25 February, 2010

Electoral Reform in Ireland – Part 4: More mixed-member action

FINAL EPISODE! Last time I suggested that a mixed-member system – where some MPs are elected in constituencies and some by national lists – would be worth introducing in Ireland. Then I mentioned research undertaken for an Oireachtas committee, which found that if the German system (plurality voting in constituencies for half the members, closed national lists for the rest) were introduced here we would end up with Fianna Fáil sweeping the constituency seats and the other parties winning all the list seats. This skewed result did not appeal and the Oireachtas committee recommended against moving to a mixed-member system. So are mixed-member systems that rubbish? Well, no.

There was maybe a certain failure of imagination on the part of the people doing the research for the Oireachtas committee, in that they only seem to have considered an exact replica of the German system*. What would produce less extreme results would be a mixed-member system where half the TDs were elected by STV in multi-member constituencies, the other half by list. The multi-member constituencies would of necessity be very large, but we could reasonably expect that one party would not win all or even most of them. The likelihood is that candidates would still compete for these seats on something like the localist manner we are used to now. The other seats – the party list seats – would allow at least for the possibility that parties could win seats by campaigning on national issues. If there was some kind of hitherto unfulfilled drive for national politics then this would provide some chance that it could find expression.

There are a couple possible issues to this kind of system. One of them is that the STV constituencies would be so big that they would often have to include several counties. The likelihood would be that people from some of the less populous counties would have no constituency TD from their county. This is only a serious problem if you think that every county, no matter how underpopulated, needs to have at least one TD.

Another issue would be that if you have TDs elected in two different ways then one set of TDs might see themselves as having more legitimacy than the others. The constituency TDs, in particular, might scoff at the list TDs on the basis that they, as individuals, had never been chosen by the voters. In practice, though, politicians throw all kinds of brickbats at each other, and another set of insults should be easy enough to shrug off.

The downsides of mixed-member systems are manageable. The advantages are that the constituency elections allows people who like voting for individual TDs to keep doing so, while the list election makes it easier for a less locally oriented politics to emerge. Electing the constituency TDs by STV in multi-member constituencies prevents the unpleasantly skewed outcome a straight import of the German system could produce.

That, then, is my proposed new electoral system for Ireland. There is no great prospect of it being adopted, as I have never heard it suggested by anyone else as an alternative electoral system for Ireland. Even if my wonderful proposal was somehow adopted, we should be realistic about the likelihood of it actually effecting any great change to how politics works. I am highly sceptical of the power of institutional setups alone to transform politics, and experience suggests that the localist impetus in Irish politics is sufficiently strong that under any electoral system it will still dominate. Still, electing some TDs by party at a national level might just concentrate some electors' minds on the fact that elections are about picking people who will form a government.

*maybe I should look at their report and see if this is actually the case.

21 February, 2010

Electoral Reform in Ireland – Part 3: The magic of mixed-member systems

In the last post I made a case for electoral reform in Ireland, but then argued that a number of electoral systems people sometimes talk about moving to are a bit problematic. Astute readers may have noticed that I omitted any discussion of mixed-member systems, the subject of today's post.

Mixed-member systems are so called because they mix up how parliamentarians are elected, typically electing some of the MPs in local constituencies and some nationally by list. Germany is the great mixed-member poster child, with its adoption of the system in the Federal Republic's Basic Law often seen as one of the things that embedded democracy in (West) Germany after the Second World War. Germany elects half its MPs in constituencies, using Westminster-style plurality voting. The other half is elected from closed national lists. The list seats are allocated so as to ensure the overall proportionality of the Bundestag. There is also the 5% threshold – if a party wins less than 5% of the list vote then it wins no list seats.

The German Federal Republic has proved to be a rather successful country, especially given the travails it experienced under previous regimes. This means that people are always talking about borrowing aspects of its institutional setup. Advocates of electoral reform often talk about introducing mixed-member systems in their country. The advantages of the system are seen as being that it allows people to keep voting for a local representative while ensuring a proportional overall result. In Ireland's case, the list side of the election offers the possibility of voters' minds being focussed on national issues, while letting them continue to vote for individual politicians.

As it happens, a move to a mixed-member system here was considered not too long ago. Following a 1996 report by the Constitution Review Group that suggested mixed-member systems were worth looking at, an Oireachtas Committee commissioned further research on the issue, bringing forth a report in 2002. The research was not particularly favourable. Looking at how an exact replica of the German system in Ireland would operate, the report found that it would produce a very skewed allocation of seats between list and constituency members – basically, Fianna Fáil would win all (or almost all) of the constituency seats, with almost all of the list seats then going to the other parties*. The committee recommended against adopting a mixed-member system.

So is that it for mixed-member systems? Come back next time for the FINAL EPISODE and see.

*This was based on the relative levels of party support then applying. Fianna Fáil's support is currently much lower, and if a general election were to be conducted right now using the German system then it might not produce such a skewed result.

15 February, 2010

Blue aliens protest against Israeli Wall

People are always protesting against Israeli building of their big wall thing at Bilin on the West Bank in Palestine. Now they are dressing up as characters from the new James Cameron film Avatar. I have not seen the film, but I gather it is partly about people from an advanced society colonising natives, so there are obvious parallels.

One thing I am a bit confused by is why protests against the building of the Wall always take place at Bilin, and have been doing so for years. Surely the Israelis would have finished building that section of the Wall by now?


14 February, 2010

Electoral Reform in Ireland – Part 2

In part 1, I discussed proposals periodically made to change Ireland's electoral system. The proposers of such change hope that by doing so they can orient Ireland's politics away from localism. The potential for intra-party competition in the current system is typically seen as causing our localist politics, so advocates of change typically propose electoral systems where politicians will not have to compete with their own party colleagues. I suggested that a lot of this thinking is a bit woolly, in particular claiming that these people overstate the extent to which electoral systems drive politics.

For all that, a case can still be made for electoral reform. Even if our electoral system does not cause localist politics, it could be said to assist it; STV provides a fertile ground for localism and does not encourage politicians to take a more national view. A new electoral system would not conjure a more agreeable politics into being, but it could provide space for it to emerge. This assumes there is a latent drive towards "good" politics currently being blocked by the electoral system.

When thinking about what kind of electoral system to move to, you need to first think about what is wrong with the one we have at present. People typically see the opportunities it offers for intra-party competition as driving clientelism in Irish politics. I think this is over-stated. One feature of the current electoral system that is, I think, more relevant is that we vote for people in constituencies – if you elect people by locality then it should not be too surprising if they spend a lot of their time trying to look after the locality. If you have an electoral system that elects people at a national level then there is more scope for a nationally based politics.

So, what electoral system might encourage a more nationally oriented politics? Other systems based on geographical constituencies are not going to break the link to localism; that stops me from advocating anything like the alternative vote, plurality voting (the crazy Westminster system), that funny two-round voting thing they have in France, and so on. Then there are the various types of list system that are used for proportional representation in other countries. If you want to challenge the localist orientation of Irish politics then you will want national rather than regional lists.

Even so, list systems remain problematic. You can have closed lists (where the order in which people are elected from a list is determined by the party) or open lists (where people on a list are elected on the basis of which individuals on it have the most votes*). I suspect that a move to closed lists for Dáil elections would be unacceptable in Ireland – people are too rooted to the idea of voting for an individual candidate rather than a party. The problem with open lists is that by retaining the element of competition between individuals, they allow for politicians to continue differentiating themselves on local issues. This might not happen in a country like Finland, where open lists are used for parliamentary elections, but in a country like Ireland with a strong local tradition politicians might well continue to look for votes from people a particular geographical area.

That leaves us in a bit of a pickle – I have suggested that a change in electoral systems would be desirable, but have then raised problems with any of the electoral systems we could consider moving to. Come back next time as I attempt to resolve this conundrum.

*I am somewhat simplifying how open lists work, or how they can work – there are open list systems that give the voters astonishing abilities to reorder, split, and combine lists.

Siopaí na Cheann

There is a bit of a flap on in Ireland at the moment about “Head Shops”. These are premises that sell products to customers who wish to get a “deadly buzz” without breaking the law – for the “gear” sold in the “Head Shops” is entirely legal. There is talk of bringing in sweeping legislation to ban “Head Shop” products, perhaps even to ban these places entirely.

Action needs to be taken quickly. Some years previously, Ireland had an emerging problem with the misuse of heroin and cocaine. This was developing into a considerable scourge, until the authorities took action, banning the sale of these substances. There is no longer a heroin or cocaine problem in Ireland.

08 February, 2010

Evaluating Cuba

I am taking a bit of an interest in Cuba, partly driven by my impending holiday there. As you know, Cuba has an authoritarian socialists government and has also been subject to a long trade boycott organised by the United States of America. I understand that Cuba is also pretty poor, when compared to first world countries like the one I live in. But comparing Cuba with first world countries is problematic – more appropriate are comparisons with its neighbours in the Caribbean and in Central America, as they are the countries from which it diverged when it embraced socialism.

Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Kinzer makes such a comparison: Caribbean communism v capitalism. It is a short article, but Kinzer is able to throw out a couple of statistics suggesting that the mass of people in Cuba lead more materially comfortable lives than those of neighbouring countries. He also says that while Cubans have their political rights curtailed by their government, these rights are often a bit notional in neighbouring countries – if a Cuban were to try and set up an oppositional newspaper, they would be thrown in jail, but if a Guatemalan were to set up a stridently oppositional newspaper they might well be killed by a death squad.

Now, Kinzer does pick and choose his indicators, but I reckon it would be interesting to do a more thorough analysis of different levels of human development statistics across the Caribbean basin to see how the country ranks. If Cuba were to rank ahead of the others, then this would raise troubling questions. Generally speaking, we tend to assume that freedom associates with prosperity, with people in authoritarian countries living materially poorer lives than their freer fellows. Now, if Cuba were to buck this trend then we would have to wonder whether its relatively better condition was a product of its authoritarianism or something merely coincidental. Put another way, would Cuba acquire the less savoury characteristics of its neighbours if it were to open up politically?

I may at some stage trawl through the statistics myself. If so then I will be back to you.

02 February, 2010

Forgotten Crimes

Here is an interesting interview with cartoonist Joe Sacco. Sacco made his name with the comic Palestine, and has since published a number of books, including several fascinating works on the wars in the former Yugoslavia. His new book, Footnotes in Gaza sees him researching a largely forgotten incident in 1956, when a three-figure number* of Palestinians were massacred in Rafah and Khan Younis by Israeli troops. I have not read the book, so I cannot really comment on it, but it seems to do the usual Sacco thing of being partly about him researching the 1956 events, partly showing those events. I sometimes find that style of writing - foregrounding the writer over the events they are writing about – a bit annoying. With Sacco it works better, as he has a good eye for detail, and the minutiae of his gathering information (travelling around the Gaza Strip, talking to survivors and eye witnesses etc.) is often fascinating.

*111? 275? It depends who you talk to; I do not consider either of these numbers acceptably low

01 February, 2010

A Negative View of Uzbekistan

This is a picture of children in Uzbekistan playing in tandyr cooking pots

And here some men walk in a scenic valley.

These pictures come from a book called Men and Women from Dawn to Dusk by Umida Akhmedova. You might see them as interesting scenes from everyday life, ones that might even encourage visitors to faraway Uzbekistan. The rulers of that country see things differently. A special commission was created to examine the photographs; it concluded that they distort reality. Ms Akhmedova has been barred from leaving the country and is now awaiting trail. If convicted, she faces six months in jail or three years hard labour.

More pictures