The winners must not take all in politics

opinion April 03, 2019 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

In tennis, they call it a tiebreaker. In football, it’s a penalty shootout.  The system that decides who lifts the trophy is essential because in sports people naturally want to settle the question of who is “the best”. The situation is very different in politics, but the problem is that the system is pretty much the same.

Why does democratic politics have to be a zero-sum game? Why do the “winners” have to take it all? Politics should be about choosing and getting the brightest and best people to work for the nation, meaning that any element of luck should be minimised if not eradicated entirely.

In tennis, a ball landing one centimetre to the left or right can decide who is the champion. It’s the same in football: the post or the crossbar can send some into ecstasy and others into ultimate despair. Politics should not be that way.

In other words, one man should not constitute a tiebreaker. A nation’s future should not rely on odd numbers, full stop.    

Democracy advocates like to say “the people have spoken”, and their word should be respected. But what do they make of Thailand’s general election results? One party has apparently won a higher number of parliamentary seats than the other, which in turn has won the highest number of nationwide votes.

Worse still, the rules say the party that manages to gather the most parliamentary seats is the winner. There are a few problems with that.

Firstly, if the party that wins the popular vote ends up in opposition, isn’t this tantamount to ignoring the millions who voted for it? Of course, the rules favour the camp that is able to garner the majority of seats. But parties are notorious for exploiting rules, vociferously supporting those that further their own interests and ridiculing or even discarding those that don’t. Secondly, there is no way that one camp can be best at everything. In sports, we call it a fairy-tale when underdogs defeat giants, because the underdogs don’t affect spectators’ lives beyond what they do on the field. Meanwhile, politicians stay, administer, serve and have to rely on a lot more than luck.

“Winner-takes-all” politics does not guarantee that the best people end up supervising crucial national affairs such as education, commerce, finance and agriculture. This kind of politics might result in someone “people trust the most” getting to pick key administrators, but it limits his or her ability to pick the best to work for the nation.

Thirdly, the winner-takes-all system can be very destructive. It encourages those involved to do whatever it takes to win an election, knowing that coming first will give them political control. “Whatever it takes” may include blatant lying, demonisation of opponents, evil propaganda or even violence. Who can really blame them? Day in and day out, they work on the basis that if they lose a few seats or a few votes, they may lose everything.

The destructive possibility of the winner-takes-all democratic system increases in proportion with political maturity of the nation involved. Thais are not like Americans, who can live with Donald Trump despite hating his guts, believing what the national media say about him and his opponents’ claims of Russian collusion.

Fourthly, it can confuse the hell out of the public. Even “sophisticated” voters like Americans don’t know for sure if Trump is the devil portrayed in the media or whether he is just unfairly demonised by a system that condones such criticism. 

In Thailand, when election results are on a knife-edge, they don’t inspire movie plots. They turn into a recipe for violence. We can blame the existing dangerous deadlock on ideological differences, but playing no small part what could be a ticking time bomb is the mere fact that a lot of people think they can’t lose.

The alternative system of a “national government” has been ridiculed as a sour-grapes proposal or rebuffed for eradicating checks and balances. Yet its effectiveness in averting crisis or placing the best people in the right jobs has not earned serious consideration it merits.

A proposal that voters directly elect key Cabinet positions, including the ministers for education and for justice, has been dismissed – surprisingly by the very people proclaiming to advocate democracy. 

There should not be a tiebreaker in democracy. It’s as simple as that. It may be part of the game in America – where Hillary Clinton won more popular votes but Donald Trump but ended up with the nuclear launch codes and all she has done is strike fear into the public daily – but Thais should stand up against such absurdity, instead of against each other.