Monday, October 29, 2007

Political equality & election systems

It is not very difficult to understand why the Maoists want to hijack Nepali citizens' right to self-determination and want to declare the country republic through the interim parliament. The Maoists want to declare the country republic through the interim parliament because they want to create a political vacuum and fill it. Politically, it is a no-brainer. But why would a party with a goal of establishing a proletarian communist state remain adamant on its demand for proportional electoral system, which is supposed to be one of the best systems to ensure the quality of democracy, might be a bit difficult for some to understand.

Is the election system the culprit behind the current political and social inequality in Nepal or the ongoing rambling is mainly because the electoral system that will be adopted is going to determine the political future of the major political parties? Later is the case. Electoral system matters for political parties because it impacts the distribution of seats in parliament, which in turn influences cabinet durability. In other words, electoral system is not value neutral: It determines the method in which votes are translated into seats and who gets into the parliament and who gets out.

Theoretically, Proportional (PR) system ensures political and social equality better than Majoritarian (MR) system, but is that why the Maoists are after PR system? There is no basis to believe that. When the Maoists are reluctant to accept ethnic political outfits --MPRF and NIFIN -- as legitimate political force and do not want to push for the fulfillment of their legitimate demands, there is no reason -- at least now -- to believe that the Maoists want PR system for ensuring the political and social equality.

Furthermore, when the Maoists do not want to embrace parliamentary democracy and want to ultimately establish a proletarian communist state, on what basis should people of Nepal believe that there is no hidden motive behind the Maoist demand for PR system? As the Maoists are very good at exploiting the system and changing the rules of engagement, the current demand for PR system cannot be judged on the basis of PR system's impact on democratic quality. We have to factor in the Maoists' motive into the equation. It is not about what the PR system can do but what the Maoists want to do with the PR system.

Needless to say, the Maoists have turned Nepal into "Guinea Pig" on which they have been conducting all sorts of experimentation without realizing the future political and social repercussions. What the Maoists in their blind quest for power are not realizing is that, when you try too many things, too fast, you overwhelm the system, which then starts producing negative outcomes. One such example is the division of the state along the ethnicity. The Maoists had hoped to buy unequivocal and ever lasting support of ethnic groups by dividing the nation along the ethnicity, which obviously did not happen.

On contrary, their short-sighted politics backfired and they lost total control in tarai.

Both PR and MR systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Arend Lijphart, in his influential study "Patterns of Democracy" empirically demonstrates that, PR systems are associated with a higher quality of democracy than MR systems. On the other hand, Guy Lardeyret, a staunch supporter of MR system argues that, in MR systems, the political power is concentrated in the hands of a majority, which is unified, with decisive leadership and hence coherent policies and fast-decision making can be promoted. MR system has better chances of having responsive and accountable governments than the PR system mainly because the party in power has to bear clearer responsibility for policy-making.

Furthermore, elections in MR system provide citizens the right either to renew the term of incumbent government or to "throw the irresponsible idiots out." MR system, thus, strengthens the link between constituents and their representatives and ensures accountability.

When it comes to comparing MR and PR systems, there is no universal consensus. Theoretically, MR systems are better at governing, whereas PR systems are better at representing. According to Joel Barkan, proportional system is not the most appropriate for agrarian societies with a relatively low level of development and a large illiterate population. It simply does not produce desired results in representation, accountability, and government effectiveness. As the seats are allocated from the party lists based on the party's proportion of the national votes, representatives are not recognized and cannot be held accountable for residents of a specific constituency. Thus, the weak linkage between representatives and constituents reduces the prospects for the quality of democratic system.

According to MG Schmidt, one of the major drawbacks of PR system is that, in PR systems, accountability tends to evaporate in countless networks, bargaining and search of compromises.

When it comes to the electoral system that is suitable to Nepal, agrarian and ethnically divided society like ours needs MR systems, at least for some years till we have larger pool of educated and well informed voters and competent politicians. In a country like ours, whereby we have a history of a majority government not completing its designated term, more party in the parliament means slow legislative process, increased indecisiveness on issues of national importance, and the chances of frequent dissolution of the parliament and cabinet.

Taagepera and Shugart (1989) empirically demonstrate a direct impact of number of parties in parliament on government durability. According to their "inverse square law to cabinet durability," the number of potential inter-and intra-party conflicts equals the square number of effective parties, and the cabinet durability is reduced by half when the number of potential conflict doubles. In other words, the more parties in the parliament the more conflict between and within these parties, and the more conflict in the parliament, which in turn tremendously increases the chances of brining down the government prematurely. Can an impoverished Nepal afford to have frequent elections?

We must adopt a system that works best in the socio-political context of Nepal rather than one that is theoretically sound. In a country whereby a majority government cannot last for a complete five years, having more parties in the parliament will be a recipe for disaster. It will take partisan politics, which is already at its worst form, towards even more ugly and chaotic direction. Democratic stability will be a mirage due to increase in intra-and inter-party conflicts.

What we need at this point in time is: a responsible, accountable, and efficient government that can maintain law-and-order and come up with sound economic policies to spur economic growth. As far as political equality is concerned, it all depends upon politicians. As long as they keep on distributing the seats in the parliament reserved for civil society members and members of professional organizations shamelessly to the politicians of their own party like they did during the formation of interim parliament, the talk of political equality does not have any relevance. We may have best system in place, but unless the existing insincere behavior of our politicians changes, political and social equality will remain an elusive dream. It is not the electoral system that fails democracy, but politicians that are supposed to abide by the democratic principles and make the institution of election properly work.

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