Sunday, 26 February 2012

Bayrou’s electoral reforms don’t add up

  François Bayrou is offering a package of electoral reforms that he proposes to submit to the French electorate for approval in the form of a referendum.  The package contains a number of worthy goals designed to modernise and democratise French politics.  The problem is that the goals are not all compatible with each other.  In sum, he forgot to join the dots.

Among his promises are the following:
  • to replace the current system (all deputies elected in single member districts) with one where ¾ of deputies are elected in single-member districts and the remaining quarter are elected through a proportional top-up
  • to reduce the number of deputies from 577 to 400
  •  to eliminate the practice of multiple office-holding (cumul des mandats) for deputies, and impose strict limitations on the practice for senators.  This would prevent the current widespread practice of national politicians also holding local office of import, such as mayors, presidents of local and regional councils, etc.
  • To ensure the effective implementation of the gender parity law

  It is this final promise that is the least credible.  It comes straight after several promises to take power away from existing male incumbents.  The number of seats will be reduced by nearly 25%, resulting in much greater competition for seats, and a surplus of incumbents ready to snap up any seats that might otherwise have been vacated for a new arrival to politics.  The opportunities for deputies to combine national and local offices will be removed, which may actually incentivise some deputies to renounce their parliamentary seats in favour of their local office, but which would further increase the stakes for those who choose to stay in parliament.  The electoral reform would only exacerbate these problems and place even greater pressure on the remaining seats in single-member districts.  Previous research by myself and others has highlighted that the greater the emphasis on incumbents, and the greater the competition for seats, the harder it is to elect more women.  However well-intentioned these reforms might be, the combination of other reforms decreases rather than enhances the prospects of achieving parity.
  With Bayrou currently obtaining 11%-13% in the polls, it is unlikely that any of this will be anything more than a hypothesis.  But it does underline the disconnect between rhetoric on parity and a true understanding of the conditions actually required to ensure its success.  While a switch to PR might be helpful, and an elimination of the cumul des mandats would certainly help in the long-term (by freeing up more opportunities in local springboard positions for women), it simply is not realistic to partner these measures with a reduction in the number of deputies.  Indeed, to reduce pressure from outgoing male incumbents, an increase rather than a decrease in the number of seats is often advocated as a means of boosting women’s presence.  Going the other way will increase the pressures of what is already an exhausting and burdernsome job, rendering it less attractive to women with competing family demands; will reduce the number of vacancies open to women; and will reduce the opportunity for constituency links, thus transforming the nature of French politics away from localised political representation.  If Bayrou’s measures do get put forward, either through his own success or through co-option by his rivals, they had better think this one through a bit more carefully.

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