A national election has been called here in Canada. To me democracy means that ordinary people are engaged in the decision-making process. To what extent does our system measure up to this ideal?
Our system is a riding-based representative democracy (with various additional peculiarities like an appointed Senate, which are not my focus here). Every so often (but at least every 5 years) we have a national election in which voters in each of 308 local districts ("ridings") select a representative to sit in parliament. Each representative belongs to a political party, and the party with the largest number of elected representatives tries to form a government (perhaps with the conditional support of other parties).
This system has several consequences. First, political engagement by ordinary people tends to be limited. In between elections, we don't generally have much say. A related phenomenon is that at election time, political parties (and candidates) make all kinds of promises about what they'll do if elected. Once in power, things don't always play out this way. That's one reason for the prevailing cynicism about politics and politicians in this country.
Second, because of the riding system, the overall national pattern of votes is somewhat weakly correlated with the number of seats each party wins in parliament. As I have pointed out previously
, this makes prediction of election results quite difficult. To me, this kind of uncertainty is regrettable because it heightens the "horse-race" atmosphere around an election, distracting the focus from the real issues. (Unlike in the U.S., the timing of Canadian elections is also unpredictable, adding to the uncertainty.)
The riding system also means that the proportion of seats a party wins can be very different from the popular vote at the national level. For example, take a look at the results of the last election
. The Bloc Québécois got 12.4% of the national vote. Their proportional share of the 308 seats in parliament would have been 38, but in fact they got 54 seats. The Green Party got 4.3% of the national vote, but 0 seats! If seats had been assigned in proportion to their share of the national vote, they would have received 13 seats. Clearly, viewpoints that are spread relatively thinly across the country are under-represented in parliament -- or even totally excluded.
A related phenomenon is so-called "strategic voting", in which you vote not for the party you'd like to win, but for the part most likely to defeat
the party you don't
want to win. Another side of this is "vote splitting". For example two parties with similar views may be defeated by a third party, even though their combined
share of the votes is larger. Of course strategic voting and vote splitting can happen in any multi-party system, but the winner-takes-it-all riding system magnifies the problem. And it is
a problem. A supporter of the New Democratic Party (NDP, left) may vote Liberal (middle) to keep a Conservative (right) from winning their riding. This is made more complex by the virtues of particular candidates in a riding. (Incidentally, I'm reminded of an election in Louisiana a few years back where the choice was between a former KKK member and a notoriously corrupt candidate. The slogan was "Better a lizard than a wizard!") In the riding where I live
, the Liberals have won by a wide margin in each election since 1935, when the riding was formed. I think the only chance to beat them this time would be for everyone on the left to vote Conservative! This seems perverse.
Naturally, political-party strategists are well aware of these aspects of our system. They realize that elections are often decided by what happens in "key ridings", where a few votes can make the difference between winning and losing a seat. Don't expect any of the parties to invest much effort in my riding, where the Liberals have it in the bag. Where do the party leaders visit? Where is political polling the most intense? Where are pre-election funding announcements made? Just where you'd expect. I believe that all this happens at the expense of a genuine focus on the issues and to the detriment of democracy.
Finally, a few links to blogs about the current election campaign: http://www.thiscanada.com/
("I am not a Liberal, a Conservative, a NDPer, or anything else. Rather, I'm just concerned about good governance and graft-free politics in Canada."), http://myblahg.com/
(seems to be an NDP supporter), and for fun http://rickmercer.blogspot.com/