Sunday, 6 March 2011

But it could be worse

There is at least one country that needs the  "alternative vote"  system even more urgently than the UK:  its near neighbour,  recent ally and ancient enemy France.

Back in 2002,  Jacques Chirac was re-elected as president there despite getting just 19.88%  of the vote in the first round of the election.  In other words,  more than 80%  of voters wanted someone other than their incompetent incumbent.  Just under 46%  voted for a left-wing candidate  –  ahead of 43%  for the right and just under 11%  for centrist parties  -  but the left-wing vote was splintered between 10 different candidates.  Under the two-round voting system used in France,  only the top two candidates from the first round advance to the second,  and because there were only four right-wing candidates,  two of them managed to take those spots.  Since the other one was the appalling far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen,  Chirac romped home with a massive 82%  of the votes  –  even though most of those were from people who loathed him.

The French two-round system is like many French innovations:  a novel but actually quite impractical version of some idea that someone has developed  (or will develop)  much better somewhere else.  In this case,  it's like the  "alternative vote"  because it too eliminates the low-scoring candidates and gets voters to choose between the highest-scoring ones;  but incredibly it does so in such a way as to lose the key benefit of the alternative vote system,  namely to get a winner who is the candidate most favoured by the electorate.  The French system continues to allow situations where someone can end up winning despite being very nearly the last preference of the vast majority of voters  –  exactly the same problem as the first-past-the-post system.

And in a way,  the French situation is even worse than that in the UK,  because here we're not just talking about a few individual members of a parliament containing more than six hundred seats,  we're talking about an extremely powerful elected monarch,  the president of France.  You'd really think they would have learned their lesson after 2002 and would have introduced the alternative vote quick smart.  But no,  they stuck with their own benighted process.  Now it looks like yet another miscarriage of democracy could be looming,  with a recent opinion poll indicating that the current frontrunners for the presidential election in one year's time are Le Pen's daughter and successor on 23%,  the unpopular incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy on 21%,  and the leader of the main left-wing party also on 21%.  And sadly,  there seems virtually no likelihood of the French using the remaining year to change their godawful system while they still have the chance.  You really wonder how many times this is going to have to happen before they draw the blindingly obvious conclusion.