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Democracy and war

Pluralism is more efficient and moderate than majoritarianism


General Election 2016 has thrown up an utterly unpredictable result with Fianna Fáil in the ascendant. At the time of writing the consequences of the vote including who will survive as leaders, who will be in government and who will lead the government could not be less predictable and, without resorting to metaphysics, will reflect only opaquely the will of the people. Yet we carry on as if this did not reflect in any way on the integrity of our democracy.


The Brexit referendum should have been framed on whether the UK will be in the EU, in EFTA, or independent. But, as always in these islands, the third option, the middle one, has been omitted. The outcome, therefore, is bound to be inaccurate. And given the divisive nature of the in-or-out, stay-or-leave question, it is highly likely that the ‘leave’ option will win. In a three-option poll, the ‘leave’ option will probably lose.

On 20th Dec last year, Spain went to the polls… and two months later, Spanish politicians are still arguing about who should be in government. But this is par for the course. As happens in so many democracies, open and transparent elections are followed by closed and opaque discussions, as various parties wheel and deal behind closed doors, trying to concoct a majority coalition. In 2013, Germany’s four parties took 67 days to sort something out. In 2010/11, Belgium’s dozen took 451 days! Will Ireland have the same sort of uncertainty?

Democracy is for everybody, not just a majority. Conflict zones like Syria and Ukraine need inclusive governance, governments of national unity. Inter alia, this should mean that elections are preferential and proportional; that power is shared in both joint presidencies and all-party coalition cabinets; while the third ingredient is preferential voting and collective responsibility in parliament. Sadly, while we preach at least some of these ideals abroad, we practice the very opposite at home: majority rule in the Dáil and the Commons, and divisive majority voting both in parliaments and national referendums.

Before the Scottish referendum of 2014, it was widely assumed that ‘devo-max’, the middle option for maximum devolution, would get about 60 per cent. The ballot, however, included only the two other options, status quo and independence. The result, therefore, was a highly inaccurate nonsense.

There are times, as with the election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, or our own recent referendum on same sex marriage, when democracy is wonderful. On other occasions, as in the Balkans, it was downright dangerous: the 1990 elections there were little more than sectarian headcounts and “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum”. (Oslo- bodjenje, Sarajevo’s main newspaper, 7.2.1999.)

It must also be remembered that Napoleon became the Emperor by a popular vote, one in which he, literally, dictated the question. Hitler, too, came to power ‘democratically’. In the 1924 elections, the National Socialists won just 14 seats but, in the wake of the great depression, this rose to 107 (17.6%). The subsequent history consisted of weighted majority votes in parliament (like the Enabling Act of 1933), simple majority votes in referendums in which, again, the dictator di tated the question, and war.


The focus of this article is Westminster’s democracy and the decision to go to war in Syria.

Would the outcome of the debate on bombing in Syria have been different if the chosen methodology of decision-making in parliament were not majority voting? In other words, would the House have made a different decision if the procedures had allowed for a more pluralist decision-making methodology?

First of all, a little background. In 2002, in the UN Security Council debate on Iraq, Resolution 1441, both France and Germany objected to the phrase “serious consequences” in Clause 13. Yet both voted in favour of that resolution. The outcome, described as “unanimous”, was (not the but) a cause of war, of the invasion of Iraq on 20.3.2003, and of the sorry story since, not least in Syria.

But that outcome – 15-nil – was not unanimous! France and Germany did indeed object to the above clause, and perhaps would have objected to other paragraphs if but the procedures had catered for such criticisms. Maybe other Council members, one or other of the ten temporary non-veto powers, which at the time included Ireland, might have had policy proposals worthy of consideration.

Unfortunately, binary voting means questions are dichotomous. So countries vote in favour, perhaps because the resolution is better than nothing, perhaps because of the need for international solidarity, we don’t know. There is the main resolution; there may be amendments to this clause or that, or even perhaps a wrecking amendment; but everything is yes-or-no; it is this methodology which is at fault. Majority voting was, yes, a cause of war.


A more accurate methodology would allow the UK and USA to propose one draft Resolution 1441; option A. If France and Germany objected to Clause 13 or whatever, they could propose an alternative wording, even if only for this one clause, whence their preference would be a slightly revised but nevertheless complete package, option B. Syria, then a temporary member of Council, might have preferred another complete package, option C. Ireland could have preferred a more obviously neutral option D, and so on. Naturally enough, countries might seek to come together in groups to favour this or that option but the first principle would remain: everything should be on the table, (computer screen and dedicated web-page).

The subsequent debate would allow for questions, clarifications, composites and even new proposals (although of course, at any one time, any one country could sponsor only one motion). At various stages, participating countries could express their preferences, so to indicate where the eventual consensus might lie. Then, at the end of the debate, all concerned would cast their preferences on a final (short) list of about five options. The winning outcome, probably the 1st preference of some and the 2nd or 3rd preference of others, would be the option with the highest average preference score; the methodology is the Modified Borda Count, MBC. There would therefore be no need for politicians to claim, as happened in 2002, total unanimity; instead, with exactitude, all would know the precise measure: the winning option’s consensus coefficient.


So, back to Westminster. In 2003, the House voted 412 to 219 to say it “regrets… it has not proved possible to secure a second resolution in the UN”, but such a second resolution was not even debated. It also said it “supports the decision [to] use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”. But there were no such weapons. Robin Cook resigned. Tony Blair blundered on. And two days later, Iraq was invaded.

Such appalling mistakes were not to be repeated. It was therefore resolved that not the Prime Minister but Parliament should decide. Hence the most recent Commons debate on Syria. In 2015, The Guardian reported that “[David] Cameron said he wanted to act [on Isil] after building a consensus” by taking a majority vote. This is an oxymoron. Such a binary vote – so many ‘for’ and so many ‘against’ – cannot measure consensus for it measures the very opposite, the degree of dissent. On the same day, George Osborne said, “We’re not going to go to the Commons [for a vote on bombing in Syria] unless we would be clear that we would win that vote and there would be a consensus”. (Ibid.) Another oxymoron, and he makes two further mistakes: parliament is not the decision-making body it is meant to be; instead, in his book, the executive decides (or dictates), and the parliamentary decision-making process, the debate plus vote, is superfluous.

For reasons unclear, this belief in majoritarian decision-making is shared by the media and academia: “[Cameron] needed to win the vote… to achieve his goal of securing a clear consensus” [The Guardian, 2.12.2015].


As happens in the Bundestag – and this rule was introduced as a lesson from the 1930s – a vote of no confidence in Germany must be constructive. Accordingly, those who do not like what is on the table must propose an alternative. The same principle could apply to policy debates.

Today, the problem is the Islamic State and Syria. So, parliament should have held a proper debate. The government could have proposed option A, a comprehensive policy outlining diplomatic initiatives in Vienna as well as action in the air and on the ground in Syria. If Labour disagreed, it could have moved an equally comprehensive alternative, option B. The SNP might have had different ideas as well, so to move another complete package, option C. Likewise, the Lib-Dems, UKIP and the Greens might all have wished to offer their proposals, perhaps in tandem with Plaid Cymru or whom-soever. On such a complex topic, the debate must be pluralist; so too should be the collection of options on the table; and so too should be the (short) list of options on the ballot paper. When all is said, move to a preferential vote and, if the winning option passes a predetermined consensus coefficient threshold, the word ‘consensus’ could be applied and the outcome could be enacted: all said and done.


To ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated, any democratic structures proposed for Syria must be inclusive. Accordingly, the electoral system should be preferential, as it is in Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea; indeed, in the latter, the voters must state at least three party preferences in order for their votes to be valid. In other words, in PNG, the voter must cross the party if not indeed the sectarian divide at least twice; i.e., he/she must be peaceful.

Secondly, as in Switzerland, the presidency should be joint; the Swiss use the so-called ‘magic formula’ to allow the top five parties to share the presidency, a seven-person Federal Council. Or, as in Lebanon, various posts must be shared; the Taif agreement demands that the President must be a Maronite, the Premier a Sunni, and the Speaker a Shia. Or again, as in Northern Ireland, posts are shared in a process known as ‘cherry-picking’. (All of these formulas, however, perpetuate the very party and/or sectarian divisions which, in Lebanon and Northern Ireland, the respective power-sharing arrangement was meant to overcome.)

Thirdly, a power-sharing polity should ensure cross-community co-operation in decision- making. Belgium and now Northern Ireland use consociational voting, as does Cyprus in its referendums. But this methodology is still dichotomous. A more pluralist polity, as out-lined above, would be the wiser approach, not least because the more accurate and robust MBC is also ethno-colour-blind.


“On 14th November, foreign ministers from the west, Russia, the Gulf monarchies and Iran called for ‘credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance’ in Syria,” (The Guardian, 4 Decem-ber), and talks to this end have now started.

Similar statements have been issued for Afghanistan, Bosnia, CAR, DRC, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Northern Ireland, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Zimbabwe etc.. Would it not be wiser to first put such a polity into practice in so-called ‘stable’ democracies?

Furthermore, if the UK did have a preferential and proportional electoral system, an all-party government of national unity, and preferential voting in both parliament and in referendums, then maybe the House of Commons would not have voted for what is, after all, the most extreme of all the options suggested: war.

Finally, at a time when many countries in Europe are faced with the prospect of rule under an extremist party – e.g., the National Front in France – it is time to re-define democracy on a non-majoritarian and more inclusive basis. At the moment, as in Hitler’s Germany, adversarial majority voting in decision-making and single preference voting in elections are the basis of a political structure which is just too damned dangerous. It should also be recalled that L’Institut Français adopted the Borda methodology in 1784 but a future president of that Institute, one Napoleon Bonaparte, reverted to majority voting.

So why, here in Ireland, there in Britain, and there in the UN, do people still use the divisive majority vote, the ancient and most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented? Especially when majority voting and that which is based thereon, majority rule, has been (not the but) a cause of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, as well as mayhem in the Balkans and Caucasus, the genocide in Rwanda and the collapse of South Sudan.

So why, here in Ireland, there in Britain, and in the UN, do people still use the divisive majority vote, the ancient and most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented? Especially when majority voting and that which is based thereon, majority rule, has been (not the but) a cause of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, as well for example as mayhem in the Balkans and Caucasus, the genocide in Rwanda and the collapse of South Sudan.


In Syria, majority rule is part of the problem. In such a fractured society, if power rests in a one-person presidency, there will always be a majority which is ill at ease. If Afghanistan, Bosnia, Fiji, Kenya, Libya, Northern Ireland, Ukraine, Yemen and Zimbabwe – to name but a few conflict zones – are to have an end to violence and a stable and inclusive governance, they must adopt a more inclusive structure. If such is our wish here in Ireland, such should also be our practice. If need be, Sinn Féin should be in government, but only to the extent which is its proportional due. Better in the tent, of course, and not least because within, everything is dome, or should be done, in consensus. If collective democracy is dif cult for them in these conditions, if dogs wag tails, they can but resign.

‘From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics’ (Springer, 2016), was launched in Dublin on 23rd February.

Peter Emerson