Saturday, April 23, 2005

Indirect Elections

I have promised Frans Groenendijk that I would make some comments about his "hobby horse" of indirect elections for some time, but never actually got round to it. Here I hope to outline why I consider it to be a bad idea.

The most classic historical example of failed indirect elections is the electoral college used in US presidential elections. The experiences of the 1780s led the Founding Fathers to be highly sceptical about the power of the "mob" in legislatures. The electoral college was devised as a way of picking men of 'wisdom' to choose a Presidential candidate on behalf of the people. From the very start, however, it was the men who announced in advance which candidates they would support who achieved success. In short, the indirect election quickly became direct election by proxy.

Frans would no doubt argue that this is not the sort of model that he envisages for indirect elections. His fear is much more that of the pervasive populism which he feels leads to bad policy. The solution, for him at least, is to create a hierarchical model of politics at which elections take place for the lowest level, and then each progressive level votes for the representatives on the one above.

As far as I am concerned, the intention of lessening populism is admirable, but these means of achieving that end would have questionable results. Indeed, I think it would inevitably lead to the polarising of politics into distinct party groupings pervading all levels, and this might have the effect in turn of removing admirable councillors from their positions for decisions which have little to do with them.

The reason for this is accountability. If you did not like George Bush's foreign policy in his first term, for example, you could vote him out directly. A proper constitutional division of powers should see a system instituted in which the responsibility at each layer of government is clearly defined. If, however, a president is dependent upon a lower level not only for support, but for his position, then the desire of the people to choose their leader will result in decisions for the lower level of government being made upon who they promise to vote for at a higher level. In short, the electoral college malaise will pervade more important democratic institutions which have other useful functions.

Powers are delegated to a local level because they are carried out best at that level. For each stage of government there is a different nature to responsibility - and for all of this responsibility elected representatives have to be accountable. Delegating, in effect, this responsibility to a body with a different purpose will see people elected for the wrong reasons. If there are problems with populism, it is the constitution and the people in power who need to be sorted out - not the principle of direct election.