Monday, February 07, 2011

A political reform for Estonia

There has been some discussion on over the past few days about the differences between the political culture of the Nordic countries and that of the UK. Contributors were highlighting the higher levels of education in the region versus the vituperation that is the norm in the British political discourse. It is customary at this point to make some kind of self critical comment about the destructiveness of the highly personal and adversarial politics in the UK. However I don't entirely feel that this is justified. The fact is that the high seriousness of the debate in, for example, Estonia can be rather wearisome. Only at election results time do politicians seem to let their hair down- and the sight of bottles of strong drink on the election programs is a sign that some home truths may be spoken. There are honourable exceptions, politicians who cultivate a slightly controversial or jokey image, but in general politics is a ponderous, serious, even cumbersome business.

Sometimes, therefore, the sarcastic and acerbic politics of Britain can be a relief. It certainly allows the voters to tell their nominal leaders precisely what they think of them. The downside is that British politicians have to have incredibly thick skins in order to take the battering that is handed out to them. The result of that is that the personality types who enter British politics are fairly limited. Thoughtful, sensitive, introspective types need not apply. On the other hand some kind of sense of humour is probably essential.

In general, though, the political class of Estonia has a broader range of personalities than in the UK. yet there is one aspect o Estonian politics that clearly needs reform. The list system takes to much power from the voters and leaves it in the hands of the party apparatchiks. For example, several sitting MPs have been demoted on their Party lists in a way that makes it all but certain that they would not be re-elected. Meanwhile, several parties boost their votes by offering candidates that are well know, but who, for some reason- such as current membership of the European Parliament- are highly unlikely to take their seats. The point being that they would give up their seats to the next politician down on the party list. It is a practice that is highly controversial, but which continues, because it suits certain parties to do this.

In my view voters should be allowed to chose between candidates of the same party- which is one reason that I am firmly in favour of the single transferable vote in multi member constituencies. Amongst many other positives, it is fairly simple to vote: the voters simply lists the candidates in order of preference until they are indifferent. So voters can not only split their vote -should they chose to do so- they can also chose the candidate they most support within the party that they most support. More to the point, because the number of MPs is variable, the constituencies are fixed, so it is extremely difficult to gerrymander a seat in favour or one or another party: no more interminable boundary commission reviews. In the UK I see AV as step in the right direction, since the voting mechanism is the same: listing in order of preference, but there is only one MP elected per seat.

In Estonia, although the list system is proportional, the voters still do not have much more power than under first past the post, because the party selects the order that candidates are elected in. In my view, that is a right that more properly belongs to the voters.

Thus, after this General Election in March. I sincerely hope that the Estonians will consider two changes to their constitution: firstly to make the President directly elected, rather than indirectly by the Riigikogu or if the Parliament is deadlocked by the Constituent Electoral College. Yet more important still I think would be to change the electoral system to make it more responsive to the voters: in other words to ditch lists in favour of voter choice and the STV system.

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