Multi-level elections and participatory practices
Report by Hermann Schmitt, Rapporteur
The main points framing the workshop are that elections are not independent events although this is not problematic in any sense as long as it does not affect the autonomy of elections, that is: their effectiveness in shaping (top-down) and representing (bottom-up) policy preferences of voters and translating them into public policy.
Factors that can affect the relative autonomy of an election are the timing of an election relative to other ones; the decisiveness and perceived importance of an election; and the choice of an electoral formula (some might be more appropriate to a particular arena than others). Possible problematic results of less than autonomous elections are that not all policy preferences of the constituency are equally represented in the election result due to deficient electoral mobilisation; and that preferences on “alien” issues – alien to the electoral arena under question – are represented due to contamination effects from other electoral arenas which find their way in the electoral verdict e.g. by way of strategic voting behaviour of citizens.
Summary of the presentations
Michael Gallagher (Trinity College, Dublin) discussed the interrelation of elections at different levels of the political system with a particular focus on the question whether the same electoral system should be used at different levels. According to him, this question has gained salience in recent decades due to a process of “hollowing out” of the state. This hollowing out results from the – sub-national – tendencies of decentralisation and devolution on one hand, and the – supra-national – process of European integration on the other. The consequence of this is a significant increase in the number of general elections that citizens are called for. Gallagher discussed possible advantages and disadvantages of using different electoral systems – in the narrow sense of the term, i.e. electoral formulae – for different elections of a given polity. A possible advantage would exist if the electoral system at different levels should do different things – e.g. elect a governor/mayor at one level and represent the interests of the citizenry at large at another. A possible disadvantage could result from voter confusion about different formulae applied in consecutive elections.
Sandra Pernar (Gong, Croatia) stressed the importance of empowering NGOs in order to enable them to effectively monitor elections. She explained that this task is not restricted to the very day in which an election is held but rather is of a more enduring nature; and that NGOs are indeed able to enact changes. She suggested that there are five requirements for NGOs to be effective in that regard: (1) they need to be independent. (2) their actions need to operate in a fully transparent way. (3) they need to “know the business” (competence), this may include support and training from abroad. (4) NGOs need to “know the opposition”, which is to say that they need to be familiar with the national political system and the actors and their motivations that are operating in it. (5) A fifth and final requirement is visibility: citizens are powerful allies, and a good contact with the media is essential for fulfilling the task.
Ola Petterson (International IDEA, Sweden) addressed electoral participation, and in particular the measures that are available and the solutions that are discussed in order to fight turnout decline. He suggested that elections are not one-off events but rather a continuous process extending over the electoral cycle; and that voters need to be involved over the whole electoral cycle rather than just at election day. He raised the questions of who does not participate in elections, why don’t they participate, what can be done about it, when and how can we assess the impact of any action?
Natalya Romanova (Chernigiv Regional Council) proposed that turnout in general elections depends most of all on the quality of the democracy in a given polity. She maintained that international recognition has a role to play here and that the electoral process should be closely watched by human rights organisations which should be given a greater role. Moreover, party lists should be open rather than closed to give voters greater power over party leadership. All forms of “dirty technology” that are used in the electoral process need to be effectively abolished. Last but not least, representatives once elected need to be able to solve peoples’ problems. All this applies to national and sub-national levels, although the problems are probably less severe at local and regional levels.
Institutional forms of local government
One of the themes addressed during the discussions was the institutional form of local government, and in particular whether the introduction of directly elected mayors would harm or foster the quality of the electoral process. While the “presidentialisation” of local government does not eo ipso seem to present a problem for representative democracy, divergent opinions were articulated nevertheless.
Natalya Romanova reported that in Ukraine directly elected mayors enjoy a high level of legitimacy. On the other hand, Sandra Pernar considered that Croatia does not seem ready yet for directly elected mayors as this would require a “higher” political culture. There, pre-electoral campaigns are often characterised by big struggles between candidates, sometimes with even violent outbursts. The result of this seems to be that more and more people do not trust the politicians and that “apolitical” businessmen present themselves as candidates and find some support, particularly at the local level – a process which however produces its own technocratic problems. Anatoliy Tkachuk (Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Construction, Ukraine), the Chair of the Workshop, proposed that the direct election of mayors is good for cities.
It was suggested from the audience that one of the very basic problems results from the fact that citizens do not really know the candidates and that voters and candidates should be educated in a way which enables them to better perform their respective tasks. A local politician expressed his concern that NGOs are often prevented from effective election observation because they are not a legal part of the election process. It would be desirable to see relevant election laws amended to allow this.
Pierre Garrone (Secretariat of the Venice Commission) pointed to the Swiss experience according to which the result of local elections not only depends on the institutional setup, but also on their timing relative to elections at other levels of the overall system of governance. This concurs with findings from European Parliament election studies showing that national governing parties do systematically worse in “second order” elections.
Different electoral systems at different levels of governance
Michael Gallagher reported on the British experience with different sub-national, national and supra-national election laws. According to him, the British example shows that even serious differences do not prevent voters from making informed and reasonable choices – voter confusion is not really an issue. For the election of national MPs Anatoliy Tkachuk advocated a two-round single member plurality system over proportional representation because of the risk from a PR system of unstable results and bringing people to power who are incapable of fulfilling the task.
Regarding the promotion of turnout, it was suggested that compulsory voting is not really a solution because one in five citizens do not vote even when participation is mandatory. What seems to matter most is the decisiveness, that is to say the gravity, of the likely political consequences of an electoral verdict. Technical innovations that aim at facilitating the act of voting such as e-voting must be seen as a complement to more traditional tools. However, politicisation can also be overdone, as Nataliya Romanova explained with reference to the Ukrainian example. Finally, information and civic education can increase turnout, according to Sandra Pernar, if NGO’s and political parties and their candidates co-operate rather than hinder one another.
The electoral connection is at the heart of representative democracy. It is well understood that this relies on responsible parties that are both distinct and cohesive in policy terms. Distinct parties provide voters with a substantive choice – if parties advocate the same policies citizens do not have any choice. Cohesive parties are required so that a party once elected into office can indeed transform the policy pledges it advocated during the campaign into public policy – which would not be possible with a party divided over important issues.
This workshop has put another basic requirement of the electoral connection in the centre of its deliberation: the necessary autonomy of an election. Growing sub-national autonomy and supra-national integration have resulted in a “hollowing out of the state” – a process that has led to a growing number of elections to which citizens are called. The same effect springs from constitutional choices in many post-communist democracies of eastern Europe. Semi-presidential systems are the modal regime type here which stipulates, in addition to the general election of members of parliament, the direct election of a (more or less powerful) president.
One possible danger that is associated with this growing multiplicity of elections is that alien issues or policies – alien in the sense that they do not relate to the political arena of the election at hand – can determine the result of a particular election. To the degree that this is indeed the case, this is putting the well-functioning of representative democracy into question.
Policy content of the electoral verdict
The policy content of an electoral verdict is of central importance here. Electoral systems – in the broader sense of the term – need to be structured in such a way that voters can base their choice on clear policy alternatives (for the electoral arena at hand), so that the election result can be understood as a policy mandate for the incoming government. Clear policy alternatives, possibly in conjunction with a close race of government alternatives (candidates, parties or party coalitions), are the best remedy for declining levels of turnout. Voters will vote if they believe that it will make a difference, i.e. when the decisiveness of an election is high.
Personalisation of electoral politics
The personalisation of electoral choices does not necessarily stand in the way of clear policy content, so the direct election of mayors or presidents may not harm the notion of representative democracy. As long as personal electoral alternatives are associated with distinct policy profiles, personalisation can be beneficial to the quality of democracy because it can help to increase turnout.
NGOs to replace political parties?
In order to contribute to the democratic quality of multi-level governance, multi-level elections need to be conducted in a free and fair manner. This is less self-evident than it may seem for many. In the new post-communist democracies in particular, the administration of elections is not always in compliance with existing legislation. This seems to result in part from the limited credibility of the electoral process which in the eyes of many citizens still suffers from its de-legitimisation under communist rule. The very high volatility of both voters and parties contributes to a general sense of “anything goes” among relevant actors and the often extreme ideological polarization between even major parties which turns electoral competition and campaigning into bitter fights between hostile camps of “us” and “them”.
Under these conditions, it makes sense that NGOs enjoy a higher credibility than political parties – although it should never be forgotten that the electoral connection requires political parties everywhere. Political parties channel and express voter preferences, they organise elections and form governments. However, electoral communication is not a one-way street; political parties also mould the preferences of their voters and actively shape public opinion. These are functions that NGOs, social movements and interest groups can never fulfil in their entirety. Political parties may be held in disregard – possibly for different reasons in different parts of Europe – but there is no substitute for them. Direct democracy is not well suited to taking complex political decisions in mass democracies and populist appeals cannot provide a democratic alternative.