No. 3




Reforming Elections

18 June 2001


RiTo No. 3, 2001

  • Allan Sikk

    adviser to the Economic and Social Information Department of the Chancellery of the Riigikogu

The country’s electoral system is one of the central elements of its political system. Although one may think that changing an electoral system is relatively easy, electoral reforms are a very rare phenomenon in developed democracies.

This is attributable mainly to two reasons: first, those in power have no incentive to change the system which put them in power and, secondly, the stability of an electoral system is an important value. Within the last ten years, three important electoral reforms have taken place world-wide, in New Zealand, Italy and Japan. Also Great Britain is toying with the idea of changing its electoral system. All those reforms had one common denominator: they were implemented at times of political instability and were introduced even when the main political parties opposed them at first. Other characteristic features are the use of referendum and transfer to a mixed electoral system.

In Estonia, the idea of electoral reform is supported by the ruling coalition, experts and the public. The main weaknesses of the present system is its complexity, preference of party affiliation ahead of candidates, and problems with geographical representation (Tallinn and Tartu have been strongly over-represented provided that you can speak about candidate representations in electoral counties).

The possibility of drawing up record-long party lists has been another cause for criticism. Although amendments have been made in electoral law, these have failed to address the most acute problems of the current system.

A conservative approach could be regarded as the most important criteria of a good electoral reform. It requires that there is a common understanding between the main political parties and the people, and that the reform will not discriminate against some political groups over others. In addition to other issues, such reforms tend to bring about a need to further change the electoral system. Although such a reform could be implemented only by way of public consensus, it is advisable that the final design would be the product of expert work, not political bargaining and compromises. Otherwise, the new system could be even more complex than the old one. Another important factor is to give voters and parties themselves enough time to adapt to the new system.

Full article in Estonian