« Citizens are probably not as happy with democracy nowadays as they were 20-30 years ago »

Interview: Dr Michael Bruter, Reader in Political Science & European Politics, LSE

Community-based protection & Best Loser System: « The solutions proposed are always clearly imperfect»

We spoke this week to Dr Michael Bruter, Reader in Political Science & European Politics at the London School of Economics, who was in Mauritius to participate in the 6th International Electoral Affairs Symposium, organized jointly by the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) and the Electoral Commission of Mauritius. This year’s Symposium focused on the “Challenges Facing the International Electoral Community in the 21st Century, Exploring the increasing effects of social media and the integration of new and innovative technologies into the electoral process”, amongst other issues. Our compatriot, Matt Gokhool is the Chief Executive of ICPS (which provides consultancy services to public administrations and agencies around the world on a broad range of areas related to good governance, democracy and effective policy making) as well as Chairman of the International Centre for Electoral Psychology, an independent research-oriented organization, which focuses on the understanding of the psychology of voters and the optimization of the ergonomy of electoral procedures.

Mauritius Times: Electoral Psychology and Electoral Ergonomy – tell us what’s it’s all about?

Dr Bruter: Both Dr Sarah Harrison and myself work on the psychology of voters, which means that we try to understand what goes on in the peoples’ mind when they are in the polling booth, why they vote the way they do, what elections represent to them and how the elections, as an experience to citizens, help entrenching the legitimacy of democracies and making people feel part of the society they live in. The second aspect of our work for the International Centre for Electoral Psychology consists in studying the ergonomy of elections, that is we look at the impact of every very small aspect of electoral procedures on the way people vote. For instance, electoral commissions will quite often decide as to whether to authorise postal voting or electronic voting given that one may be more practical than the other. One may tend to think that such a very small aspect of the procedure like this one should not have any impact on the way people vote, but we found that in fact it can actually make a big difference as to which parties are going to do better or less well. Our studies are also concerned with the motivations of the voter – whether they vote in favour of what they think is best for themselves or whether it’s best for their country.

* Is there a general trend in the motivations of voters whether they happen to be casting their votes in England or in Mauritius?

Even within the same country, the motivations of two different people will always be a little different because it is essentially a very personal and individual decision. But we have actually found across countries a number of common reasons for not only why people cast their votes or not but also why they vote the way they do. For instance, we have done a lot of work on the emotions that people feel when they vote, and what is really interesting is that very often the emotions that somebody will feel as he goes to the polling centres in Mauritius or in Britain, will often be the same ones — a mixture of excitement, worry, happiness sometimes. We try to look at those various emotions and how the people who manage elections can actually organise elections in such a way that they get the best out of citizens and that it becomes a day of shared experience for all of the citizens of the country.

* What is it that ultimately tips the balance in the voting decision: the voter’s purse or his emotions?

It has a lot to do with emotions. When you look at any election, there are about 20-30% of people who will either make up or change their mind about who to vote for literally on the day before the vote or on election day itself.

* Would you say that this kind of electoral behaviour prevails as much in Europe as in Africa? The decision is taken quite close to polling day, not with long ‘pre-meditation’?

It is indeed the case for many people, but it may vary from election to election, or from country to country. So far we have done the study in 50 different countries and in some cases that percentage goes up with over 70% of the people, for instance, changing their minds within a week of the election.

* What makes them change their minds at the last hour?

Sometimes when people think about how they are likely to vote, then they might actually take into account some very rational elements like what is going to be the best for the economy or for their personal economic situation or what are the problems that the country is facing. But as election day gets nearer, that is on the day before or on election day itself or after voters have already arrived at the polling centre, there are a number of emotions that start taking over and which might make people vote in a different way from what they had intended to. In other words, the rational projection of their vote is sometimes overshadowed by an emotional intuition of what is their best choice as a voter and what might be best for their country.

There is another thing as well: when people tell you in advance how they are likely to vote, they tend to actually care more about what is going to be the best for them. But very often as people turn up at the polling station and make their final decision, then we reach what we call a sociotropic intuition which takes over, and suddenly they do not focus so much on which is best for them but they start looking at the bigger picture. Sometimes their understanding of what might be best for them and might not be so good for their country, may actually lead them to vote in a different way.

* What’s your reading of the way people vote here in Mauritius?

We have not actually done that particular study in Mauritius. But it’s a country which has an interesting background, the society is so diverse and the symbolic politics of Mauritius seem to be very important. What is really striking from an outside perspective is that, in Mauritius as again in many other countries, people seem to care a lot about elections. It seems that election day itself seems to be a very intense experience for many voters. Sometimes people tend to forget how important elections are to voters, but it’s not just a duty to vote; it is actually a shared experience between citizens, and elections provide them with the sentiment that they matter in the political system.

* There are two aspects which are prominent as far as elections are concerned: one is to give the voters a choice between alternatives and the other is to do the voting exercise itself at regular intervals. Do you think these twin dimensions are sufficient to give justice to the objective of putting in place a team to work in the best interests of the country?

I think it’s more complex than that. There are several competing goals in elections – some institutional goals and some legitimacy goals, and the two are sometimes very different and sometimes even contradictory. In terms of the institutional goals, the first goal is to actually create a fair representation of what the people want, and that’s the process of representation. But next to it there is also the choice of alternatives. One of the important institutional aspects of elections is to allow accountability, in other words it also gives people the choice to either re-approve an existing majority or keep them out of power if they think that the people in power did not do as well as they should have. Already these two institutional goals — fair representation and accountability — sometimes can be contradictory because distinct electoral systems and procedures might be more favourable to fair representation or more favourable to accountability.

There are also the psychological, the citizens-oriented goals — the role of the elections in entrenching the legitimacy of political processes. Increasingly we have got citizens who are very cynical – and that’s true almost in the same way in Mauritius as it would be in Europe or in the US — and who feel that politicians essentially care more about themselves rather than for the people and that they are being excluded from most of the decisions being made in any given country. Elections therefore provide them with some sense of power, what in political science would be called a sense of efficacy. That is really interesting because the way it actually works in elections is that most people know that they cannot make the difference individually but there is an element of projection where citizens have the intuition and general knowledge that if many of them actually feel in the same way and were to vote in a given direction, then they can actually make a difference. That’s a very important aspect, not just the technical results but also the symbolic use of elections, which consists in giving people the impression that they are an important part of the political process. That is why so many people care about elections and so many people tell us when we ask them that they feel so excited, even happy, when they go to vote. That’s an element that should not be underestimated, I mean the fact that elections make people feel like citizens.

* Beyond feeling like citizens, what can the latter do when once they have elected a party in power they see that their government’s action or inaction is not in their best interests?

That’s why the notion of accountability is important because sometimes the fair representation of people might not give a very strong majority to any particular party in a particular democracy but the process of accountability means that a sufficient majority of people can transform a sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction into either the re-conduction of the existing government or the realistic possibility of getting rid of the existing government at the next election. In other words, if people trust elections and its capacity to make politicians accountable, then they will know they will be able to punish the government if they are not happy with it the next time they go to the polls. The citizens usually have to wait for the next elections though because the alternative is the democratic process per se is not respected and the street takes over the decision-making process… In the best of cases, you will have to wait for the next elections.

* A dominant party has been in command in a place like Singapore and though it appears to have done well in terms of shaping the country to face up to its specific challenges, the fact remains that they run elections and the party in power stays in power…

Well, they won last time by a not very large margin, as compared to earlier elections, and some people think that they might lose next time round. You have the same thing happening elsewhere. In Mexico, for instance, the same party was winning over and again for several decades, and people thought that they were always going to win. About 10 years ago they ended up losing not one but two elections in a row. That party has been reformed and they have managed to win another election. Sometimes, on the face of it, it looks like nothing changes, but once there is underlying discontent with the governance of a specific political party or political team, over time the people will manage to get rid of them provided the institutions are there. Unfortunately sometimes institutional designs are such that it can become very difficult to change a majority being given that the vote is organised in such a way that a specific political party has a natural advantage. But again there is another example – South Korea. Until a few years ago, the same political party used to win all the time because the system was quite favourable to them. But after some time they ended up losing the elections because even though the electoral system was favourable to them, people were so disappointed by their work that they voted them out of power.

* Is there any electoral mechanism which can be used to address crossings of bounds by politicians?

You can use different systems which will make it easier or harder to change a majority, for instance, but it will still have to be used during the elections anyway. Otherwise you can have recourse to some judicial action to prevent politicians from doing things that are very wrong. But democratically you cannot have a system which is more than reactive than the election process, because first of all people do not really want it. When we ask them whether they would prefer other ways of making decisions like, for instance, politicians having to take into account public opinion on different policy measures, they say no. Secondly, you also need to give politicians a little bit of time to do things which might be unpopular and which might take some time for the results to become visible.

* It would seem that the importance of referendums in the political decision-making process is gaining ground. Britain is anticipating a referendum in two years’ time to decide whether to stay in or quit Europe. Does this mean that the mandate given to governments to take certain key decisions on behalf of voters is inadequate when it comes to specific issues?

There is an argument to suggest that when there is a question on which individual people might have strong knowledge and strong opinion as voters, it can be a good idea to give them the choice to vote on them directly through a referendum. Many countries will just ask the people to vote directly when there is a proposed change of Constitution, for instance. That’s a way for avoiding a situation where a party or a coalition controlling the majority in Parliament actually deciding in favour of a system which would be contrary to what the voters want. There are some countries in which referendums are indeed one of the main tools used to make laws. For instance, that’s a system that they use almost all the time in Switzerland – sometimes for even relatively trivial issues; it’s used a lot also in some states of the USA and in countries like Ireland and France to a certain extent.

The problem with referendums is that, whereas it can prove to be a wonderful tool as regards issues on which people have a strong personal preference, they can prove to be an inadequate measure of what the people really want if you use them to gauge the people’s opinion on issues they do not have a direct knowledge of what they want, because the question is very complex or relates to something that they do not tend to think about very spontaneously. In the latter case, what happens is that the people will vote according to whether they like the government or not. Or they would hear one word and would be seen to be reacting to that one word rather than the specific measure that they are supposed to vote on. In that sense there have been occurrences where the majority of people were really favourable to a certain measure, but they still voted against it in the referendum because they just wanted to punish the government. In a way they punished themselves by voting against what they were really in favour of. They did so because they had the impression that the government was using the referendum to give itself legitimacy which it did not have.

* Isn’t it the duty of the press and of the political parties themselves to ‘educate’ the people about the pros and cons of any issue that would be decided upon through a referendum?

The question of whose job it is to educate the people when there is a referendum is an important one. It could be the press, the parties themselves and the schools as well. In fact, it’s not just a question of education and knowledge; it is also a question of caring. Ultimately not everybody wants to become a politician, the reason being that many people do not necessarily care about the details of specific policy issues. If you organise a referendum on an issue that people really care about, then the referendum can prove to be a very good tool in the sense that you give the people a choice of directly expressing a preference as opposed to having politicians deciding for them even if the politicians have a legitimate democratic mandate.

But asking citizens to vote on a topic that does not interest them entails a number of risks. For instance, when you have a referendum on a question which is not perceived as very important by the people, then the only people to vote are those who think it is very important. But those people might not be a fair representation of the population in general. Let’s say you have a question on agriculture on which people might not care about in a country like Switzerland; the only people who might vote are the farmers or people who belong to environmental groups who would have actually pushed in favour of a referendum. Thus, the result of the referendum might not correspond to the preference of the people as a whole but instead to the preference of people with very strong opinions on that specific question. The problem with referendums can also be very low turnouts. For instance, whereas turnout at elections in Ireland usually comes to about 70%, the turnout for the referendum at the end of last year was only about 30%, which means that one-third of the people ended up making the decision for the entire population.

* In Mauritius, successive elections have, with some exceptions, overturned governments which ruled during the previous term and the margins of victory have been rather small (5%). Could that be interpreted to mean that the electoral process might be allowing a small minority changing sides opportunely to put the affairs of state in their hands which it, rather than the entire population, prefers?

That in itself would not be very specific to Mauritius at all. What happens in elections is that many voters, probably about three-quarters of voters, have relatively stable political preferences and they will typically always vote for the same political party. The people who make the difference are the small proportion, may be a quarter, sometimes a third, of voters of people who actually cross over from party to party. On the whole it is indeed a relatively small net proportion of voters in most democracies, which actually tips the balance in favour of one or the other party or candidates. I think it is also the case in Mauritius where some people may also vote for individual or particular candidates in the constituencies. In the case of elections where people vote for specific candidates, then there is usually an element of fidelity by some voters to their candidate. What you described is just a very traditional aspect of democratic politics – the fact that most people are stable politically, but a relatively small proportion of voters – the floating voters tipping the balance one way or the other.

* There is, in Mauritius, a corrective reservation system in the electoral process, the Best Loser System, which is said to rectify election results as necessary to ensure that there is a fair representation of all the communities in the House. This forces a candidate to the elections to declare the “community” to which he/she belongs for being eligible to stand, at the risk of being disqualified from running. Some candidates feel increasingly uncomfortable to have to decline their communal belonging. Has this problem been tackled effectively somewhere else?

It is always very difficult for any democracy to manage ethnic and/or religious diversity because the fact is that whenever you get a national community, which is heterogeneous with different people who actually could be ascribed to different types of communities, there is always an almost impossible equation to solve. On the one hand you want everyone of any community to feel that he/she is being fairly treated, but at the same time you do not want that fair treatment of individual communities to prevent the emergence of a sense of national unity within the country. The difficulty however is that the more you entrench community-based protection, the more there is a risk that people might feel isolated within one community as opposed to forming part of a broader national group. There so many different ways of doing that: in some countries people use quotas, in Mauritius you have the Best Loser System, and in some other countries people will explicitly over-represent some geographical areas where some specific ethnic minorities are concentrated. But all those solutions can be criticised. The main difficulty is to figure out which specific solution is the best considering the specifics of a given country. For instance, are the ethnic minorities fairly spread across the country or are they geographically concentrated? Is there any risk that the protection of specific ethnic minorities might be more divisive than unifying? All that I can say is that in all countries where that problem is raised, the solutions proposed are always clearly imperfect and we not yet found an obvious way to dealing with it.

* Apart from using devices to ensure that elections results are not tampered, what do you see as a positive future evolution of the democratic system as you know it?

The progress of technology and the immense professionalism of most of the people who conduct and manage elections around the democratic world are in themselves very positive. But at the same time there is a risk that the more people care about some of things we did not care for before, the more they’ll miss out on the big picture. For instance, we are being increasingly protective and careful about ensuring that ballots are not tampered with. That also means that we are increasingly focussing on fairly technical details at the risk of missing out on the general picture which is the fact that citizens are probably not as happy with democracy nowadays as they were 20-30 years ago.

* Why is that so?

That’s a big paradox. In a way people who organise elections and the political systems are genuinely and honestly convinced that they are doing their best to actually take on board the citizens’ aspirations. But citizens increasingly feel that there is a growing gap between the political elites and the citizenry as such. I think that it is not really a true perception ; in many ways it’s a mistaken perception, but the fact that citizens are increasingly knowledgeable and less naive means that they are also more critical and sensitive to any discrepancy between what appears to be the will of the people and the conduct of political parties of various countries. Rightly or wrongly citizens have the impression that they are the people who count least in elections. I think that the big challenge for the people who organise elections and who are the guarantors democracy in most countries is to ensure that people feel that they do matter in the political system. There is no point in saying that the people do not understand how much effort politicians are doing for them, it is for the political system to actually reach out to the citizens in order to make them feel part of the decision-making system and to give them a sense that they are actually at the heart of democracy.


* Published in print edition on 31 May 2013

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