Democracy Building: Elections
There are basically two systems in parliamentary elections,
- the Majority Election System
- the Proportional Representation System.
Both systems do have advantages and shortcomings and there is no
generally accepted preference. Two important points to be considered
are equal and just influence of every vote on the electoral result
and stability of the political system.
With the majority election system, only one member of parliament
is to be elected per constituency [area and group of voters
living therein that is taken as a unit in the election process].
The most qualified personality shall be selected to represent the
Characteristics, Pros and Cons
With the majority election system, small parties have no chance to
win a mandate unless there are some constituencies with a population
having political views differing much from those in the rest of the
country. With the size constituencies in big nations do have (some
100,000 voters) this is rather unlikely. Therefore the majority election
system will inevitably lead to parties uniting or building blocks (tight
alliances) until only two major players remain on the political scene.
So voters are forced to select between the candidates of two big parties
basically. While the this tends to create a stable parliamentary majority
for the government it is not likely to represent a pluralistic modern
Supporters of a minority party might feel not being represented by
the member of parliament rooted in their region because he or she
represents the other party and other political concepts.
In a big nation, one member of parliament is going to represent some
100,000 inhabitants. Evidently these people do not live in towns of
exactly this size. To assign fairly equal numbers of inhabitants to
every constituency, several villages and and small towns must be grouped
to form a constiuency while large cities must be divided into several
constituencies. There is no "natural", evident rule of
In the past years it has repeatedly been reported that minor changes
in the definition of constituencies were deliberately planned by
governments of several countries (U.K., France and others) to ensure
that their party could win a few mandates in a situation where
government and opposition party have almost the same strength.
The trick herein is the following: if there is a constituency with
a solid majority for the government party, subtract a few towns voting
overwhelmingly for the government and add them to a neighboring
constituency where the government party just needs a few percents more
of the votes to win the election and exchange these towns for a few
towns known to be voting for the opposition - so the government's party
will win both seats.
In principle, this kind of manipulation is just as much electoral fraud
as counting some votes twice or having some votes uncounted. The problem
is: the existing old borders of a constituency might have been created by
the same kind of manipulation by a former government and it is almost
impossible to find a really neutral solution.
While the majority election system seems to be straightforward and simple
at first glance, it leads to rather complex decisions that are not
transparent to voters. This is definitely not a basis to create trust
With the proportional representation system several members
of parliament are to be elected per constituency. Basically
every political party presents a list of candidates and voters can
select a list, that is they vote for a political party. Parties
are assigned parliamentary seats proportionally to the number of votes
Political parties play a key role in creating political solutions
(even in a majority election system).
A reasonable number of competing parties will create more and better
ideas while just two big parties (resulting from the majority election
system) tend to be at a deadlock with inflexible positions.
Characteristics, Pros and Cons
With several parties there is more choice and voters are more likely
to find a party that does represent their major political convictions
than would be possible in a two-party system.
Supporters of a small party are likely to be represented by at least
one member of parliament rooted in their region and sharing
their political views and convictions.
The size of constituencies is bigger and there are less possibilities
to manipulate their borders than with the majority election system.
Usually the borders of the constituencies are fixed by historical
considerations (provinces, federal states, counties etc.).
As several seats are assigned to parties proportionally to votes
even within a constituency, the borders of a constituency are not
as relevant to the election result as in a majority election system.
With an increased number of represented parties a majority for a single
party becomes less probable. If the government must be based on
too many small parties they may disagree when new issues emerge.
This may become a danger to political stability and cause anticipated
elections absorbing the attention of politicians. If instability gets
notorious in a country, the state as a whole will just not be able to
perform the tasks it should.
Small parties may also abuse their position to get support for
special interests (for examples subsidies for institutions related
to the party) in exchange for support for the government policy.
This is nothing less than a form of corruption.
In most countries with proportional elections the parties decide who will
represent them in parliament. There may be a difference between the party
hierarchy deciding on the top places on the party's list of candidates
and the voters preferences.
In some countries, there are additional rules to make sure that voters
may have some influence which candidates will represent them.
The most sophisticated system of this kind has been established in Switzerland:
Voters may replace candidates on a party list by other candidates (even
from a different party) and favorited candidates may appear twice on a list
(while the total number of candidates on a list may not exceed the number
of seats, of course). For those who think this is too complicated for them
there is always the possibility to use an unchanged party list. This way,
a major drawback of the proportional election system is eliminated while
preserving the obvious advantages of proportional representation.
(For details see: Switzerland's refined proportional election system)