15 April 2011

Flawed Arguments for One-Party Parliament

Three new candidates from the ruling People's Action Party for the coming general election recently explained their support for a one-party system.

Former managing director of The Monetary Authority of Singapore Heng Swee Keat said that, when he was in policy making roles in the public sector, he saw how politics in some countries became so divisive that the right policies were not implemented.

Mr Ong Teng Koon cited the difficulties the US faced in passing its budget last week as something he did not want for Singapore.

Mr Alex Yam recalled from his visits to, and research of, other parliaments as a student that even with some semblance of a multi-party system, there were many instances of gridlock in policy and disagreement over very minute details, because of difference in ideology.

Their examples are flawed.

The US has a bicameral system, which makes it more difficult to adopt legislation when the Senate and the House of Representatives are controlled by different parties.  Many other democracies also have bicameral systems.  Singapore has a unicameral system.

The US president and his cabinet are not members of Congress.  Neither the president nor the leader of the Senate or the House can compel any Senator or Representative to support the president's policies.  The parliamentary system does not work in this way.  The party whip is seldom lifted to allow members of parliament the discretion to vote as they wish.

Candidates for US Congress have to raise campaign money, collect signatures to get their names on the ballot, and personally appeal to registered voters of their party in primary elections.  Thus, local issues can be as important as, or more important than, national issues to individual congressmen.  In many other democracies, the party controls whether to allow candidates to run, and actually puts their names on the ballot.

Significant authority is also vested with the legislatures in each of the 50 states of the US, and each of them can facilitate or impede the implementation of federal programmes.

Sometimes a general election does not produce a clear winner with the mandate to govern on its own or with its coalition partner or partners.  In such cases, the governments that emerge usually have to compromise or sacrifice some of their ideologies in order to gain the support of minority parties and/or independent legislators.  These governments are likely to be weak and unstable because the fringe entities hold the core entities to ransom over a multitude of issues.

The problem in these democracies lies not with a two- or multi-party parliamentary system, but with the inability of every party there to demonstrate that its policies are the best for the country and the people.

Mr Heng's comments additionally show why a two- or multi-party system is needed.

There are often no right or wrong answers in economic and fiscal policies.  For example, economists are divided whether governments should tighten their belts and practise fiscal prudence or spend their way out of a recession.

It is only when a policy is implemented that people have the opportunity to assess its effectiveness.  Even then, it is difficult to say with certainty whether that policy was better or more appropriate in the circumstances than the policies that were not implemented.  When a policy is not implemented, how it might have worked is pure conjecture because no one knows.  So it seems rather presumptuous to say that “right policies” were not implemented.

Such presumptions will likely be rigorously challenged in an effective two- or multi-party system.

An opposition with a critical mass fulfils at least two critical roles: (a) ensure robust debate of ideas and policies in the legislature by elected representatives who are not subject to the ruling party's whip; and (b) provide an effective alternative to the incumbent, if not immediately, then as soon as possible.

It's rather bizarre for a political party (it has to be the ruling party, not an opposition party) in a democracy to argue that the country will be better off with only one political party in parliament.

This posting was originally published on 13 April 2011.

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