CONTEMPORARY ELECTORAL SYSTEMS

The Al Urdun Al Jadid Research Center  (UJRC)

and the Ntional Democratic Institte

CURRENT TRENDS IN ELECTORAL SYSTEMS BY PROFESSOR BERNARD OWEN

Thank you. My very brief intervention will be divided into three parts. The first part deals with what we call the Western World. The second part deals with what has been recently taking place in Eastern Europe, and the third is what we can say about the African continent.

First, the Western World: We have been working on elections for two centuries. So we should know things about elections. Well, there are things that we know and things that we do not know, and what is taking two centuries to develop is of course difficult to introduce in a swift manner to newcomers to the democratic process. We think that in the Western World everything is clear and that the voters have political parties to vote for and that they know perfectly well why they are voting for one party or another. That is true, but only in a certain way. Let us look at the question in a little more detail. You vote for a political party year after year (we have elections every four years). For example, let us say that a political party regularly gets around 12 percent of the vote. The year after, it might get 13 percent , just one percent more than the previous year. But we usually have a stable level for this party, which might be 12 percent of the votes. So if this political party is a socialist party for instance, we can say that 12 percent of the population is either socialist, or at least wishes for the socialists to come to power, or would like the country to become socialist. But it is not as simple as that.

As I am French, I will speak a little bit about France. In France, for example, we have a communist vote. From 1945 until 1958 the communist vote was about 25 percent of the votes. From 1958 to 1981, it was around 20 percent of the votes. And now, it is approximately 10 per cent of the votes. This does not signify a gradual drop. Rather, it has come down like steps, and each of the steps corresponds to a change in the institutions. We moved from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic, and we actually changed the electoral system. We had the PR system (the proportional list representation system) and then we had a two-round majority system. And here we should have the same. But what has changed is that the President of the Republic has become a socialist –Mitterrand– and this somehow had an effect on the communist vote.

So let us say that in 7978 we could say that people in the press and researchers said that 20 percent of the French population wished France to become as communist country. But before the elections in 1978, a series of monthly polls were taken. And in each of these polls people were asked: do you wish France to become a communist country? A communist country similar to Russia or to the satellite countries? And systematically, every month the same answer came: seven percent wished France to become a communist country, three percent of them said that they wanted France to become like Russia and four percent of them said they wanted France to become like the satellite states. Why does the difference between seven and 20 percent exist? What about the 14 percent who voted for the communist party? Why did they vote for the communist party and not wish France to become communist?

There is an international tendency in which, for example, that from 50 percent to 7() percent of the members of a trade union organization vote the way the trade union wishes them to vote. Now in France, in 1945, right at the beginning, the main trade union movement was taken over by the communist party. Thus, in an average political general election, we know that 70 percent of the whole membership of the trade union goes for the communist party. Membership in the trade unions can be small or can be very large. You can have millions of people joining the trade union movement. So when you look at the electoral results, you see that this can have quite an important effect on the way the results emerge. We can say that the trade union movement is not an ideological vote, because if it was a socialist party taking power in 1945 this factor would work for the socialist party as they do in the Scandinavian countries. So we could say that in Europe, we also have our tribal vote, our clan vote, but we do not call them the same thing. For us, our clans and tribes are the trade union movement, but that is not the only one. In Western Europe for example we also have another tribal vote — the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is very well organized at the social level. This gives it an advantage over other political parties, and we can see this especially in Western European countries that use the proportional list representation.

I will try and be very brief on this point. When we have proportional list systems, we usually see political parties at around 10 per cent of the votes, plus or minus. It can vary quite a lot. That is the general rule and    they have a tendency to splinter. The people who draft the electoral laws will impose thresholds to stop this splintering, but it does not always work. This is the general rule. But there are two kinds of parties which did not act according to this rule: on the left the political party that holds the trade union well in hand, which can reach 40 percent; and those that have the Catholic Church, which is very well socially organized and which can also reach at times around 40 per cent of the votes. This is seen as proportional representation. In the Western World, we can say that this factor works every time. But when you use plurality voting, for example, which we call one round majority voting or two round majority voting, we have parties that easily reach 40 percent of the votes so that the trade union effect is not as evident as in the proportional list system.

That is all I wanted to say for Western Europe. So you see, we also have our clans and our tribes, but we do not call them that. They are, however, organizations that have a very strong effect on the political life of the country-

Now for Eastern Europe. You all know of course, that the communist regimes collapsed, and in Eastern Europe they have no para-structures remaining. While the communist regimes were in place, everyone was obliged to belong to some kind of association. You had the Young Men’s Leninist or Communist Association. You had the Women’s Association. You had all kinds of associations. But now that the communist regimes have collapsed, no one wants to belong to an association. They just want to breathe and be free about it. During the Communist regimes, there were, as you know, elections. Most of the Eastern European countries had electoral laws that were the same or very similar to those used in the communist regimes. And when you look at an electoral law of a communist regime, you find that it is very similar to ones that we have in the Western World. The main difference is the fact that you can only be a candidate if you are nominated by one of the associations, and these associations are also controlled by the communist party. There is also something which came aboout in practice, but which was not in the rule: that there was only one candidate. So you must be careful when you read. Rules and regulations are not always strictly applied.

The Russian system was a two-round majority system as we use in France. When the countries decided that they were not communist anymore, they did not want the same type of electoral system. They  said, « We do not want it. It comes from the communist regime. It is bad. We want liberty. » And they adopted a system of proportional representation. Some countries mixed majority and proportional systems, like Hungary. And the first elections that were held in Eastern Europe must not be considered elections. They must be considered referendums: that is, people were not voting for different members of parliament. They were voting for or against communism. That was quite clear in all the countries, except for Hungary, because Hungary started liberalization movements before other countries. For example, they created a constitutional court beginning in 1989, and the elections were held a year later. So they were not afraid of communism anymore. The communists, any way, practised a very liberal communism. So they voted the same way a normal western country would vote. But in other countries, it was a referendum.

Two things are very interesting to see: one, the people were so used to a kind of terror, and they were afraid to do anything. They did not realize, they could not understand that the vote was secret. They thought that somehow there were spiit;iiks above, and that they would see how one voted. We also saw this in African countries. People were not quite convinced that everything was free now. You cannot go from one stage to another stage without intermediate phases. And what is interesting also is the way the voting went on in Eastern Europe. It was the countryside and the small villages that voted for the communists, and not the main cities. In the main cities, they knew democracy was there. They could do what they want. They could see it everywhere. But in the little villages, they were not quite so sure. They have seen it on television. They knew about it, but they were not so certain. So that is where the most communist votes were.

So, right away, in Eastern Europe, we find a unified democratic movement or party against the communists, who would change their names to socialists. They did not use the name communism anymore –not even the members of the communist party. As the second and the third elections came around, though, there was a surprise, because the democratic party just splintered. It broke up completely . In Poland, for example, in the first election there was a very strong and unified movement behind Solidarity, and it suddenly split up to the point where there were 29 political parties in Parliament. 29 political parties — just imagine what that means! There were no structures to which the people or the parties could attach themselves, and they just broke out into a huge ungovernorable country. They had a very short term of government in Eastern Europe wherethere is so much to be done. There was a social crisis and an economic crisis. They needed some kind of strong government and they were not getting it. So the Poles modified their electoral law. They chose a pure proportional list system. They changed it by implementing a threshold, so that only political parties that took five percent of the votes would be represented in Parliament. That has limited the number of parties, but they still have quite a few. However, it has still been difficult to have good, efficient government. That is the position that we are facing in Eastern Europe: First stage, referendum for or against communism. Second stage, that we breathe and be free and have as many political parties as we want, and now they are saying, well, we have to have an efficient government. It is the trouble which we see in Western Europe when we have coalition governments. With three, four, even five parties in goverrnment, they can deal with the problems arising in the country as long as there is no real crisis. But when the crisis occurs, you find that none of the political parties leads the government, and the country, when it needs the government, finds that it does not have one any more.

I have only two minutes left. So I will go quickly to Africa by Concorde. Now I am talking of the continent of Africa, and it seems to be the exact opposite of what we are finding in Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe, there is no power structures remaining. It is a kind of a blind situation, whereas on the continent of Africa, you have habits of electing or nominating people in ethnic clans or tribes, and it is the elders that have power. They have notions of power structures which usually do not have anything to do with elections. So you have to try and see how these different elements can fit together. I have always been surprised.

There is another point that is really important. Let us say that in a country, which I will not name, you have about 90 percent of an ethnic population and 10 per cent of another ethnic population who have held power for centuries. Now let us say that we have election on the « one-man, one-vote » principle. The small 10 percent ethnic population that was in power suddenly loses power. So what does it do? It might go out, come back with weapons and start fighting. I mean it is a risk to change in just one quick operation the complete structure which came either from consensus or from old power structures. I think you have to be very careful whenever you go from one to another. But on a very optimistic note, the more I work the more I feel that people are very similar in regardless of the country. They have a different history, they have different groupings, they have different religions, but as far as human beings are concerned, they are very similar.

And to conclude: when we are moving towards democracy, it is not a question of having the latest type of electoral law or human rights regulations, but rather, I think, to chose something which will give democracy a chance to continue. The great thing to do is to try to develop democratic continuity .