Marcin Gerwin: Currently in Poland, we have a single-party government which was formed by a party that received 37 percent of the votes. It is considered normal that the party which has won most of the votes, can elect a government alone or with a partner. Is there another way of doing things?
Peter Emerson: It is an amazing fact that yes, in Western democracy, we call this normal, as you say. In Germany for example if no party has a majority, they go into a period of closed and opaque negotiations. Everybody goes upstairs and nobody knows what on earth is going on. Eventually the white smoke is released and out comes a government of one sort or another. But in this situation, sometimes a tail can wag the dog – a small party can get into a government, like in Austria with the Freedom Party a couple of years ago, or in The Netherlands. Ireland looks as if it might be in a similar position in the forthcoming elections, where they might give Sinn Fein more influence than it is due. And so it goes on.
It really is extraordinary that we actually believe that if some sort of combination gets 50 percent plus one of the seats, (regardless of the percentage of votes they got), then they get all the power, and the other 49 percent can just go into opposition and have nothing. The fact that we should be advocating this system of government as an ideal, when we know that it wouldn’t work in Syria, Ukraine, Libya or Palestine, is appalling.
Because in Syria you have a situation where there is no majority. Any individual that becomes the president will always have a majority different to him or her. Whether this majority is a coordinated one or not is another question. But to think that one political party can have all the power when it should be for everybody is obviously a mistake. Democracy was never meant to be for 50 percent plus one. It has only evolved into this with the passing of the years. It is just assumed, since minority rule is wrong, that therefore majority rule is right, and all right, as if the latter is an ideal of human evolution. Now to have majority rule is sort of fine, but it is a huge mistake to imply or actually believe that you can get a majority opinion by a majority vote. You can’t. In a country of millions, or even in a parliament of hundreds, it’s actually impossible, partly because if people are going to vote on a majority opinion, somebody has to identify that opinion beforehand so that it can be already on the ballot paper. Little wonder, then, that as we all know, majority voting has been used by numerous dictators: they choose the question and guess what - the question is the answer.
As you see it in Poland now, you have this one party; they say, “we now have the power, we have the majority, therefore we decide what the legislation is going to be.” They pretend this is democracy. But so does the West. Even though everyone knows that majority rule was part of the problem in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Kenya, and now in Nigeria. It is an extraordinary blind spot that people have. We tell everyone that they have to be like us and we cannot actually see that our system is not very good.
But isn’t it an effective way of ruling a country to have a parliament that supports the law that was proposed by the government? Things can go very quickly and smoothly through the parliament then.
Well, they call it “effective”. It is the same system that we have here, but it is not democratic. It is actually called the elected dictatorship, because when one party gets into power, they can choose the legislation, and they know they have the majority in the parliament, therefore parliament can discuss it if it wants to, but it’s a waste of time. Everybody knows that the government has the majority so when it comes to the vote it will win. So what’s the point of having that debate anyway? The actual power to decide is left to the executive. And by definition the latter is a very small minority of people. To have a proper democracy, I would argue, the people should elect the parliament, and if you have a good electoral system then that parliament should represent pretty well everybody in the country; next, the parliament should elect the government, by PR of course, so just as parliament should represent all of the people, so too the executive should represent the entire parliament. This sort of all-party or no-party system of government is what democracy was originally.
When Greeks started democracy, they didn’t have any political parties at all. The same was the case in England, where the parties just sort of emerged. When Americans introduced democracy, George Washington was totally opposed to the idea of political parties, to this notion that you split into two and one side shouts abuse at the other. This two-party system has emerged partly because the House of Commons was built with that horrible geography with two sides facing each other like opponents in a gladiatorial contest. What we argue for is consensus voting instead of majority voting which is so divisive. So people can work together, they can debate with each other and then vote with each other. Everyone puts the various options into their order of preference; nobody votes against anyone! In this way, you can expedite matters very quickly.
There are currently very strong political divides in Poland. How is it possible that all parties in parliament could actually work together in one government?
There is a strong divide because Poland, like us, has adopted a divisive system of politics. If you take yes or no votes then you will divide. It’s like night follows day. If decisions are taken by majority vote, you will fall into two groups, one opposing the other. And then you won’t like each other. You can see this all over the place. If, however, each contentious question is looked at in the round, if democracy were defined so that it was for everybody not just 50 percent plus one, if you worked in consensus voting, then you could establish very distinct criteria like there has to be a consensus coefficient of 0.6 or whatever, but you can be absolutely mathematical and specific. Accordingly, if you have consensus then you take a decision. If there is no consensus, then you don’t.
This idea that 50 percent plus one is enough to make a decision even though the other 49 percent are totally opposed is not democracy. Democracy is for everybody, not just a faction. Just because you’re bigger than me or more numerous than me, that does not give you, or should not give you, any right to ignore me. There is no reason at all why one political party or faction or majority coalition should dominate in the way that they do. I would also argue that in the long term this majority rule government is not stable at all. Sometimes you have a left wing government that does the left wing thing, then comes the right wing government and it reverses everything. You have “pendulum politics” as we call it. This is just silly.
So we would suggest that the entire parliament should share collective responsibility for running the country. They have to work together. We on the street have to work together whether we like it or not. We have to accommodate minorities in the factories or in the schools. So why can’t they be a pluralist society in parliament as well? And they could if it were determined that democracy is for everybody and that decisions could only be taken if and when they enjoyed a minimum level of overall support, a minimum consensus coefficient, then you would create the right atmosphere, in which cooperation could take place. And they will cooperate.
But people have so many opinions, how can you expect them to come up with a consensus? Sometimes achieving a simple majority might be difficult. Achieving consensus might be impossible.
It might be. We first tried this in Northern Ireland 30 years ago. People were still fighting each other and shooting each other and yet we got both sides together to discuss what was, for them, the biggest question of all: the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.. Then we said: “You can have any idea you like as long as it complies with the United Nations Charter on Human Rights”. We finished with 10 options, they voted, i.e., they cast their preferences, and thus we identified their consensus. And if we can do it in that sort of situation then it can be done anywhere. I have also done it in Bosnia, and elsewhere. If you set this basic premise that a decision cannot be taken unless it has widespread support, then no matter how contentious the question, there will inevitably be a plurality of options on the table and then a (short) list of options on the ballot paper. If it is done in this way and people know that the decision will be made only if it will get cross-party support, then people will start working on a cross-party and all-party basis.
At the moment, because you have majority voting, sometimes the majority couldn’t care a damn about what the minority thinks. But if you know that the outcome of the vote will be the highest average preference, then you will want your supporters to give you high preferences, but you will also want your opponents to give you at least a middle preference and not the bottom one, so you’d better go and talk to them. The very process of consensus voting encourages dialogue.
What is consensus voting in practice?
It’s when the people of their representatives first choose and debate the options, and then cast their preferences on (a short list of) these options, so to identify the option with the highest average preference. And an average, of course, involves every voter, not just a majority of them. In decision-making, this voting procedure is called the Modified Borda Count, MBC. And in elections, which must be proportional, it is called the Quota Borda System, QBS.
Are there any all-party governments in the world?
Yes, in Switzerland. The Swiss have a federal council, where all the big parties have a seat. It was introduced in 1959 and it is a shared presidency of 7 people. Big parties get 2 people each and small parties get 1 person each. It is the only non-conflict zone country that has institutionalized power-sharing. I would argue that this kind of shared presidency is a minimum requirement for places like Syria. You can’t give power to just one individual.
At the moment, it is only when things go horribly wrong, that we support governments of national unity. It was like this in Ukraine, where the EU rushed over to Kiev two years ago and said “Oh, please have power-sharing, please”. If they’d said it earlier they might have saved the situation. But it was too late and we’ve all seen what has happened since. To have proposed majority rule in such a society, as we did in 1991, was just crazy.
And is preferential voting used anywhere in parliament?
The Danish government uses plurality voting sometimes. The Swedish government uses what they call serial voting and so does Finland. While Norway has provision for two-round voting. Alas, nearly every other parliament on the planet is using majority voting.
Some countries use the Borda Count in elections. Slovenia uses this system for its ethnic minority representatives, while Nauru uses a variation for its parliamentary elections. Nauru also has a no-party system.
Is there a special method of voting to choose an all-party parliament? How can it be done?
The methodology is quite simple. It’s called the matrix vote, because it is a little table. So every MP (member of parliament) votes for whoever they want to be in government, in their order of preference, on one side. And then they say “Oh, I want this person to do finance, and that person to be the minister of agriculture, and this person to be education”, and so on. They allocate each nominee to do the job they want them to do. The matrix vote is proportional, so if you’re in a party with 30 percent of the seats in parliament, then you will probably get about 30 percent of the seats in the government. But the system of election is such that it is best if you fill in a complete ballot. If there are 20 seats in the government then you vote for 20 persons. But if your party is only 30 percent, there is no point in voting only for MPs from your own party because they are only going to get about 30 percent. So you vote for 6 or 7 of your own party MPS, and then for MPs from the other parties, those whom you think you might be able to best get along with. So instead of going upstairs as they do in Berlin, the entire parliament can elect a government, and all in just one day. It doesn’t have to last as long as in Germany where in 2013 it took them 67 days to elect a government. In Belgium it was 451 days! Oh it would be fun if it wasn’t so serious.
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Peter Emerson is the Director of the de Borda Institute, working in conflict zones and developing countries: the Balkans, the Caucasus, East Africa and most recently, China. He is the author of “Defining Democracy”, “Designing an All-Inclusive Democracy” and “From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics”.
This interview first appeared in Dziennik Opinii in Poland.