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"Stability and electoral systems

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Message Carlo Ungaro

The Roman Senate

"STABILITY" AND ELECTORAL SYSTEMS: Are current electoral systems compatible with Western Democratic principles?

The apparent state of confusion surrounding this particular primary election season in the United States raises several questions on that most sacred of the Free World's totems, the electoral process.

There certainly is a lack of clarity on the subject, and although some electoral systems (France comes to mind) appear more logical and satisfactory than others, no consensus has been formed, or even attempted, among Western "democracies", on the possibility of finding and sharing a formula based, for example, on a careful blend of two or more existing systems, and the subsequent scrapping of some of the more controversial national systems (Italy and the United Kingdom come to mind). The idea occasionally emerges, but does not appear destined to succeed.

Elections have been around since antiquity (the Roman Republic had them every year) and, in one form or another, have coexisted with various types of human societies, at least in Europe, throughout the centuries. After all, even the Holy Roman Emperor needed to be elected, as, indeed, does the Pope emerge from an electoral process.

The question, however, which should be examined, is whether electoral processes which have fulfilled their task -- more or less correctly and efficiently -- for many decades are still capable of assuring popular participation in the political life of a given society. In this context it has to be remembered that current principles -- including the principle of "universal suffrage" - are relatively new, and that all current systems -- even the most technologically advanced -- are extremely slow and cumbersome when compared to progress made in means of communication.

One result of this anomaly appears to lie in the growing number of "democratically elected" leaders who, once in office, rather than following the principles laid down in their own electoral platform, prefer having their decisions dictated, or, at least, greatly influenced, by trends in public opinion as picked up by the electronic media.

On the one hand this could appear as an extremely positive development, the result being a form of "direct democracy" not even dreamed about by the ancient Athenians. This trend, however, greatly diminishes the importance of the electoral process itself, which ends up reduced to a near-farcical popularity contest in which looks, one-liners, toothsome smiles and such end up being much more important than political principles. These, of course, will end up being formed, as time goes on, by mainstream trends in public opinion. The very term, beloved by the Romans "vox populi, vox Dei" (the voice of the people is the voice of God) would actually reach new degrees of significance, and the elections themselves would greatly diminish in importance. In fact, one could well ask whether the excitement currently surrounding the Presidential elections, reduced to exercises in show-business with less and less attention being reserved to key issues should actually be viewed as a sign of the imminent demise of a process we have been used to consider sacred but which, in its current form, is no longer compatible with the true concept of "Democracy".

The hidden dangers -- indeed not always hidden -- of this development are manifold. In the first place, of course, the risk of manipulation in opinion polls is far, far greater than the risk of electoral illegality, and it is not difficult to imagine the amount and the type of damage which would ensue from this.

There is also the risk that, with the diminishing of authority, the governing powers will not even obtain the limited, grudging respect they now enjoy. This danger has not escaped the attention of some Governments, and, in a number of countries, there is a growing, and rather preoccupying call for electoral processes designed to give governments greater authority, in the name of "stability" or -- perhaps even more preoccupying -- "security". It would be difficult to imagine a shepherd who, instead of directing his flock to the most favourable pastures, follows the sheep to whichever site they choose, without, as a result, losing the greater part of his flock to passing wolves or rival shepherds.

The question that comes to mind is whether a two-party system is compatible with the predominant concept of "democracy". The apparent disarray currently existing in the United States would seem to indicate that it is no longer so. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that some countries (such as Italy) which have lived fully democratic existences for decades under a multi-party system, are drifting towards precisely that two party reality which appears to diminish popular participation in public affairs, as well as popular interest in such participation (witness the dramatic fall in voter participation in most European countries). It would, therefore, appear useful to view the 2016 US presidential elections in a more global perspective than usual and to ask whether we might be witnessing the end of the Democratic age and whether the accepted Democratic process has embarked on a suicidal path?

The language and the fantasies normally associated with the concept of "Democracy" will live on and continue to be used for years to come by leading political figures, just as the Roman Emperors clung to the delusion of republican values, even as these values were being destroyed.

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I am a former, now retired, senior Italian diplomatic officer. I have spent many years (over 25) in Central Asia (sixteen in Afghanistan).
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