voting and political
8 April 2014, revised 20 August 2014
Far-right populism seems to be on the rise in the EU. Many are asking
why. Are the far-right voters so disaffected that they would vote for
blatant xenophobia and racism? Are they so frustrated that they would
risk a slide toward fascism?
The support for the far right is part of a broader phenomenon. People
are increasingly getting the feeling that democracy is not working. For
that reason, many are not voting at all (more).
Perhaps the main problem is that democracy is being gradually
undermined by the rising wealth gap and rising income inequality (more).
The increasingly skewed wealth distribution pushing up unemployment and
pushing down wages relative to average incomes.
But there is another fundamental problem in our democratic system. It
is about the way votes are counted. The far right may not be as popular
as they seem.
Instead, our voting system may be exaggerating their popularity. That
because the system is fundamentally unbalanced. At elections, we are
asked only to vote FOR political parties. We are never asked to vote
AGAINST parties. Most people have well-founded opinions on
these questions. But only one of those questions is asked.
There are many different voting systems: simple
majority, first past the post, preferential systems, proportional
representation, open and closed lists, single-winner and
multiple-winner methods. As always, you can read about them in Wikipedia.
Now, imagine being presented with this in a ballot
VOTE: Which of these parties would you like MOST to
see in power? Please mark ONE of the following parties with a
|Far left □
||Centre Left □
||Centre Right □
||Far right □
VOTE: Which of these parties would you like LEAST to
see in power? Please mark ONE of the
following parties with a
|Far left □
||Centre Left □
||Centre Right □
||Far right □
Only ballots with one cross in the top line
and one cross in the bottom line are valid!
these votes were counted, every party would get a certain number of
yes-votes and a certain number of no-votes. One would then subtract the
no-votes from the yes-votes to get the final result. If for example the
centre-right party got 1000 yes-votes and 900 no-votes, the result for
that party would be +100. The
positive sign would mean success: a certain number of people in that
party would be "voted in", the number
being proportional to the result. If the
sign was negative, that party would be unsuccessful.
We got this idea from "systemic
consensus", a proposal in which each option is rated on a
from 0 to 10. This allows people to express either support or
opposition to each option - in this case, to each party or politician.
For the purpose of an election, a rating scale may be too complicated -
the chance of voters misunderstanding is high, and the
counting process would be more complicated. The idea that we are
promoting is a bit like rating each option on a 2-point scale: like or
don't like. By the way, "systemic consensus" comes from Graz, Austria,
and so do
we. In case you haven't heard of Graz, it is the centre of the
universe! Well, that is a little joke, but we are rather serious about
the positive implications of this idea for multi-party electoral
systems, and would welcome comments and suggestions.
Most of us think our
electoral system is fundamentally fair, because it
treats everyone equally. We conclude that there is not much one can do
about the far right, except to complain regularly and loudly, and hope
that every time they manage to get into government they will soon be
out again when the voters realise that they are either morally
problematic or fundamentally incompetent.
Think again. The usual
voting system is imbalanced. It only
allows people to SUPPORT parties - not to REJECT them. If political
parties perform badly, all you can do in the current system is to vote
for another party or not vote at all. You cannot DIRECTLY punish
politicians and parties for their poor performance or corruption in the
ballot box. Voting for another party does not send a clear message,
because there are several parties. Not voting sends no
constructive message at all.
To get a clear picture of what the general public really wants, they
should be asked two questions, which options they LIKE and which they
If that happened, the far right would
become weaker. That
is because most people who do NOT vote far
right are generally more opposed to the far right than to any other
party. This is a fundamental asymmetry. Of all the people
who do NOT vote centre
left, a lot would list the centre left as their second-favorite party.
The same applies to the centre right, the greens, or the liberals. But
it does not apply to the far right. Of all the people who do NOT vote
far right, very few would list the far right as their second-favorite
party. Instead, most would list the far right as the worst choice of
all. They would say that the far right is the one party that we should
keep out of government at all costs. The system that we are
proposing would allow voters to
punish the far right for their unique combination of institutionalised
discrimination against minorities and "foreigners", corruption,
incompetence, and populism. Of course voters could also punish any
other party in the same way, if there was
a good reason to punish them - and there often is.
The "carrot and stick" principle is already applied in many areas, even
if it is not explicitly named. If you want
your horse to perform well, you can either hit it
or give it a carrot. Usually you get the best performance by combining
the two. School children perform best if they get a balanced
combination of praise and criticism. Praise alone may not work, because
children who are only praised never learn what they did wrong, so they
cannot correct their mistakes. Criticism alone is demotivating, and
children never learn to recognize and build on their strengths. What
you need is a balanced contribution of praise and constructive
criticism. Political parties in a democratic system should be
similarly. Voters should have the opportunity to both praise and punish
politicians. Punishment is particularly important when there is
dishonesty, discrimination, corruption or incompetence. When things
like this happen, and they unfortunately happen frequently, politicians
must be subject to democratic controls.
The financial crisis following 2007-2008 has made this question
increasingly urgent. Economic belt-tightening ("austerity") became
necessary because the rich managed to extract enormous amounts of
money from the global economic system at the expense of the general
public. This is basically what caused the crisis. Some politicians clearly
benefited from this trend, but in subsequent elections voters were
unable to directly punish them.
The Austrian federal election in 2013 was a good example. In the months
preceding the election, every major party except the Greens was plagued
by scandal. Major cases of corruption had been discovered in the ranks
of the centre left, the centre right, and the far right, and reported
in the media. Most voters admired the Greens for their honesty and
integrity, but surprisingly few voted for them. For many, the Greens
were evidently their second-favorite party. The result was a swing away
centre parties and a big increase in support for the far right. If the
election had been conducted according to the "carrot-and-stick"
principle, most people would have voted AGAINST the far right or of one
of the two centrist parties -
regardless of whom they voted FOR. That would have benefited the
Greens, who according to opinion polls were especially popular due to
their "white shirt" - their failure to get involved in major scandals. The Greens would have
taken 3rd rather than 4th
place - just after the centre left and centre right. They would have
been available for participation in a governing coalition.
Our current system is a yes-vote system. It is based purely on carrots.
encourage populism. Populists are mainly concerned about the number of
people who support them; they don't particularly care what
non-supporters think about them. Populist
politicians do and say things that are evidently bad for the country
and its people, while at
the same time pretending to be the greatest nationalists. They
try to fool a large minority people into supporting them with arguments
that are false or deeply problematic. The majority of voters
realise that, but they can't do very much about it, because at the
election they cannot directly vote against the far right. They can only
vote for another party. In the current system, populism cannot be
directly punished. If voters could also vote against
that would be the end of their victory run. A carrot-and-stick election
would give voters that option.
am I writing this proposal? I belong to a large minority of
well-educated people in industrial countries who critically read good
newspapers, have a good idea of how politics works, have studied the
history of political systems especially during
the 20th century, and genuinely care about less fortunate people and
future generations. For this reason, I am one of many people who are
very worried about
far-right populism. In the past, we have felt powerless to prevent the
from participating in government or disturbing the social peace. In the
present proposal, I believe that I have found a promising solution. I
would welcome feedback including any references to relevant literature.
I am grateful to Bernd Brabec for giving me this idea and for
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