If the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen were to form a political party, or express itself through the already formed New National Vision (NNV), could it attract sufficient votes to secure a place for its representative(s) in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago? Does the population want this? Does anyone have the right to deny the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen a place in government?
I take responsibility for the headline of this column and the only-somewhat sensationalist nature of the suggestion; I do so to illustrate in a direct, relevant and accessible way one of the challenges of proportional representation (PR).
I have been doing a little reading on PR so I don’t know much; prior to that, I knew only an elementary definition of the system and its basic difference from first-past-the-post (FPTP). I am among hundreds of thousands of citizens and I simply don’t know enough to make an informed decision about whether I want PR, if I want to stay with FPTP, or if I want a mix of the best of both systems.
From my little reading, I have gathered that PR has worked well in giving voice to sectors—including women—marginalised in FPTP. Apparently it has been proven that representation of women increased by at least ten per cent in 11 of the 16 or so countries that use the PR electoral system (Matland, Richard E and Donley T Studlar in The Journal of Politics 58.3: August 1996).
PR apparently also encourages more citizens to exercise their vote. This is largely because of the knowledge of voters that their vote will count for more in the PR system. In FPTP, one can count on the larger parties to win; therefore, instead of throwing away a vote for a smaller, less popular party, the voter would either vote for the larger party or not vote at all. Most of Trinidad and Tobago will relate to this they-win-already response.
The experiences of Israel were prominent when I searched for flaws in PR. The UK Guardian described Israel’s Parliament as perpetually hung as a result of PR. It quotes one of Israel’s former national security advisers, Giora Eiland, as saying, “Designing policy in Israel is like writing poetry while standing on a ball.”
Too many cooks, the UK Guardian’s 2010 article said, spoil the broth and in Israel it seems many extremist, fundamentalist groups found their way into Parliament. Other parties formed expedient alliances with them in order to approve policy. Disagreements over policy often led to threats to withdraw, toppling of the ruling coalition and fresh elections.
Some argue that Israel’s governance problems are not attributable to PR per se, but to the percentage of votes established to get representation. They say the biggest problem is that in Israel a party needs a mere two per cent of the national vote to get representation. As a result, on one recent occasion as many as 34 parties contested; 12 won seats.
The threshold, I have read, used to be one per cent, and as many as 15 parties won seats. Some of those parties have been described as “crazy” and they shake down the saner ones when it’s time to build consensus.
It seems that in other PR systems the threshold is usually five or ten per cent, which tends to yield a four- or five-party system and keeps the craziness to a minimum.
I found, too, an article that makes the case that PR brought the Nazis into power in Germany.
I understand that there are various forms of PR and countries sometimes mix-and-match PR with FPTP.
The tentative tone I have used to represent the information I have read is deliberate. I am making the point that I truly do not know. And whereas I take some responsibility for not educating myself sooner or fulsomely, those with the control of government have an unabridged responsibility to neutrally educate the population on PR beyond its basic definition.
I listened to much of the televised Senate debate on the Municipal Corporations Amendment Bill; I couldn’t, however, stay up till 3 a.m. to hear all of it. I was deprived, therefore, of an opportunity to learn more.
But no one should have to depend on an all-night parliamentary session in which a law is being decided to learn about a fundamental change in the way a government is elected. The basic aspect that is missing is neutral public education before the debate takes place. That way most citizens have some knowledge of PR and can follow the various arguments, weigh them, counter argue, learn and decide on how, if, and when they wish to move forward with a new system.
I heard Winston Dookeran speak in high style in the Lower House about “the people” being ready for change, signalling in every possible way that they are done with “gatekeeper politics” and that the Parliament possesses an “institutional bias” against change that answers the calls of “the people”.
Well this “people” requires further information; a bill has been brought to the House, was passed, will soon be proclaimed as law before this “people” has laid eyes on the report of the Prakash Ramadhar-led Constitution Reform Commission which, incidentally, is not yet written.
While PR may well offer citizens opportunity for better governance, the process toward it demonstrates the opposite.