Electoral system faces legitimacy crisis

By Jeremy Garlick Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/19 12:18:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

China is often criticized by Western analysts and observers for the perceived lack of legitimacy of its government. The basis of these criticisms is that China does not have a Western-style electoral system such as those used in Europe, the US, Canada, Japan and South Korea.

Of course, it is true that China does not have such an electoral system. Yet the assumption that all ills in a political economy can be cured by a switch to a voting system based on the direct election of representatives is not necessarily borne out by the facts.

A quick glance at recent developments in some developed nations which have mass popular votes demonstrates the complexity of questions concerning the legitimacy and effectiveness of governments.

Most obviously, there is the recent US presidential election, in which Donald Trump won the presidency, but without a popular majority. Since Hillary Clinton received more than 2 million votes more than Trump, questions are being raised around the legitimacy of the election, with protests against the result. Some do not regard Trump as their legitimate president.

In Britain and Italy there have been referendums this year which went against the wishes of their ruling parties. These votes also suggest that the public does not perceive the record or policies of elected leaders as being in line with the mandate they had previously been given.

Closer to China, South Korea's Western-style political system is in crisis because of the perceived incompetence and corruption of its elected leader. President Park Geun-hye has been impeached by parliament for issues connected with an advisor who is said to have had excessive influence on policy-making.

In fact, Korea's elected presidents have been beset with problems concerning corruption and other issues. One president, Roh Moo-hyun, even committed suicide due to criticisms of his presidency, and others have been imprisoned or prosecuted.

At the heart of the questions which surround the problem of public perceptions of governments are two central issues, already hinted at above. The first relates to the legitimacy of a government, while the second relates to its effectiveness.

In relation to the first issue, it is not clear from the record that just because leaders are elected by a plurality of votes in a popular election that this will generate a legislature or administration which is recognized as legitimate by the majority of citizens.

In the US, many millions of eligible voters did not vote at all, meaning that Trump is supported by only a minority of the US population. A deeper analysis reveals that he was elected by voters in just a few swing states, while votes in other states had no real effect on the result.

Even when the election is perceived to be fair, leaders can still be elected who voters later perceive as illegitimate.

This is now the case of South Korea, where President Park is being impeached, and in Britain, where former Prime Minister Tony Blair is generally perceived as having deceived the electorate over the Iraq war and is now considered persona non grata by the British public in terms of future governance.

Questions of effectiveness overlap with those of legitimacy. Just because a politician is popularly elected, this does not imply that he or she, whatever his or her qualities, will make a good leader.

Issues concerning perceptions of ineffective leadership occur because elections by mass popular vote tend to favor politicians who are charismatic and good at public speaking, rather than solid decision-makers and administrators. In the cases of Park and Blair, the record demonstrates irrefutably that these popularly elected leaders were poor at decision-making and administration, and that this negatively impacted both their countries and the public perception of their legitimacy.

In short, it is not necessarily the case that popular elections will automatically produce governments and leaders which are perceived as legitimate and effective.

This truth applies to China as much as any other country. On the other hand, it certainly does not apply more to China than other countries simply because China does not have a Western-style political system. It is necessary to conduct a deeper comparative analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of all political systems if one wishes to understand what makes governments effective and legitimate.

It is not proven that a Western-style electoral system is inherently better at producing good governance than other types. Those who claim that it is necessary to adopt uncritically a Western-style system of popular elections if you want legitimate and effective governments are unfortunately neglecting to conduct a sufficiently serious analysis of what makes governments good at steering countries into the future.

The author is a lecturer in international relations, Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies, University of Economics in Prague. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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