2010/03/22

Let's improve our democracy, a work in progress (II)


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Having vented my interest in plebiscites recently, I'll show off a much more unorthodox idea for the improvement of representative democracy this time.

Let's begin with some examples.

Germany has a five-party system (CDU/CSU, SPD, Linke, GrĂ¼ne, F.D.P.), evolved from a three-party system. There has always been a ruling coalition of two on the federal level and coalitions of three have been discussed at times, but they weren't necessary for a majority.

Well, I could vote for the F.D.P. because of its stance on civil liberties, but the F.D.P. won't rule without a coalition with at least either CDU/CSU (civil liberties abusers by German standards) or SPD (not that much better) anytime soon.
Even worse; I may agree with the F.D.P. on civil liberties and at the same time dislike their proximity to corporate special interests (such as a recent *questionable* tax break for the hotel sector).

It's perfectly common that a poll yields vastly different approval ratings of parties in different topics (such as economic policy, foreign policy, fiscal policy, environmental policy, social policy...).


Such dilemmas coin German elections; almost no-one is able to vote for a perfect representation of his/her own political opinion. You're always voting in favour of some political stances that you disagree with. It's all about suboptimal compromises.
Isn't this stupid and an embarrassing defect of the system?

A growing share of the German citizens got tired of this and doesn't vote anymore. Maybe they would vote again if they were confident that their vote would yield less random policy effects?


Plebiscites offer an alternative, but a plebiscite is quite an effort. It's justified for very important decisions, yet impractical for everyday decisions on a federal level.

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I have an unorthodox idea; how about splitting the parliament into departments just like the cabinet is split up into different ministries? We could basically have a separate parliament for social policy, one for economic policy, one for foreign policy ... and a general one for reconciliation, as primus inter pares to break deadlocks. This system could replace the parliamentary committees of the present system.

This might help to improve the accuracy of representation because people tend to agree or disagree with parties less on specific issues than on the parties' general policy approach.

A valuable side-effect would be the vastly reduced workload per member of parliament. They would need to read less bills per year than the year has working days.
The specialist parliaments could also be downsized to a highly practical size of about 20-40 members each.
Every specialist parliament could have the expertise, time and motivation to fulfill the oversight role in regard to the corresponding ministry. The system would probably push us towards choosing specialist MPs more often as ministers (instead of failed and way too often incompetent state politicians).

Generalist politicians and arbiter characters would seek to join the primus inter pares parliament, while the specialist politicians with great expertise would move into the specialist parliaments. In the end, we wouldn't need more MPs than today.


Such a different system poses the question of how to elect the cabinet. The present system lets the parliament elect a Chancellor who then selects ministers (usually based on an agreement with the coalition partner).
A diverse parliamentary system as the outlined one could have the Chancellor elected by the general (primus inter pares) parliament and the ministers by the corresponding specialised parliaments.
The Chancellor could also be elected directly. The justification for the present system is in great part that it (almost) prevents the situation of a Chancellor in conflict with the parliament majority. Such a conflict would be of rather small relevance in the proposed system - the Chancellor would likely be in conflict with some specialist parliaments anyway.
The whole nature of the political system at the cabinet / parliament level would become more a bottom-up than a top-down setup.
The head of state (Chancellor) would need to focus on arbitration among ministers even more than today.

It's furthermore interesting that coalitions would make less sense than ever before, and they would likely be confined to individual parliaments. SPD and greens could form a majority coalition in the social policy parliament, greens and F.D.P. could form a majority coalition in the justice parliament - while the CDU/CSU and F.D.P. could probably have majority coalition in the economic policy parliament.

The only outstanding parliaments and cabinet positions would be the one for fiscal policy and the general (primus inter pares) one. Maybe these two should be joined into one?

This model opens up a whole range of topics to think about. I have spent some time reading political science literature, but I've never found an established model like this one. Maybe I missed one, then this would be a mere reinvention. Anyway, I think it's very interesting.



The concept of specialist parliaments with a reconciling primus inter pares general parliament could generate a much better match of the sovereign's political intent and actual political representation. It could at the same time address certain issues like lacking oversight, lacking competence and excessive MP workload.
I have a feeling that such a reform could be the biggest progress of representative democracy since the invention of proportional representation.


Sven Ortmann
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7 comments:

  1. Very inspiring approach. If I am correct this system would generate different majorities on different subjectrepresented by parliamentary departements. In fact there is a great deal of dependencies between those areas of responsibilities. For example the departement of finance would have to interfere with almost every other departement. Think that the SPD-Green dominated departement of social affairs intends to raise social spendings wheraes a CDU/CSU-FDP departement of finance would not provide the money required due to total different approach to social spendings. How to conciliate?

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  2. The finance ministry does nowadays play into every other department, so the problem wouldn'tbe new.


    The general/primus inter pares parliament would reconcile if the social affairs and fiscal affais parliament cannot agree.

    Germany actually has a committee like that, the Vermittlungsausschuss; it reconciles between the Bundestag (directly elected) and the Bundesrat (representatives of the 16 states) if both need to agree on a law.
    This happens when for example a federal law becomes a burden for state budgets.

    The general/primus inter pares parliament doesn't need to decide such an issue by its majority decision. It could simply add its votes to the pro/contra votes of the disagreeing specialised parliaments.

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  3. Then I do not see the advantage of a parliamentary specialization if one has to address the regular parliament as soon as seperate departements blockading each other.The specialized competence of the sub-parliaments would be obsolete because the votes of the general non-specialized parliamnet are decicive in such a case which is likely to appear quite often. We may therefore keep our existing system just as well.

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  4. Conflicts and mediation are common in representative democracy - even in two-party systems (where party wings instead of parties wrestle about bills).

    The relevant difference is the greater accuracy in representation. A single vote for a thousand different topics at once is simply less accurate than a single vote per policy area.
    It's a failure of the system if it treats your vote for party x as a legitimation for their foreign policy if you do not agree with their foreign policy and merely voted for them because they're the least terrible choice due to their favourable economic and social policy.

    It's not a proposal that solves all problems of representative democracy at once. It does merely claim to improve accuracy of representation, MP workload and MP competence.

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  5. I think this would result in dueling elected officials.

    The one elected for the environement would have no motivation to compromise with the one elected for the mines.

    The central resolution mechanism would get bogged down in grandstanding.

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  6. Again, I didn't claim it would solve all present problems. ;-)

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  7. If I were to chose between deadlocks caused by opposing goals of the various parliaments and one single big parliament that rams through whatever legislation their sponsors require, I would always chose the deadlocked parliaments.

    I can give you the example of the Digital Economy Bill that is currently rammed through the UK Parliament and which is most likely to be washed up by the House of Commons on the 6th of April. The wash up procedure means that, after the Chancellor announces the date of the elections, there is a short interval between that announcement and the date of the dissolution of the current Parliament. In that short interval, if the parties agree, they can pass any of the still unfinished legislative projects without ANY debate whatsoever.

    In the particular case of the Digital Economy Bill, that's particularly troubling and dangerous because, unlike the name might suggest, it's a startlingly backwards piece of legislation. Also, the most dangerous provisions have been either drafted by industry lobbyists themselves (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/mar/11/digital-economy-bill-amendment-lobbyists) or by politicians in the pockets of the industry (http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/the_web/article6797844.ece). To top it off, the bill has been debated to some extend only in the House of Lords (the lower House of the Parliament) but no debate has taken place in the House of Commons (the upper House of the Parliament). So, in short, the House of Commons plan to ram this through without ANY debate whatsoever.

    So, to make my point even clearer, between streamlining this kind of abuse and slower process that prevents this kind of abuse, I strongly support the slower process.

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