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If nobody wins, what’s an election good for, anyway?



If nobody wins, what’s an election good for, anyway?

In the end, we are left with the conundrum that even as people have fought long and hard in many societies for the right to vote freely, it is just as clear there are numerous ways voting does not guarantee a democratic outcome. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

Electoral systems are taking strain as never before and, as ever, the guardians must step forward from every corner to protect the right of citizens to choose their leaders.

In recent weeks around the world, there have been varied elections — in Russia, Germany, Israel and Canada, a parliamentary leadership choice in Japan (and a likely parliamentary election coming up next month), as well as gubernatorial recall referendum in California and, coming up shortly, important off-year elections in America for offices such as the Virginia governorship. 

Less than a year ago, there was also that angry, tempestuous American national election and the near-disaster that almost overtook it. And soon enough, other elections will come along — some anticipated, some not, some dreaded, and some fervently awaited. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the country is poised to hold its nationwide local government elections with thousands of candidates in less than a month’s time. 

While such expressions of democratic values and practice are important in governing, these exercises — in one form or another, whether damaged and artificially restricted, or fully fair and open — can also illuminate fissures and gaps in what we like to view as modern democracy. Further, they can also lead to some serious thinking about the strength, impact and ultimate purpose of elections for democratic governance and the relationship between the governing and the governed.

For voters in Canada, Germany and Israel (and presumably America as well, almost a year ago), what their respective, most recent elections have demonstrated are deeply divided national polities, split on issues but also, often, along regional lines. In those three cases, the incumbent leaders (or their party, or both) received punishment in their respective polls. But, at the same time, while the specifics differed, what was clear was that no one leader or party succeeded in marshalling a substantial majority of voters who were prepared to buy into the competing visions of any of the leaders. 

We now like to believe free and open voting is the norm. To us, it is obvious the governed should have a real hand in picking those who would govern them, and then make the rules. And yet, the simple act of voting is a major milestone — a sea change, really — in human history. 

For millennia, although there were various forms of voting for limited purposes and for limited electorates reaching back into antiquity, the broadly accepted ideas of a citizenry actively involved in selecting their leaders was part of a larger social compact. It specified that if some voters’ choices failed to win, those voters and their candidates had to take a breath; they accepted the result, and then they planned for better success, going forward. 

That is vastly different from a system in which a man with the ability to enforce his will by force or the threat of a near monopoly of force is the one who gets to sit atop the seat of power. Such a person often controlled the allocation of crucial resources like land, crucially needed irrigation (especially in East and Southeast Asia), and then the resulting crops, thereby making that power very real. Eventually, rulers figured out how to tie in their hold on power — and reinforce it — through the religious, tribal, ethnic and racial loyalties of the subjects, thereby creating a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating system that allowed those near-monopolies of power to be passed on to succeeding generations. 

It took revolutions in thinking about power relationships — spiralling outward from the American and French political revolutions of the late 18th century, the British/Scottish/French intellectual enlightenment of around the same time, and, more distantly, from new ideas about relationships between men and their deities (and thus their rulers), coming out from the Renaissance and its scientific revolution, to begin breaking up that absolutist system. 

While there were many precursor ideas, a major breakthrough in the modern era evolved out of the drafting of the American constitution, with its system of institutional and philosophical compromises, and those shared and separated powers. Its logic was drawn largely from the fertile imagination of, and studies of history by, James Madison, a man who would eventually be the country’s fourth president.  

The other day, coincidentally with my own thinking about this, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, also contemplating the current difficulties of America’s government — especially with a Congress virtually evenly split between the two major parties, with the Democratic Party publicly and acrimoniously divided between its leftists and centrists, and essentially any progress for legislative action dependent on the views of fewer than half a dozen members — was also thinking about Madison’s ideas on the nature of majority government and democratic practice. 

Bouie looked to one of Madison’s letters from 1834, late in the man’s life,  in which he had written, “… there’s no viable or impartial principle for self-government other than majority rule, especially in a nation of diverse, opposing interests: ‘The vital principle of republican government is the lex majoris partis, the will of the majority’ and ‘if the will of a majority cannot be trusted where there are diversified and conflicting interests, it can be trusted nowhere.

“Having said that, Madison concedes that in any system of elective government, there is the chance of choosing a government that does not represent a majority of the people. This, he says, is a problem, because the popular majority might feel oppressed by the minority in power. ‘That this departure from the rule of equality, creating a political and constitutional majority in contradistinction to a numerical majority of the people, may be abused in various degrees oppressive to the majority of the people is certain; and in modes and degrees so oppressive as to justify ultra- or anti-constitutional resorts to adequate relief is equally certain’.

“In other words, governments need popular consent for legitimacy, and when they do not have it, they run into trouble. Indeed, in Madison’s formulation, the ‘constitutional majority’ is something of a problem to be solved, not an intended outcome of the process. And to that end, he believes the best solution to the problem of a minority government is to change the rules of the game.

“Still,” he [Madison] writes, ‘the constitutional majority must be acquiesced in by the constitutional minority whilst the Constitution exists. The moment that arrangement is successfully frustrated, the Constitution is at an end. The only remedy therefore for the oppressed minority is in the amendments of the Constitution, or a subversion of the Constitution — this inference is unavoidable. Whilst the Constitution is in force, the power created by it whether a popular minority or majority must be the legitimate power and obeyed’. ”

The core of Madison’s point is that the parties involved in democratic politics must, a priori, accept the bargains he set out in his letter, rather than in attempting to wreck the entire process. This, of course, was an understanding Donald Trump and his sleazy band of enablers and political wreckers, along with a claque of supporters in Congress and beyond, were singularly unable to appreciate or accept. The Republican mantra on elections increasingly has evolved into the view that any Democratic victory, by definition, is a “we wuz robbed” moment, and that increasing voting restrictions, rather than expanding the electorate to as many citizens as possible, has become their new default setting.

Madison, of course, had developed his thinking when the American binary/two-party system (with the political structures reinforcing that evolution) was only really coming into being, and it is unlikely he was much concerned with a political system in which no party managed to establish a clear majority. And yet, it seems increasingly a trend that polities are becoming so riven by political, economic and social cross-currents that no party can easily achieve the majority Madison assumed would occur. 

In Germany, in the most recent election, neither the Christian Democrats (the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, above) nor the Social Democrats, which had governed in a grand coalition in recent years, could achieve even close to 50% of the German parliament, the Bundestag. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maja Hitij / Pool)

In recent elections in Germany, Israel and Canada, no so-called major party can govern without building a coalition with smaller parties that may hold political values in opposition to some of their own. In Germany, in the most recent election, neither the Christian Democrats (Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party) nor the Social Democrats, which had governed in a grand coalition in recent years, could achieve even close to 50% of the German parliament, the Bundestag. Thus two smaller parties, the Green Party and the Free Democrats, are the kingmakers as they dicker with each other and — presumably if they can present a united front — with the Social Democrats who had edged out their prior coalition partner by less than two percentage points.

Reporting on the new class of Bundestag members in Germany, the New York Times reported the shift to a much younger, more female, more ethnically diverse, more populated-by-smaller-parties parliament may well herald significant changes in the country’s governance. 

“Germany’s smaller parties have traditionally defined themselves by issues, rather than staking out broadly defined ideological stances. They also agree on several things; both parties want to legalize cannabis and lower the voting age to 16. ‘There are now other coordinates in the system, progressive and conservative, collectivist and individualist, that describe the differences much better than left and right,’ Ms. [Free Democrat MP] Zia Schröder said.” 

Political observers, noting the lengthy, complex negotiations to achieve a stable governing coalition in Germany that must now take place, and the likelihood an answer may only emerge around the Christmas/New Year’s break, have humorously explained that this German dynamic has something in common with two-party systems. Americans, for example, typically have long, drawn-out battles in either or both parties over which wing of the party will be in the forefront in an election, before eventually and uneasily coming together to fight in the general election. The Germans also do complex negotiating, but they do their version of it after the election, as parties search for a governing coalition.

However, besides circumstances where traditional political allegiances are fading, as in Germany, Madison similarly did not offer a judgment about a political system in which the primary electoral processes are ones in which a majority party (initially achieved by fair means or foul) then reconfigures the electoral system so that opposition parties are barely able to compete in it at all. In such versions, opposition leaders are detained or disqualified; their parties are precluded from being on the ballot, or tame opposition leaders and parties are foisted on the electorate in order to create an illusion of choice (Yes, there is always the charge that in a two-party system, the two parties really represent Tweedledee and Tweedledum on behalf of more fundamental powers, but we shall put that argument off for another day.) When all else fails, simple ballot stuffing can be a reliable fallback. 

As the BBC reported it as the final tallies in Russia’s September election were virtually wrapped up, “With almost all of the votes counted, the United Russia party had won nearly 50% of the vote, marking a slight drop in support from the previous election. Mr Putin’s biggest critics were barred from running, and there were reports of ballot stuffing and forced voting. With more than 99% of votes counted, United Russia’s closest rival, the Communist Party, had about 19% of the vote, according to the election commission. United Russia’s victory means it will have more than two-thirds of the 450 seats in the country’s parliament, officials say. However, despite easily retaining its majority in parliament, the party did lose some ground. In 2016, the party won 54% of the vote.” 

One doesn’t have to have a North Korean-style election (or old-style machine politics in Chicago, New York City or Boston) to control a government… just as long as the results end up generating a significant enough majority in a legislative body to keep things ticking over, even if the executive branch makes most of the decisions. 

In the end, we are left with the conundrum that even as people have fought long and hard in many societies for the right to vote freely, it is just as clear there are numerous ways voting does not guarantee a democratic outcome, or even secure the lasting vitality of the electoral system. In one scenario, as envisioned by James Madison, a majority refuses to allow the minority oxygen and then the minority insists on working to undermine the legitimacy of the victor’s win. 

But there are also situations where the electorate itself is no longer capable of clearly stating its preferences. And then, when all else fails, there is the path where those in power simply crook the system to maintain their hold on power and resources. 

Beyond the designated government bodies, the responsibility for policing all this falls on a nation’s voters, elements of its NGO sector (and international organisations) and, of course, the nation’s media. DM


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  • The UK has often been criticised for its first past the post system which on its worst elections has returned a governing party without the overwhelming support of the majority. At first this appears iniquitous and many campaigners have lobbied without success for proportional representation.
    However coalition governments or hung parliaments are ineffective for obvious reasons of vote bargaining which delay or restrict important issues.
    Which begs the question – is there such a thing as a “free” and “fair” election? Well probably not. The Australian system is highly complicated requiring a massive ballot paper which requires an order of candidate choice. The US is mired in archaic individual State formats where at local level even the functional town and county positions are elected posts.
    To paraphrase Churchill true democracy is almost unachievable but it is better to muddle along with the one man one vote principle (which at least gives the impression of social and political inclusion) within distinct constituencies where the elected individual in theory directly represents and is accountable to his or her constituents.

  • It’s the best option we’ve got to date. If we elect to continue with the same chaos as the last 10 years, we deserve the chaos we vote for in abundance.

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