Democracy, for all its flaws, may in fact be the best form of government. But there are many ways to improve it

By Peter Emerson

Following the elections on October 15, Austria’s political parties are now jostling to form another coalition government. Germany too is facing the challenge of cobbling together a coalition of three different parties with three very different world views. In the U.K., the conservative party’s coalition partner, the extremist Democratic Unionist Party, has more power than its proportional due. With a coalition majority of only one deputy, Israel’s government is also in a parlous state. While, in Turkey, not wanting to share power with the Kurds, Erdoğan called for another election and, post violence, he won.

The list of democracy’s less than perfect consequences goes on. Catalonia’s referendum led to government-led police violence. The aftermath of Britain’s Brexit vote saw increased racial tensions. And Sarajevo’s famous newspaper, Oslobodjenje, wrote in February, 1999, “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum.” Democracy can indeed be dangerous.

This is partly because, in majority voting, I vote “for” what I want, and/or “against” something or someone. I hope that I and my political fellows outnumber your lot. So in campaigning prior to the vote, especially in conflict zones, I may try to increase my support by antagonizing any opponents, Protestant or Catholic, Sunni or Shiite, Hutu or Tutsi. Majority rule also implies that, in a plural society as was Syria, there will always be a majority against whoever is in power.

The Contradictions of Democracy

When countries experience momentous social change – the Arab Spring, or the end of colonialism or Soviet communism – the West advocates majoritarianism. If the latter goes horribly wrong – postelection mayhem in Kenya, civil war in Libya, violence in Ukraine – we call for all-party, power sharing and governments of national unity, the very opposite of our initial advice.

If only politics were based on preferential voting. At home we rarely say, “X for dinner, dear, yes or no?” Instead, options are debated, usually just a short list, and the outcome is, more often than not, a compromise.

Politics could be the same. In debates on constitutions and budgets et cetera, everything could be put “on the table” and then represented in a (short) list on the subsequent ballot paper. Next, in say a five-option ballot, every member of parliament could give their favorite five points, their second choice four points, their third three points, and so on. And though they might dislike the fifth option, they could nevertheless give it one point, so to imply acceptance of this outcome if such were parliament’s collective will.

A full five points would depend on the MP ranking the other four options. If a member voted for only his first preference, his favourite would get only one point, and the other options nothing. If he cast two preferences, his favorite would get two points, his second choice one, and so on. The difference is always one point.

Success would depend on a good number of high preferences, some middle ones perhaps, and very few low preferences. So the protagonist should try to persuade her opponents to give her option a fourth or higher preference, and her supporters to cast full ballots so that all her 1st preferences would be worth five points. The overall effect is one of mutual respect and better democratic decision-making.

Contentious problems should best be subject to preferential ballots – now called the Modi ed Borda Count, MBC – and governance should be all party power sharing. This points system of preferential voting was invented by a Majorcan, Ramón Llull, in 1199; a German, Nicholas Cusanus, in 1435; Jean-Charles de Borda in France in 1784; an Englishman 100 years later, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll); and in 1978, this author in Ireland. None of them knew of any of their predecessors. But all of us do now.