Democracy – it’s a party

Election time is here and the public discourse on all fronts is raging on. There are tons of topics and issues from taxation to immigrants that I could rant about but I’ll leave those for another time. Today, while walking around in the close by city centre I stopped to discuss for a moment with a candidate of the Finnish green party. The discussion was quickly ended however, since a man appeared and started babbling on to the candidate firstly how the right-wing “lunatics” don’t care about the poor and secondly that the system of elections that is in use here in Finland (a form of proportional representation called the D’Hondt method) is undemocratic and that because of it the state of democracy in this country is, according to him, “on par with north Korea.” I’m going to leave the right-wing accusations aside for now and focus on his later claim of the election method being “undemocratic” because I think it’s a topic that pops out fairly regularly and stems from people’s misunderstanding of the existing system.

For those of you who might not know what proportional representation means, the basic principle is as follows: when all votes have been counted the candidate of a party who got the most votes gets the entire sum of the votes as his/her “final vote count” AKA quotient, the one after him gets half of the entire vote count of the party, the third one gets 1/3 and so on. After these numbers have been calculated, seats on the parliament are given out to the candidates based on their quotients. This means that it is entirely possible that a candidate from party A gets fewer votes than a candidate from party B but A gets in and B doesn’t since A’s party got more overall votes. If this truly is the state of democracy in North Korea I have missed a revolution or two. I do of course understand why this bothers some people and why it might seem undemocratic but let’s think for a while what is democracy and how it is affected by the existence of proportional representation.

Democracy is defined as the rule of the people. The people can – in most cases through voting for a candidate – affect who is going to make the laws and thus have a say on the way they want their country to be led. But in order for that to work the people must have a choice. Since the stranger took up the example of North Korea let’s look at it, after all it is officially called “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.The last parliamentary elections in North Korea were held in 2009. According to the official records nearly everyone (over 99%) voted. That’s because they were forced to. And each district only had one candidate so the results were clear from the get go. Now, anybody over the age of 5 can tell you that if you only have one choice and you are forced to take it, then it’s not really a choice. This is why I’m in favour of the propositional representation: it increases the amount of choices people have by making it feasible to vote even for a new or a relatively unkown candidate without having to fear that your vote will be in vain. After all,  even if your candidate doesn’t get elected, your vote still counts in favour of the party.

This is what people seem to forget year after year. In parliamentary and in regional elections in Finland (and many other countries including all the Scandinavian countries) you are voting primarily for a party so you should select the party first and the candidate afterwards, not the other way around as is the case with a saddening amount of people who haven’t realized the way the system works.

I do have my issues with the system as well: the D’Hondt method slightly favours larger parties over smaller ones. There exists another method of propostional reprsentation quite similar to D’Hondt’s called Sainte-Laguë method which differs from D’Hondt’s in that it attempts to balance the scales and give smaller parties an equal chance to get seats by calculating the quotient of each candidate with a formula of V/S2+1, where V is the entire vote count of the party and S is the number of seats already assigned to the party, initially being zero. Our beloved neighbours the Swedes have used this method for quite some time and I do think we should follow them and change the system, since it would increase political diversity and – in my opinion – better fulfill the ideals of democracy.

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