “555″ (the shia coalition) puts together a list of 275 candidates (275 seats in Parliament.) They got, i think, 131 seats. That means the first 131 candidates on the list get seats in Parliament. Who determines your placement on the list? The party bosses! So you can be #12 on the list or #176 - depending on how loyal you are to the party leader. Obviously, since being an MP brings with it many perks including cash and immunity - you want to be up high on that list. Conversely, whether or not your constituents are happy with you is irrelevant, because your placement on the list is wholly dependent on the party leaders.

However, were Iraq to develop a system based on geographic constituencies (based on a census) and adopt a “first past the post” system, sectarian groupings would be represented unevenly and some groups would never be represented at all. However, the representatives elected would be forced to be much more responsive to their voters in their geographic constituency. This is because they’d need to provide their voters with enough reason to vote for them and build enough coalitions among the electorate to get to 50% +1 vote. As a result, the ability of a small group of party leaders to dictate policy would be greatly reduced.

Unfortunately, adopting this type of syetm requires two things:

1) It relies on the party leaders, who now control the legislative/constitutional process, to voluntarily put into place a system that will dilute their power. Once PR is put in place as a representational system, it is notoriously difficult to change because it is not in the interests of the power brokers.

2) It will require significant changes in the current constitution. Given that the Parliament is paralyzed over constitutional amendments of an even less divisive nature (oil revenue sharing, etc.) the chances that the Iraqi Council of representatives will puch through such an electoral change is unlikely.

A sound system of representation will allow voters to select the individual who will represent them, rather than centralized party bosses, so that the representative is directly responsible to his constituents. It is possible to provide a degree of proportionality and minority representation while retaining geographical representation and without resorting to party lists. Ireland does this with constituencies electing three to five members each (based on population), using the single-transferable vote method.

Too bad Iraq wasn't encourgaed to take this approach in the first place. As the commenter notes, once a party-list system is in place, it is almost impossible to dislodge.

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Mark Sanders said:

The Iraqi PR system suffers from the same institutional inertia as our own "beloved" American two-party system. In most states ballot access for third-party or independent candidates is a joke. Add to that forced taxpayer support for major party activities such as primaries, etc., all in the context of a winner-take-all electoral structure, and you're left with a system with little moral superiority over the one in Iraq. The message in both systems? Join the club, or forgot about it!

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 22, 2007 11:40 PM.

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