Thursday, February 22, 2018

No trust in our system of political representation

We seem uncharacteristically diffident and timid about critically reviewing our system of political representation.

This is exasperating, given dissatisfaction with the existing model. Serious national debate on this issue is stymied by the uncompromising attitude of key stakeholders. Dogmatic certitude smothers reason, denying the opportunity to rationally evaluate alternatives —first past the post (FPTP), proportional representation (PR) or some hybrid thereof.

Elections are “… instruments of democracy … linking the preferences of citizens to the behaviour of policy-makers.” In representative democracies, citizens choose between candidates of parties with different policy proposals, voting for candidates/party best representing their policy preferences.

The essential difference between systems of political representation is the function of elections. FPTP emphasises government accountability; PR prioritises selection of a representative legislature. But beyond mechanics, we need to know how different electoral systems impact voter perceptions of accountability and representativeness and their influence on citizen satisfaction with democracy.

Studies indicate that both FPTP and PR “… agree that the very essence of democracy is government by the people … but disagree with regard to the question who should do the governing and to whose interests the government should be responsive when the people are in disagreement and have divergent preferences”.

FPTP answers: the majority of the people; PR responds: to as many people as possible. The two visions attribute different functions to elections.

FPTP establishes the selection of a government as the single most important function of an election. Elections are an accountability mechanism to hold rulers answerable for their actions in office. PR seeks to elect a parliament that is as representative as possible of the electorate as a whole. It is a consensus model, affirming the most important criterion for democratic quality as being how representative parliament really is. Both systems fulfil the accountability and representativeness functions. However, FPTP tends to optimise accountability; PR enhances representation.

Some studies report PR more egalitarian. Women are better represented in parliament, turnout is higher, citizens are significantly more satisfied than in FPTP. However, PR spawns coalitions, introducing ambiguity and single party being held accountable. Power-sharing arrangements and the shorter life expectancy of coalition governments make PR inherently less stable than FPTP. But, political instability can occur when legitimacy is in crisis, irrespective of the system.

Many intuitively conclude, without benefit of analysis, that PR politicises ethnicity. This is not supported by cross-country studies cited. Some identify PR as being on average more inclusive than FPTP, and therefore more effective and suitable for ethnically diverse countries. However they note instances where “the politicisation of ethnicity can obviously be large in PR systems …” At any level of ethnic diversity, there is considerable variation in ethnic voting levels.

FPTP is deemed superior for accountability and stability, whereas PR offers improved social representation. In given circumstances, a hybrid system may be more effective.

There is urgent need to dispel the mistrust about the system of political representation in Trinidad and Tobago. Studies and analyses must be commissioned to generate more public information to improve citizen knowledge and understanding. This will enable them to better decide on choice of appropriate system(s).

Winston R Rudder

Petit Valley