Design matters: what’s at stake?

If you read the international news with any degree of frequency you will find stories about the design of political systems more often than you might have anticipated.

For instance, in Britain in 2011 the government held a referendum on changing the electoral regime used in parliamentary elections. The referendum failed.

More recently, in Greece, the government in power in July 2016 tried to modify the way in which election results are calculated. The plenary vote in the Greek parliament did not receive sufficient support to enact the changes immediately without a requiring second vote in the next session of the parliament, in 2018, if not sooner.

Political scientists spend a lot of time trying to understand how the different parts of a system interrelate, and can often predict how well the specific combination one chooses will function. The point is that you might be able to accomplish certain very specific things depending on how you actually design political institutions.

Most modern democratic regimes are also designed in such a way as to leave open the possibility of modifying the system over time. Those of us who live in democracies do this more frequently than we realize, whenever we amend our constitution or vote in a referendum (or an initiative, as in the American state of California).

Sometimes there is serious public debate over the very nature of the political system in a given country. Early in 2016 such a debate took place in Portugal, with a view toward redesigning the existing political system altogether. Should it be presidential or parliamentary? What are the relative merits of each? Is one way better than another?

These are not merely academic questions. There is in fact a fairly wide variety of ways in which a democratic polity can be designed and organized — and then reorganized.

As, Manuel Serrano, en admittedly partisan observer in the Portuguese debate, has written, “Mature democracies should be able to identify in due time what is working, what is not, and what can be improved. And act accordingly.”

Photo credit: Parliament Historic Archive, Lisbon

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