Democracy with fewer elections

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 17 February 2017

As a German living in New Zealand, I have the rare privilege of following not one but two election campaigns this year. Both of them are fought under the obscure MMP electoral system, and both of them are culminating on the same weekend.

New Zealand will go to the polls on Saturday 23 September, Germany a day later. And I am still wondering how to survive the next half a year in perma-election mode.

Democracy would be great were it not for election years.

Every three (New Zealand) or four years (Germany) serious policy-making comes to halt. Instead, we enter a time when politicians need to tell us about their upbringings, start kissing babies and demonstrate that they can shear sheep. Well, at least in New Zealand they do.

Now, personally I do not have a problem with any of that. Except that this is not what I care about. Nor is it what I expect our political system to deliver.

The worst aspect, however, is that election years tend to emphasise the ugly side of politics. Instead of talking about ways in which to tackle our country’s problems, politicians rather tackle each other.

As a parent, you would tell your kids off for some of the behaviour on display in election years. Shouting, foul language and bullying are not acceptable in the kindergarten or the school yard. But they are commonplace during election campaigns.

Alas, I am a member of a strange kind of species: a democrat who does not like election campaigns, if only for aesthetic reasons and their detrimental effect on good government.

Well, I have to qualify this. I am with Winston Churchill in his assessment that democracy is the “worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

There is no point in elevating democracy to a moral pedestal. There is no magic in numbers, and you cannot determine the truth by majority rule.

But given all the alternatives, democracy with its chance of peacefully removing one government by electing another and keeping rulers accountable to the people has a lot going for it.

My only quibble is whether it really takes elections every three years to achieve that outcome.

An electoral term of four or even five years might well deliver what democracy is meant to achieve. And it would spare us those ghastly election years.

And wouldn’t that be a relief?