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Avoiding an electoral mess: why the Alternative Vote system is no good


[The Fiji Times, 5 March 2001]

We are in a mess.  But some day, Fiji will vote again. A Government will be formed.

And we may mess up again.  Because of a weak electoral system.

Of course, we may mess up because of greed for power; greed for money; egos, arrogance and self-righteousness of political leaders; sheer racism.  Or the whole bang lot together.

But can we please, please, not let the electoral system stuff us up, as it has, many times in the past.

The Reeves Commission stuffed up on the electoral system, despite Fiji people’s submissions for different more suitable systems.

For expatriate experts of all shades, the views of us local yokels didn’t matter too much (even if we have to pick up the pieces, and God, haven’t we gone to pieces).

Readers might care to look at my Fiji Times article of  1 November 1996 (titled “Sound principles but weak advice on electoral system”) criticising the Alternative Vote system being recommended by the Reeves Commission.

And also my Fiji Times article on the 2 November 1996 (titled “Fijians lose in a bad government”) which called for electoral proportionality in parliament amongst other things.

Today, many intelligent people, fed up with the Alternative Vote system, are advocating the return of the “First Past the Post” electoral system- not a good idea.

I agree that the Alternative Vote system has weakness.

But our political leaders (and those behind the scenes who guide our political parties), must try to understand that a “First Past the Post” system, on its own, is not the answer either.

In particular, with several parties contesting, a “First Past the Post” system, can still have disastrous results, leading once more to political instability.

Voting citizens, read on.  Do not be lazy (Big Ben Bolt, Modesty Blaise, and the Wizard of Id can wait).

What’s wrong with the “First-Past-the Post” System?

 Imagine an election with only 2 parties, with the Frog Party getting 60% of the votes, and the Mongoose Party getting 40%.

The Frog Party, with more than 50% of the votes, naturally wins.  That’s how it should be.

But suppose a third party comes on the scene- a Toad Party- which splits the votes for the Frog Party.  A likely result could be:  Frog Party (35%); Toad Party (25%); Mongoose Party (40%).

In a “First-Past-the-Post” system, the Mongoose Party will now win- with only 40% of the votes.  But does the Mongoose Party have the support of the majority of the voters?  In a “First Past the Post” system we will never know.

If frogs and toads have similar views (on some things),  then the majority of voters probably do not want the “winning” Mongoose Party (with minority support).

More fragmentation, more parties contesting, and more likely for minority parties to win (under a “First-Past-the-Post” system).

A Small Advantage for the Alternative Vote System

Under the Alternative Vote system, there is one advantage.  If no party has won more than 50% of the votes on the first count, then the second preference votes for the definitely losing Toad Party would be counted.

If the second preference votes of all toads are for the Frog Party (because frogs and toads may think alike on some issues) then the Frog Party will win,  with the addition of the second preferences.

But if even 11% (points)  from the Toad Party go to the Mongoose Party (some toads may really dislike the frogs, or prefer a mongoose minister, or toads and mongooses may do a deal) then the Mongoose Party could get more than 50% of the votes, and win.

And so it should- because whoever has more than more than 50% of the votes has a right to represent that constituency.

But nationally, as the 1999 Election Results showed, the Alternative Vote system can still result in major unfairness.

What is Wrong With Both “First-Past-the-Post” and the Alternative Vote System?

To make it simple, imagine 100 constituencies, voting according to either the First-Past-the-Post system, or the Alternative Vote system.

Suppose in every single constituency, the Frog Party wins 49% of the votes.  The Toad Party wins 51% of the votes.  The Toad Party wins all 100 seats.

The Frog Party gets no seats in Parliament at all.  A big zero.  But the Frog Party has 49% of the votes in the entire country.   And who will deny that in all fairness, the Frog Party should have  49 seats in Parliament?

Both the “First-Past-the-Post” system and the Alternative Vote system, can have this gross disproportionate result nationally.

Especially if, as with manyFijiparties, support is so spread throughout the country, that their supporters will never be more 50% to win any one constituency.

All votes for such losing parties are “lost” totally and the Party will be under-represented in Parliament, even if the total national support is significant.

In the 1999 Elections, had there been a proportional result, the NFP would have had 10 more seats (instead of 0), SVT should have had another 7 seats, and the VLV should have had another 4 seats.

Party Selfishness

Will parties agree to change the electoral system?

Naturally, parties who are gaining now from the electoral system, will oppose electoral changes.  They might deny that there is any electoral problem at all (even though even the CCF acknowledged a year ago that the election results were significantly unfair).

Or the larger parties (like the FLP and the SVT) may fight for the “First-Past-the-Post” system, thinking that it favours them, to the disadvantage of the smaller parties.

There is a dismaying selfish short-sighted cycle about this.

In my 1 and 2 November 1996 Fiji Times articles, I had pointed out that the ANC, the Nationalists and the FLP, given the extent of their national voter support, deserved greater parliamentary representation; that the larger parties could act selfishly in order to protect their own interests, to the detriment of the smaller parties and the national interest”.

I had warned “rigging the rules in current self-interest can have long-term unexpected results”.

But the SVT and the NFP were not too interested in being fair to the smaller parties.  And the 1999 Elections moved the political boots on to other feet, to the great shock of the SVT and the NFP.

In my Fiji Times article of 7 February 2000 I wrote: “The FLP and FAP would be politically short-sighted if they  refuse to begin dialogue on further revisions of our electoral system, merely because the current one benefits them. The FLP today has an opportunity to emulate what the SVT did in 1996, by establishing a Joint Parliamentary Committee to discuss public grievances about the electoral system, the operations of Multi-Party Government, and possible revisions to the Constitution.

If  these legitimate concerns are not placed on the official Parliamentary agenda, it cannot be surprising if they are addressed outside of Parliament, as is happening currently.  … given the enormity and nature ofFiji’s problems (such as the expiring ALTA leases), one can only wonder at the political objectives and strategies of those (inside and outside of the current Government) who preferred to exclude SVT from Cabinet (and continue to do so, despite their Constitutional right to be in Cabinet).

Can Government change the political game from the old one of confrontation, vilification and “winner takes all” mentality, to one of dialogue, consensus, co-operation and sharing?   The ball is in Government’s court.”

This is now March 2001.   A year has gone by, traumatically, with violence, deaths, joblessness, worsening poverty, and our economy in tatters.

TheAppeals Courthas given its judgement.

The ball will once more be in the court of the Peoples’ Coalition (if the President chooses to kick it there, on the advice of the BLV).  What game will they play?

What Now?

The Peoples’ Coalition could consider the following game plan:

1.         Select a candidate for a Prime Minister who commands the respect of the major Fijian parties, as well as that of the Peoples’ Coalition.

2.         Form a Government of National Unity from all the Parties in Parliament, including capable Senators from the Interim Administration, to run for one year.

3.         The priority objective for the GNU (while keeping the government ticking over) would be to ensure that the political parties come to general agreement (and pass through Parliament) the necessary revision of the electoral system and any other aspect of the Constitution about which there is serious concern.

4.         Using the revised electoral system, hold General Elections, simultaneously holding a referendum to verify the revised Constitution.

The second part to this  article gives my suggestion for the outlines of an electoral system which may be more suitable forFiji.

[Appeared as “Avoiding an electoral mess”. The Fiji Times, 5 March 2001]

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