Democracy and the "will of the people"

In a democracy, it is common to think of the outcome of an election as demonstrating "the will of the people," as if the electorate as a whole was making a single decision.

I've given a lot of thought to this idea, and I find it rather problematic.

Consider some recent developments in Canadian politics. We had a federal election only a few weeks ago -- October 14th, to be exact. The Conservative party won a minority -- 143 out of 308 seats in parliament. They received less than 38% of the popular vote.

There were some puzzling comments made, including some by Prime Minster Stephen Harper, that suggested that Canadians, as a whole, wanted the Conservatives to have a minority.

But the outcome of an election does not necessarily reflect what anyone "wants." The Canadian people are not a single entity that is capable of "wanting" anything, or "deciding" to make something happen. The outcome of an elections is, rather, merely the consequence of millions of decisions made by millions of people. It was not intended by anyone in particular, and it's misleading to talk about a group of people as though it was making a single decision.

This may seem like an obscure point, but I think it's important because it sheds some light on what is and is not properly considered democratic.

For example, only weeks after the Canadian election, the minority Conservatives are very close to being defeated by the opposition. Normally when a government is defeated we have another election -- which would be the third Canadian general election in about three years, something nobody really wants (except maybe Stephen Harper, who probably imagines he could get that elusive majority).

Instead, the opposition parties have announced their intention to form a coalition government to replace the conservatives.

The Conservatives are complaining that this is "undemocratic" -- the Canadian people "chose" Harper as their prime minister, and it's not right for the opposition to reverse that outside the electoral process.

It would seem, though, that most of us (i.e., the 62% who voted for someone other than a Conservative) did not want Harper in power. We just couldn't agree on who we wanted instead.
(It's hard to say -- in a parliamentary system, we don't vote directly for a prime minister, we simply vote for the local member of parliament. The party with the highest number of elected MPs forms the government, and the leader of the party becomes prime minister.)

The coalition party, as I mentioned, will consist of the MPs from the opposition parties. These MPs, unlike the Conservatives, actually were elected by the majority of Canadians. Is that not more democratic?

Complicating the question is the possibility, very likely true, that most people don't vote for the candidate, they vote for the party. I, for one, don't even remember the names of the candidates I've voted for in previous elections, but I remember what party they belonged to.

Someone might argue -- and, indeed, some people have -- that while most people voted for a member of one of the opposition parties, nobody voted for anyone belonging to a coalition of all three.

Given that all three opposition parties are to the left of the Conservatives, it's difficult to imagine that many people who voted for one of those parties would have preferred a Conservative MP over an MP belonging to a coalition party. In other words, it's difficult to imagine that a supporter of the centrist Liberal, or the leftist NDP party, would prefer the Conservatives to what is likely to be a centrist coalition led by Liberal leader Stephane Dion.

The problem, I suppose, is that a Canadian election is a rather blunt instrument. The ballot asks a single question, and gives room for a single answer. The current electoral system allows someone like Stephen Harper to be prime minister, simply because the majority of the population that doesn't like him can't agree on who we like more.

Whether the coalition takes power now depends on a decision by the Governor General, the Queen's representative in parliament -- usually considered a ceremonial role. I hope if they do take power they will reform the current electoral system, perhaps adopting proportional representation, so we can maybe avoid these ridiculous and uncooperative Conservative minorities in the future.


Interesting comments by Justin Podur, posted on ZNet:
As for Harper's accusation that the opposition is being "undemocratic", it reveals a confusion about his mandate and the parliamentary system in which he operates. Canada is not the United States. In the US, the electorate votes for a President. In Canada, no one votes for a Prime Minister. They vote for a party. A minority government is one where no party won a clear mandate, and must therefore present policies that are non-partisan and have the backing of at least some of the opposition. Harper failed to do so. The accusation of "undemocratic" could be equally applied to the Conservatives, but would best be applied to the entire electoral system, since it lacks proportional representation. [link]

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