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Read Between the Numbers

Nader Rahman

A child holds a banner as protesters demonstrate to ask for proportional representation outside the central London building, in London. AFP PHOTO

A few months ago it was a foregone conclusion that the Conservatives would waltz back into power for the first time in 13 years after an uninspiring Labour government led by the stoic Gordon Brown seemed destined for failure. After 13 years in power it was getting difficult to still refer to themselves “new Labour” because they were anything but. Unfortunately Gordon Brown had the same initials as an (in)famous president across the pond as well as his approval ratings and the British public were in need of their own Obama. In short they needed a change and what better way to do so than at the voting booth.

Every poll in Britain predicted David Cameron's Conservative party would win in a landslide, but soon a river of enthusiasm turned into a muddy creek. Cameron's problem was that he had to share the spotlight with a fresh-faced, straight talking Nick Clegg, leader of the beautifully named Liberal Democrats.

If this was the battle for the best picture Oscar, Cameron would be Avatar and Clegg would be The Hurt Locker. While both The Hurt Locker and Clegg were critical favourites measuring their success was a problem. On the other hand Avatar and Cameron were runaway commercial successes. The public was promised something revolutionary and that's exactly what they got, in Avatar it was a movie experience par excellence and with the Conservatives it was a modern liberal leader that consigned Thatcher and Major to the pages of history. But unlike the Oscars the final prize did not go to the critical favourite or to the blockbuster Tories.

What really pulled the carpet from under the feet of the Conservatives were the first ever television debates amongst the candidates. In the first debate it was Clegg who bamboozled his opponents by speaking his mind and articulating his ideas for the next government, the principal one being the abolition of the first-past-the-post electoral system that marginalised anyone who didn't vote for Labour or the Conservatives. His sound reasoning and logic behind supporting Proportion Representation (PR) took the country by storm and 'cleggmania' was born.

This in turn took the wind out of Cameron's sails, as people began to question his change moniker. The international media soon portrayed Clegg as the real agent of change, while the British media were far more skeptical, viewing him as a pit stop on the way to a hung parliament. They were not entirely wrong, as his spirited campaign took the public by storm and only raised the likelihood of a hung parliament if he managed to squirrel away precious seats from the Tories and Labour.

As expected the elections produced a hung parliament where Labour was rejected losing over 90 seats while interestingly the Lib Dems having gained a one percent increase in overall votes, ended up losing five seats. It was a terrible blow to their ambitions but it also properly highlighted the problems with the British electoral system, where the Lib Dems could gather 24 percent of the votes and only nine percent of the seats in the House.

With no one party holding power Clegg would logically be the kingmaker, and by the time this article comes out he may have formed a coalition with the Conservatives, putting aside major issues such as European integration and the Trident weapons programme for a referendum on electoral change.

Any coalition will produce strange bedfellows and this will be no exception. Both parties have vastly different ideologies and while Cameron may have pulled the Conservatives closer to the political centre on a number of issues, fundamentally there is much that they will never see eye to eye on.

The point remains, Clegg has a decision to make and for the first the Lib Dems should be happy to be bridesmaids, but there is to be no rehearsal dinner for this unusual wedding. They will only have one shot at the largest and most important political reform for a hundred years in the UK.

Proportional representation is possibly the fairest system to elect a government and while it is far from perfect it is the closest many democracies will ever come to every single citizen's vote counting for something on a national level. As ever questions remain as to what percentage of votes are equivalent to a seat in parliament. In Israel a tiny 1.5 percent of votes guarantees a seat in the Knesset, but dare I say the figure will and should change from country to country.

The winner takes all system has led to all sorts of asymmetrical governments and Bangladesh is no exception. The 2008 elections led to a landslide victory for the Awami League with them taking 49 percent of the vote and a disproportionate 76 percent of the seats in parliament. The BNP have every right to feel hard done by such results as they gathered a decent 33 percent of the votes and only 10 percent of the seats in parliament. Had the seats been proportionately distributed with 100 seats in parliament BNP would have had reason to stay on and fight the government in parliament rather than through boycotts and press releases.

But if the 2008 election seems like a cherry picked statistic all one needs to do is look back at the 2001 elections. In 2001 the roles were reversed with even more alarming results. In 2001 BNP ended up with 41.3 percent of the votes and 64 percent of seats in parliament, while amazingly the Awami League garnered 40 percent of the vote with only 20 percent of the seats.

Astonishingly with only 1.3 percent more votes than the Awami League, the BNP collected 44 percent more seats in parliament. Where is the justice there?

But it seems like proportional representation is not much of an issue in Bangladesh. One assumes it will only gain traction if and when a strong third party decides to break up the two horse race for power and make a dash for the finish line. If that is to be the case then where are our Liberal Democrats? Where is our Nick Clegg?

Maybe this hung parliament in the UK will lead our next generation of political leaders to think more closely about the issue of proportional representation. But while the Liberals have waited close to a century for the issue to be dealt with on a national scale in the UK, is anyone willing to wait and fight for even a fraction of that time in Bangladesh? I certainly hope so.

To understand the importance of proportional representation all one needs to do is read between the numbers.


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