Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Morality Of Proportional Representation

Alberto Nuñez Feijoo is the president of Galicia. A Partido Popular man, he was in Menorca on Sunday at a pre-election regional convention, praising the efforts of President Bauzá but also making observations that go to the very heart of the electoral system in Spain.

There is no such thing as the perfect electoral system. First past the post has the virtues of simplicity and acceptance of the wishes of a majority, but it has the drawback of non-representation of the losing minority. Proportional representation (PR) is designed to address this, but it also has a significant flaw - it can lead to administrations being formed in which the winners, i.e. those who receive the most votes, can be and quite often are excluded. 

It was this point to which Feijoo was specifically alluding. He said that "in the PP we know that if we don't win (i.e. get a majority), we cannot govern". He then added, perhaps confusingly, that "if we win, this should correspond to our governing", by which he meant that even if a majority is not achieved, the fact of having gained more electoral support than any other party should guarantee a role in government.

The Balearics is a good example of what he is saying. The PP gained a majority of seats in the 2011 parliamentary election, so there was no grey area. The party won more than the 30-seat threshold and was able to govern alone. In the upcoming election, it is unlikely that it will gain a majority. With allies among other parties all but non-existent, it would be deprived of a role in government through coalition even if - and this will surely be the case - it secures the most seats and also the greatest percentage share of the vote.

Last summer, Feijoo declared his support for a reform in the way that mayors are elected. The Rajoy government was proposing a change, which would have applied only to municipalities, whereby a party gaining 40% of the share of the vote or a clear seven per cent lead over the next party would be guaranteed having its mayoral candidate elected. This reform was due to have been taken to Congress for approval in the autumn, but in the end it was shelved because of an inability to gain support from other parties. Reforms such as this, as President Bauzá has discovered in the Balearics, require more than just having a majority in parliament; they need a qualified majority. Bauzá's wish to reduce the number of deputies in the Balearic Parliament was denied because he couldn't raise the qualified majority from opposition parties which objected to the reduction.

Opponents of the Rajoy reform argued that it was one designed to ensure that the PP, faced with declining support, was able to still keep power. An analysis of the 2011 elections in the Balearics revealed that, had such a system operated then, there wouldn't have been any major differences to the results, but that was 2011 when the PP polled very much better than they will do this year. 40% shares of votes or even seven per cent leads are going to be mightily difficult to obtain.

All this is, for the time being, hypothetical because there is no reform and, where regional elections were concerned, it was not one that had been proposed. Nevertheless, Feijoo was advancing the case for a first past the post-PR hybrid to apply in the Balearics. In so doing, he was making a moral observation rather than one based on the system as it is currently applied.

Does he have a case? Under the current system he doesn't but morally he may well do. He said that "politics is a contract with the citizens and with the polls based on democracy and the free expression of society". And this democracy is such that if the PP gains, as opinion polls suggest, the most seats in the regional parliament and a percentage share of the vote around 32%, it could find itself excluded from government. The free expression of 32% of society would be ignored.

PR does give voice to smaller parties and to wider society, but it can also penalise. Somehow, it seems wrong that a "winning" party should not find a place in government. This said, however, if Feijoo were to get his wish, Bauzá as a possible head of a government comprising all manner of left-wing representatives would be a recipe for even greater chaos than one that solely comprises these representatives.

There is no perfect system, but because PR is imperfect and because it will often throw up anomalies, perhaps it is beholden on parties to adopt more consensual and less confrontational postures towards rival parties. This can very much be said of Bauzá. Morality is one thing; popularity, or its absence, is quite another.

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