/A False and Damaging Political Paradigm

A False and Damaging Political Paradigm

A Spanish philosopher of politics, Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his famous book “The Revolt of the Masses” maintains that the condition of any democracy depends – in the most crucial way – on something that may look as a small technical detail: the electoral procedure. If this procedure is right, if in a proper way it corresponds to the society’s needs and demands, then everything is fine, the democracy may function. On the other hand if this procedure is wrong then everything falls down even if all other democratic institutions seem to be alright.  


Political science divides the variety of electoral systems into three groups: (1) majoritarian systems, (2) proportional representation and (3) mixed systems. The first group is best represented by countries like the UK, Canada, USA or France, where whole countries are divided into constituencies and in each constituency only one representative is elected. The opposite to this (PR) are countries, where voters have to vote on party lists. Poland and Croatia1 belong to this latter category. In fact all the so-called postcommunist countries of Europe  adopted one or the other form of PR in their constitutional structure. In a way this is a European tradition: after the WWI nearly all countries of the European Continent went on the path of “proportionality”.  


Why it so happened? Why only mutations of PR, why not the old system, which seems to have worked reasonably well for over two centuries in the US, United Kingdom, Canada and in so many other countries?  


Poland provides a pathetic proof to Ortega’s statement. We had to suffer various forms of PR both during the 20 years between the WWI and WWII and then, again, during the last two decades. In both cases it brought a weak state, unstable governments, political corruption, frustration of the society and the withdrawal of citizens from participation in political matters. In both cases a partitocracy developed in place of democracy. In 1926 it led to a coup d’etat by Marshall Józef Piłsudski. The party list democracy, called the Proportional Representation, quickly disillusioned  European societies and, in most cases, turned into a –  weaker or stronger  – dictatorship. The most profound examples of such a change were developments in  Germany and Italy but is easy to notice similar changes in nearly all other countries. 


It is a historical curiosity that after the catastrophe of the WWII all European states of the so-called Western Europe turned again towards similar, already compromised before the War, electoral procedures. Perhaps not without “a good advice” from their Allies. For example we know from the memoirs of Konrad Adenauer that he wished the Westminster system “First-Past-The-Post” to be introduced in the post war  Germany but the Allies did not allow it! Thus in Germany, a peculiar form of “proportionality” had been introduced  and, in spite of various voices demanding a change, it is maintained there until now.  Only the Vth French Republic, under General de Gaulle, managed to abandon PR.   


Another great modern philosopher, Karl Popper, writing on democracy observed: “the system of Proportional Representation strips a member of parliament off his personal responsibility and turns him into a voting machine rather then allowing him to be a sensitive, responsible and  thoughtful human being”. 


Unfortunately, it seems that in political sciences, both in Europe and elsewhere, students of various universities are being taught different things. According to Arend Lijphart, Professor of Political Sciences at the  University of California, San Diego, the chief advocate of PR, “there is wellnigh universal agreement that electoral proportionality is a major goal of electoral systems and a major criterion by which they should be judged. For many PR supporters, proportionality is a goal in itself –virtually synonymous with electoral justice.” (“Electoral Systems and Party Systems”, Oxford University Press, 2000). Similar sentiments are expressed in nearly all textbooks on Constitutional Law and such likes. Thus we are dealing with a paradigm: PR means electoral justice, equality and freedom


Painful experience of Poland and other countries provides ample proof that this paradigm is false, deceiving societies and people. That in majority of cases the outcomes of PR elections have nothing to do with equality and electoral justice. Rather the opposite is true. Upon this experience we can conclude that various applied PR formulae serve well and suit well the successors of the communist parties – a convenient and efficient instrument to safeguard their “soft landing” after the official collapse of the communist regime. It provides an umbilical cord tightening emerging new states with their communist predecessors.  


There are signs that perhaps more sober view is surfacing and in various countries people start talking and even demanding a return to old-fashioned way of electing representative of the people via majoritarian approach in single-seat constituencies. A few years ago such a demand presented  in the German Bundestag dr Michael Rogowski, the President of BDI (Bundesverband der deutschen Industrie). In 2007 Traian Basescu, the President of Romania decreed a national referendum on this issue. In British Columbia the proposal to abandon the First-Past-The-Post system in favour of Single Transferable Vote was rejected twice by the population: in 2005 and again very recently, and by a convincing margi, in May 2009.  In Poland  there is a national movement which works for a change and demands a referendum on the electoral system. The false paradigm of PR being a synonym of electoral justice should be thrown to a waste basket. It has caused enough damages already. It is time for a change. 

About Jerzy Przystawa

Jerzy Przystawa (1939-2012) – naukowiec, fizyk, profesor dr hab., nauczyciel akademicki na Uniwersytecie Wrocławskim, publicysta, twórca i założyciel ogólnopolskiego Ruchu Obywatelskiego na rzecz Jednomandatowych Okręgów Wyborczych
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