Sunday, October 30, 2011

What we can learn from the Arab Spring

As far away observers some of us seem to feel that the Arabs are finally getting some things right. Others forget our side had a lot to do with their suppression. It suited us that their rulers would co-operate with us to give the world a reasonable level of cheap energy and help develop a Western oriented balance of power.

An important lesson we can learn has to do with democracy. We think we set the standards, but we might be a little near sighted. Most new electoral systems incorporate some form of proportional voting. We actually encourage it in foreign countries. Our concerns with Arab nations is not so benevolent, but reflects our fears that the fundamentalist extremists will gain control as under our first past the post system they could very easily do so. We fear that if they get control they will irreversibly institute things that we find offensive such as Sharia law, the banning of alcohol and ally themselves with our enemies. So we want to ensure that the minorities that are more Westernized have a strong influence and have figured out that proportional voting can help make that happen.

In Algeria the fundamentalists a few decades ago did get control and upset the international balance of power. In Iran fundamentalists threw out the Shah that had been propped up by western powers. Lately the situation is different. In Tunisia, although the fundamentalists have a very strong voice they are forced to acknowledge those who have different and even opposite concerns.

German election laws gave the Nazis legitimate power that they were able to leverage into total power that eventaully the whole world suffered from. We in North America should not be so self righteious. In the United States with the help of their Constitution, and the Supreme Court a president was elected with less than the plurality of votes and went on to set policies in such areas as war, environment, financial regulations and taxes that seriously impacted the majority that had voted otherwise.

In Canada in one province a leader with less than 30% of eligible voters and well less than majority of actual votes was able to declare a new holiday amongst other things. In national elections one party with less than 50% of the votes was finally able to do away with distribution of funds to all politcal parties in proportion to the number of votes they were able to attract. This means that in the future fund raising will be even more critical to a party's success. This hardly noticed change in law is very pernicious as the party making this hard to reverse decision saw it as helpful to its own future prospects.

To my mind the most critical change required for true democracy is campaign finance. In theory democracy is a battle of ideas, but in reality those with money have a bigger platform to make their points. Those with the money have greater influence. This is currently a bigger concern in the United States where the appointed Supreme Court has ruled corporations have in some circumstances have the same standing as human citizens, but is a concern in all democracies.

By now you may guessed that I very much favour proportional voting systems. Some critics might think it is a problem to have more than two parties as it leads to minority governments that paralyze decision making. That can be bad, however when there are no restraints the party in power can actually (and in fact often do) effectively ignore the will of the majority of people.

I think with even ten parties it is unlikely that very few people will agree 100% with every policy detail of any one party. But each voter has the right to have their own priorities and to minimize compromise in their decision. Compromises will be made amongst those elected. Those compromises will help determine future votes.

As always those in power do what they can to maintain and increase their power. They look for rules that increase their leverage.

Many new democracies realize the need to represent all viewpoints. Minorities are important. Sometimes they act as a conscience, sometimes they offer viable alternatives, often they are able to constructively criticize what those in dominant positions propose and always they are part of the team that needs to work together for the benefit of all.

Our democracy evolved to what it is today and still needs to evolve to be a truer democracy. We allow more people to vote, but actually the percentages seem to be on a downward trajectory. One reason might be because many people realize their vote will not count or have any significant influence. Our Arab brethren actually have more influence in many circumstances on what will happen than we do. Politicians have to take into account what the people want. When people realize they have influence they are more inclined to weigh it carefully and above all to exercise it.

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