By Paul Thome
In recent elections and referendums, we have witnessed a global change in the political tide; some of us may question the operation of democracy in our current societies.
Democracy comes from the Greek (as the first Western democracy was from Athens) demos meaning ‘people’ and kratos meaning ‘power’, literally translating to ‘power to the people’. Although this concept appears desirable, it remains unclear how it is enforced or implemented.
The first type of elections in Greece were very simple; people would cast a vote and at the end the ten candidates with most votes would become the strategoi (the leaders). Older societies also voted for the city’s laws using the same system; however, it must be recognised that to a modern society this would be impractical, if not impossible. The needs of the city then were much simpler and fewer than our current society. Can you imagine for a minute having to vote on a matter such as the government budget? Would we be qualified? Would we have the time to have enough information to make such an important decision? Elections are a direct example of the empowerment of the contemporary citizenship in choosing their leadership. However, in practice, it is arguable that the elections are a double-edged sword in the political process.
The ideal of the Athenian democracy remains and has grown with our times. We, as a society, have evolved to a system where elected officials vote for the laws in our stead; this system is known as a representative democracy. This system can be witnessed today in countries such as the UK, which elect MPs with the first-by-the-post system. The problem with this system is that the victorious party typically ends up with less than 30% of the votes. This is the case in the UK, where the Prime Minister usually has between 30% and 35% of the votes, leading to a lot of political compromises and even, as shown by the government in 2010, coalitions. This all leads to a continuous struggle for recognition and popularity.
Other countries, such as France, Romania, or Brazil, use an alternative system based on direct democracy known as the two-round system. The two candidates with most votes at the end of the first round enter a second round, where the people have to choose between these two only. However, the problem with this system is that people whose candidates have not been chosen for the second round may feel less invested in the subsequent round, which may lead to a vote which does not represent their opinion. A famous example in European politics is the 2002 French presidential elections, during which the candidate of the far right party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, caused an upset by obtaining more votes than the socialist candidate, and consequently entered the second round against the conservative candidate, Jacques Chirac. The latter won with more than 82% of the votes; the biggest landslide witnessed in French politics. It is highly unlikely that 82% of French people genuinely believed Chirac to be the best candidate (his results on the first round were around 19%), but most decided to vote against the nationalist party. Although the result demonstrates the ‘better of two evils’, we cannot honestly assert it accurately represents the will of the people.
The USA uses another system, also known as indirect elections. In this system, the citizens actually vote for unrelated third parties, known as the Electoral College, which later votes for the president independently. This system is also not without its flaws. The first is a legal one; twenty-one of the fifty-four electors can legally vote for whoever they want, regardless of the majority vote in their state. The other problem is known as ‘gerrymandering’. In short, it means that the people in power can redraw the voting districts in order to favour their own ends. With a minority on the general vote, a candidate can still win with carefully drawn districts; this happens every election. This is why Al Gore lost to Bush, and indeed Clinton to Trump, although they had both won the general vote. Whilst redrawing the districts is not involved in the UK, the constituency principle remains in itself a problem. For example, in the 2015 elections, UKIP won 12.8% of the general vote to only obtain one seat, whilst the SNP obtained 56 seats with 4.7% of the general vote. This demonstrates a completely disproportional representation, and it happens, although on a varying scale, at every election.
Overall, it is regrettable, yet undeniable, that there are many faults with the democratic system. No matter the voting medium used, sometimes one’s vote counts for very little. This is not a particularly reassuring thought, especially considering how democracy is an integral part of our daily lives. Nevertheless, there is a silver lining; there are some systems that are found to be ‘fairer’ than others. Better methods have been found; the most famous being the Condorcet method, which can be traced back as early as 1299, demonstrating that this issue is not just a recent one. The idea behind the method is to pair candidates and find which of them wins the ‘duels’ by a wider margin. For example, if A, B and C were candidates, the pairings would go AB, BC and AC. The flaw to this method would be that it is impractical, as the number of ‘duels’ grows with the number of candidates. Moreover, Australia uses a preferential system, where voters list the candidates by order of preference.
Finally, the study of voting continues to be an academic subject titled the social choice theory. The fact that people are willing to discover the best possible way to choose our leaders means we can hope that, in the future, democracy will be more representative. However, going through all these systems leads to the somewhat depressing conclusion that the system can easily be manipulated by unscrupulous people. Recent examples like the Brexit vote have shown that this is an issue we need to address now. This problem is far from contemporary, but as time goes on, discontentment has been seen to, and shall, increase.
Democracy is far from perfect, but we are in no way to be able to criticise its merits if we do not use it. There was a 58% voter turnout in the 2016 American presidential elections. How can we safely expect the person in charge to represent the will of the people, if the people have not even expressed their will? It is thus up to the upcoming generation, now that we have realised there is a problem, to change it. Discussing our opinions, getting informed about both sides of the argument, and most importantly going to vote are in my opinion duties of a responsible citizen. It is important to carry these values if we want to prevent social upsets akin to those seen in the recent years.