President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) wants to eliminate “party” deputies, those who arrive at congress through proportional representation. Mexico’s Lower Chamber has a mixed representation system made up of 500 deputies: 200 “party” or multi-member deputies and 300 majority for each of the electoral districts into which the territory is divided. The president says his goal is to guarantee democracy. “Why so many deputies? Why not remove the 200 multi-member deputies?” What’s the catch? Easy: eliminating “party” deputies opens up the possibility of taking us back to the one-party system Mexico experienced in the 1970s.
The neighbor’s grass is always greener
The argument put forward by the ruling party is that “party” parliamentarians do not have sufficient democratic legitimacy. They suggest that they answer exclusively to their parties and their leaders (the “partycracy”). They also say that the “party” parliamentarians are not connected with the “people”, as would be the majorities who have to chase to win votes in their constituencies.
The subject is funny when viewed from Canada, where the leftist parties demand otherwise. They call for abolishing constituencies and adopting the nationwide proportional representation method so that each party’s percentage of votes is clearly reflected in its percentage of seats in Parliament. Its main argument is, ironically, similar to AMLO’s: the 338 members of parliament, one for each electoral district into which the country is divided, do not reflect the feelings of the people. This is because the majority system punishes minority parties and creates “artificial” majorities, which would not be fair or democratic, they say.
Each country’s electoral system responds to its political development. In the case of Mexico, it is no exaggeration to say that the democratic transition began with the introduction of “party” deputies in 1977. Thanks to this electoral reform, opposition parties were able to obtain representation in Congress, and this at a time when the hegemonic Party Institutional Revolutionary (PRI) swept each constituency. On the other hand, the Canadian majority system is a direct legacy of the Westminster tradition, common to many countries in the Commonwealth of Nations.
Who sees faces, doesn’t see hearts
A closer look reveals that, many times, politicians who want to change electoral rules are motivated by short-term opportunism. In Mexico, the ruling party forgets that it was one of the main beneficiaries of the mixed representation system in the 2015 elections. In that year, AMLO’s National Regeneration Movement (Morena) participated for the first time in federal elections, receiving 35 deputies when it only won. in 14 districts.
It is already known that power changes people, and now that Morena is in the majority, it seeks to adopt a purely district system that will allow it to overcome opposition. Taking into account that in the 2018 elections, Morena and her allies won 218 of the 300 districts, or nearly three-quarters, under the new rules they now drive, they would have won 73% of seats in the lower house with just 46% of the vote. By way of comparison, in 1979 the hegemonic PRI gained 74% of the seats in the lower house.
But there’s a lot of hot air everywhere. Now let’s look at the Canadian case and its current Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who in 2015 promised, in his campaign, an electoral reform to introduce “party” deputies. That year, against all odds, Trudeau won an absolute majority, humiliatingly ousting Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. And guess what happened to your promise. Yes, right: he forgot about her. Under proportional representation rules, Trudeau’s Liberal Party would have won only 40% of the seats, while the majority principle gave it 54%.
The more courtesy, the greater the care
Changes in electoral systems are presented to citizens as a way of doing justice and strengthening democracy. The truth is that, under Duverger’s law, proportional and majority representation systems have their pros and cons. The trick is that politicians who seek to change the rules, one way or another, often do it for their own benefit (nobody shoots themselves in the foot). As citizens, we have to go carefully. Certainly a change in the electoral system can deepen democracy, but only if the reforms come from the parties as a whole and not the government.
Today, the elimination of “party” deputies in Mexico would open the door to a one-party system to the delight of Morena and the discontent of the rest. In the case of Canada, adopting a system of proportional representation would lead to a scenario similar to the Spanish one, where the far left and independence holders hold the key to governability, while the far right gains ground. And I say today because these scenarios can change. Without “party” deputies, Mexico could fall into a suffocating bipartisanship, as exists today in the United States. And Canada could fall into Italian tragicomedy where governments last for months and sometimes days.
The important thing here is to realize that the downside is not in electoral systems, as each one has its advantages and disadvantages. What is negative tends to be reasons for trying to change them. And here we must be very careful.
*Translation from Spanish by Maria Isabel Santos Lima
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