Sunday, January 23, 2005

Juan Cole's problematic definition of "elections"

Over at Winds of Change, Armed Liberal (aka Marc Danziger) noted the other day that Juan Cole has a very peculiar and highly specific (perhaps even ethnocentric) definition of elections. He quotes him as follows from a PRI broadcast (but it's very similar to what he says at RadioNation interview with him I listened to yesterday):
"The Iraqi people are being asked to vote for party lists or coalition lists...but they most often don't know which politicians are running. I think it's a little bit absurd to call that an election."
I agree with Armed Liberal--Juan Cole is a professor of what? The otherwise urbane Cole needs to study up on his political science, and realize that this method (known as "closed lists") is prevalent in what is called List Proportional Representation systems. Closed lists mean that "the order of candidates elected by that list is fixed by the party itself, and voters are not able to express a preference for a particular candidate," according to the Administration and Cost of Elections Project (ACE). This system undoubtedly has its disadvantages, which is why most countries in continental Europe have open lists, but it should also be noted that the first democratic elections in 1994 in South Africa used closed lists. In addtion, list PR systems (the majority of which utilize closed lists) are used by a full 35% of the world's independent states and semi-autonomous territories.

There is much to criticize about this system (and I'm highly critical of a similar closed list system in place here in El Salvador), but I know of no political expert who would responsibly characterize such electoral systems as "absurd." Perhaps Professor Cole should request a briefing from his colleagues at the University of Michigan in the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) project before continuing to carry on like this.


Anonymous said...

I think Cole is referring to something else. IIRC (and I am sure someone will check),in Iraq, the names of the candidates on the lists is being kept secret for security reasons.

Lots of countries have closed lists, but I do not know of any where the names of candidates on the list are secret. If the names of the actual people that an electoral list is supporting are hidden from the voters, that would indeed be plausibly called "absurd".

David said...

Depends on what you mean by "hidden" from the voters. Cole himself knows who's on the list, which he presumably has gleaned from Iraqi media.

In countries where there are closed lists, it is not necessarily common to have lists of every single individual for every single list available at each poll. In Iraq's case, there are 100 parties and blocs, each presumably with a list of 275 people for the National Assembly.

On the other hand, there are only 5 or 6 major blocs that have any real chance. It seems to me that most people are going to vote not for individuals, but rather for one of these, and will be happy not to be so confused by so many different options.

I will happily stand corrected if Cole was referring to something else, but would like to see some evidence of that.