How to Enhance Democracy and Discourage Secession

By Metta Spencer, in World Security: the New Challenge, Carl Jacobsen et. al, editors for Pugwash and Science for Peace. Toronto: Dundurn, 1994

Abstract. Historical studies have shown that partitions of ethnic groups within nations often bring an increase in violence, not peace. In a search for political solutions that would forestall secession and outbreak of civil war, a new structure for parliamentary representation is proposed whereby the constituencies are non-territorial. Minorities that are large enough to form such constituencies would need further protection from being totally overwhelmed by the majority groupings, so that additional steps would be required to ensure that their aspirations are not totally overridden; referenda and weighted voting schemes are two elements that must be considered.


Framing a constitution is a fundamental means of preventing warfare, but when it is successful, the effect is invisible. Not only do certain wars not happen, but in the best cases, no one will ever realize that they might have happened. Because this is so, the formulation of voting systems is dismissed as an arcane irrelevance by those who care about real problems, such as military crises. In the worst cases, on the other hand, when a war begins no one can think of an acceptable way to end it. Witness especially ethnic wars, such as those raging now in the Balkans, the Transcaucasus, and Sri Lanka. The intractability of such secessionist wars can be gauged by the persistence of the conflicts in Northern Ireland, in Israel, in Pakistan and India, which may never end, The only solution to such wars is prevention, and the only practical preventive is a structural innovation that can solve the problems that cause them.

The dominant motivation leading to the partition of states is the aspiration for democracy. What will be proposed here is a system for reducing ethnic conflicts and, at the same time, increasing the political effectiveness of all members of the society. There is a common misconception that the quality of democracy varies little from one democratic society to another. Consider these questions: Why are nationalistic campaigns for independence surging at precisely the moment when previously totalitarian or authoritarian states are becoming democratic? Why do countries such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, begin to break up as soon as their citizens glimpse the prospect of self-rule? Why are even long-time democratic societies, such as Canada and Britain, experiencing secessionist movements? The evident answer is this: In a democracy, the majority wins and minorities lose. This creates a powerful incentive for each minority to demand its own sovereign state where, as the majority, it will always win. As democracy spreads, secessionist nationalists look for other ways of attaining political potency; the first idea that springs to mind is to partition existing nation-states so that they can achieve self-determination, or sovereign statehood.

Instead of addressing this problem with internal structural reforms, it has become common form in political discourse to promote fragmentation by treating self-determination as a collective human right — which is generally interpreted as the right to secede. Let us consider instead a way of enhancing self-determination without partitioning states into new sovereign territorial entities.

Who is entitled to self-determination? Clearly, an individual does not have a right to reject his or her nation-state and form a private government; only groups have the right to self-determination. But to be entitled to that right, how large a minority does a group have to be? Why does speaking a similar language or sharing a common history give some groups this collective right? Should this offer extend to such groups as trade unions, churches, or other voluntary groups that people join and leave freely? (DeGeorge, 1991: 2-4) If not, why not? The usual answer: Only a “people” is entitled to self-determination. But what is “a people”? A tribe? An ethnic group? A linguistic community? A religious community? The question involves the relationship between parts and wholes. Is there such a thing as a “Canadian” people, a “Yugoslav” people, or an “American” people? Is there a “Russian” people? What about Russians who have lived all their lives in Estonia? When do they stop being “Russians”? Are the Russian emigres who have spent most of their lives in Canada “Russians”? `What about their children who have never been to Russia? Or their grandchildren who have married Italian immigrants?

A “people” is not a concept that can be defined operationally. Likewise, the notion of self-determination is a myth — an inspiring ideal, perhaps, but not a practicable rule. Still, some myths have value: they summon us forward. As a mythic ideal, self-determination offers much that is worth striving for — so long as it is voluntary and nondiscriminatory. Those two caveats make quite a difference.

As a practical principle, self-determination is not always accepted in a consistent way (see the section entitled the Post-Yugoslav carnage. Chapter 2). People outside a national struggle may accept it in one situation and reject it in another very similar one. Within a national struggle it merely depends which side you are on: the colonists who fought the American Revolution to free themselves from Britain would surely have disapproved their grandchildren’s attempt to do the same thing – 13 forming the Confederacy and seceding from the Union.

The liberation movements that brought colonialism to an end justified their actions in terms of the principle of self-determination However, that myth today is used to justify (Buchanan, 1991) secessionist claims by the Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Scottish an the Welsh in Britain, the Bashkirs and Tatars in Russia, the South Ossetians and Ablchazians in Georgia, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Sikhs in India, not to mention the Quebecois, the Slovaks, the Basque the Flemings — the list goes on. Often grave conflicts have arise because liberal, progressive people have underestimated the destructiveness of partitioning nation-states, and have assumed that any group wanting its own homeland is, ipso facto, entitled to it. Ethnic groups have been encouraged to demand secession in the name of democracy by people who should have known that it would lead to what we have witnessed in Bosnia-Herzegovina: killing and expulsions that are called ethnic cleansing.

This outcome was predictable. Historically, secession has been disastrous in the great majority of cases. As Robert Schaeffer (1990) has pointed out, over 13 million people had died between the end of World War II and the late 1980s in fights preceding and following partition in Korea, Palestine, India, and Vietnam. `When a nation is partitioned, war often breaks out; families, buildings, and farms are divided; millions become refugees; internal strife hardens into permanent international hostility; and the remaining minorities within each of the new states are even more abused than in the larger previous state. No effort should be spared to find alternatives to the manifestation of ethnic identity in the form of nationalistic claims for territory. Ernest Gellner’s widely accepted definition of nationalism is “primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent” (Gellner, 1983: 1).

The reason for objecting to equating the political and national units is that in most cases, a mono-ethnic state is an unattainable dream. Less than ten percent of all existing states are ethnically homogeneous. Most of them have more than five major ethnic groups within their borders (Matthews, Rubinoff, and Stein, 1989: 91). Moreover, societies are becoming increasingly multicultural and more porous, as international migration increases (Taylor, 1992: 63). Rarely can there be found places to draw boundaries to split a nation into separate homogeneous new states; almost inevitably, minorities will remain in each of the new territories. Territorial expansion following the split of a nation-state is at best a zero-sum game; each group can gain territory only at the expense of another group’s territorial claims.

Actually, the ideal is relatively new in history that nation-states should be composed of separate, distinct ethnic communities. Eric Hobsbawm (1990:19) attributes the rise of this aspiration to the rise of the nation-state: “The equation nation = state = people, and especially sovereign people, undoubtedly linked nation to territory, since structure and definition of states were now essentially territorial.” In previous eras homogeneity was typical of isolated barbarian societies, not of high civilizations, which were poly-ethnic. William McNeill has traced the course of the idea that

it is right and proper and normal for a single people to inhabit a particular piece of territory and obey a government of their own devising.

He continues,

The idea that a government rightfully should rule only over citizens of a single ethnos took root haltingly in western Europe, beginning in the late middle ages; it got into high gear and became fully conscious in the late eighteenth century and flourished vigorously until about 1920; since which time the ideal has unquestionably begun to weaken in western Europe, where it began, but in other parts of the world, especially in the ex-colonial lands of Africa and Asia, it has continued to find fertile ground. (McNeill, 1985: 6-7)

If writing today, no doubt McNeill would include in this fertile ground the countries that recently were in the Soviet orbit.

McNeill’s historical account is consistent with the common assumption that ethnic consciousness peaks during an early stage of modernization, giving rise to “ersatz” or “imagined” communities — to use respectively the terms of Karl Deutsch (1969) and Benedict Anderson (1983) — and declines thereafter. And indeed, there is empirical evidence that ethnicity has ceased to be a permanently ascribed identity and has become a transitory, optional one. A citizen may pick up, drop, and even change ethnicity several times during a lifetime (Waters, 1990). This fact evokes the flimsy basis of nationalists’ demands for undying loyalty. Instead of being natural or inevitable, ethnic identity is a precarious ideological construct of no assured duration. Collective national identities may be supplanted over time by new forms of interest groups and parties as people become integrated into mature democratic political systems.

Nevertheless, until ethnic consciousness diminishes — and that may not happen — new arrangements are needed to satisfy the demands of nationalists for self-determination in the least destructive way possible. Fortunately, there may be a way to meet those demands and simultaneously enhance, rather than undermine, democracy. In fact, the reason minorities are continuing to demand self-determination is that they are consistent losers under the rules of everyday democratic practice. Democracy is, by definition, rule by the majority, not by a minority. In the best of circumstances all citizens in a democracy take turns being outvoted. However, cultural groups that constitute permanent minorities can never expect to win any political contest. No wonder they want out.

Such groups may differ demographically in their distribution within a society. In one case, a minority group may be dispersed so thinly through the population that it is nowhere numerous enough to elect a parliamentarian of its own. In another case, a minority may be concentrated in a particular district where it constitutes a local majority; predictably, it is in the latter case that a group’s members tend to regard secession as a solution to their problem. They recognize that it would enable them, no longer a permanent minority in a large state, to be a permanent majority capable of winning every political contest in their small new state. They may not see the disadvantages of this until later.

There is a need for democratic methods of protecting minority rights and enhancing self-determination without resort to secession. This need exists even in old democratic societies with well-observed charters of rights and with few minority problems.

Robert Dahl has written, “Whatever form it takes, the democracy of our successors will not and cannot be the democracy of our predecessors. Nor should it be.” (1989:340) Luckily, not all possible forms of democracy have yet been tried. However, as political scientists Andrew Reeve and Alan Ware (1992:4) point out, although an infinite variety of democratic electoral systems could be devised, and though it can be shown that different variants will yield very different decisions, it is rare for the public to consider electoral innovations seriously. People tend to assume that if an existing procedure is “democratic”, it is good enough. Improvements are neither needed nor possible.

My intention is to propose innovations that will suffice for a single purpose — to give minorities more democratic opportunities — while minimizing other changes in existing political systems. Thus these suggestions apply to both parliamentary and presidential systems. They could be adopted in nation-states, in non-governmental organizations, and in transnational or global organizations.

First, for ethnic communities to mobilize and seek representation without carving up existing states, it will be useful for parliamentary constituencies to be defined on a voluntary, functional basis, not a territorial basis. In this way, ethnic groups can form constituencies at will. However, this alone will not overcome the disadvantage of constituting the minority in the polling booths. More is required.

Second, for small minorities even to put their issues on the public agenda of the whole society, it will be useful for constituencies to be guaranteed the right once a year to place a proposition on a referendum on which the entire electorate will vote. However, even this innovation will not overcome the disadvantage of the group’s minority status. More is still required.

Third, it will be useful for the referendum to allow for weighting votes according to the intensity of preference. I will show that these three innovations, if taken in combination, will enable minorities sometimes to win political struggles — at least on issues about which the majority of voters are comparatively indifferent.

Non-territorial constituencies

In democratic states, votes are usually aggregated in geographic districts of approximately equal population size, though there are exceptions. Some constituencies are not purely defined territorially. For example, in Ontario an enumerator comes door-to-door before each election to ask all voters to declare their religious preference: Catholic or any other faith. Catholics’ property taxes support Catholic schools and they elect the trustees of the Catholic School Board. All other religious communities support the public schools with their taxes and vote for trustees of the Public School Board. Thus different constituencies occupy the same geographical districts, yet handle their own distinct sets of problems independently. This solution provides a measure of “self-determination” in a context of social integration.

Similarly, electoral reforms have been suggested in Canada that will reserve seats in Parliament for representatives of aboriginal Indians, in proportion to their numbers — almost 2 percent of the population. In the existing system of territorial constituencies, these indigenous peoples are too dispersed to be able to elect a representative to the House of Commons. The proposed reform is one of several measures designed to increase their self-determination without re-drawing any territorial boundaries. As we shall see, one can invent other possible ways of maximizing self-determination without partitioning states or segregating peoples.

Non-territorial constituencies already form the basis for electing legislators in a few countries, such as Malta and Ireland, where constituencies of farmers, university personnel, and other functional groups are allocated seats in the Senate in proportion to their numbers in the population. Likewise, in Amsterdam, city councillors are elected, not to represent particular districts, but to represent particular interest groups. The votes that they receive become the basis for allocating other benefits, including the content of television programming. Catholic voters not only elect a number of Catholic city councillors, but are given control over a proportional number of minutes of television programming per month. Anarchists, gays, Latin Americans, and other distinctive communities also elect their own city councillors and receive their proportional share of TV time. Reportedly, anarchists receive too few votes to elect a city councillor of their own, but they are allocated a few minutes of television time each month.

Thus it is possible for groups to form constituencies that are not defined territorially or by ascribed social traits, but voluntarily on whatever basis they choose. Such constituencies may include nationality groups — for as long as people identify themselves as such. However, if individuals gradually come to assign higher priority to a different group identity (e.g. trade union membership, religious affiliation, feminism, or vegetarianism) they can form a new constituency and re-register accordingly, regardless of where they live. No fights for turf will arise and no one will have to move away to win political representation.

What I am proposing is that electoral districts be abolished (at least for one house of a bicameral legislature1) and replaced by non-territorial constituencies, to be determined by voluntary registration, just as the Catholics in Ontario identify themselves voluntarily and may change their religious identity at will. No objective criteria for membership should ever be permitted, lest people be classified involuntarily, according to some racist scheme, for example. The number of deputies or parliamentarians to be elected by each constituency will be proportional to the number of voters registered in it. Communities can be represented politically, regardless of where their members live, though issues that are of local interest will predominantly attract the votes of local citizens.

What are the advantages of such a system in comparison to more common systems for aggregating votes? The chief advantage is similar to that of proportional representation (PR) in party systems: even small minorities will be able to gain some representation in parliament. The proposal should also appeal to a minority group that is clustered in a particular region where it forms a local majority. These are the most likely groups to become secessionists, and our scheme might be acceptable to them as a substitute for secession2, at least in combination with the other two elements of this proposal.

Direct democracy

In every state there will always be a need for some type of legislature. However, true democracy also allows citizens to participate in decision-making directly and not only through their elected representatives. Referendums are well-established practices in certain polities, such as Switzerland and California, where political decisions seem to be no worse than those made elsewhere.

The effectiveness of referendums depends on the ability of citizens to study the issues. These opportunities can be increased by technological means. As Robert Dahl notes,

By means of telecommunications, virtually every citizen could have information about public issues almost immediately accessible in a form (print, debates, dramatization, animated cartoons, for example) and at a level (from expert to novice, for example) appropriate to the particular citizen. Telecommunications can also provide every citizen with opportunities to place questions on this agenda of public issue information. (Dahl, 1989: 339-40)

One problem is that it is theoretically possible for voters to be confronted with two incompatible propositions on the same referendum. In reality however, this concern seems not to be warranted; in California, where approximately 30 propositions are placed on the ballot each time, two contradictory proposals are never adopted. And if this did happen, the Supreme Court would provide a judgment to resolve the question. Parties and interest groups distribute arguments for or against particular propositions. By no means can all decisions be made by referendum; the legislators, the judiciary, and the executive branches of government all have their parts to play.

As a guarantee that minorities will be able to place their concerns on the public agenda, I suggest that each constituency that is sizeable enough to elect at least one parliamentarian should be guaranteed the right to submit one proposition to the electorate in an annual referendum. If, say, there are 20 constituencies, each referendum will comprise 20 propositions3. It will become apparent that the revolutionary feature of the present proposals is the unusual way in which citizens will vote for or against those propositions.

Weighted voting

The preceding two proposals do not actually eliminate the most objectionable aspect of territorial democratic voting: the fact that minority cultural groups can always be outvoted. Rules are enacted by the majority and imposed on the minority. A fair system is needed that will give minority groups an opportunity to enact certain measures of their own choosing, with the approval of the majority. Happily, the proposed solution to this problem will benefit not only minority groups but all citizens alike. Although all voters have equal decision-making power, they do not all care equally about the same issues. Each citizen only wants to influence certain decisions that concern him or her, and would gladly let others decide the remainder. A system of weighted voting makes this feasible. The outcome will be determined both by the number of voters expressing their opinion on an issue, and also by the intensity of their opinion on the matter.

In the hypothetical annual referendum proposed above, each voter is entitled to cast 20 votes — one for or against each proposition. With a weighted voting system, however, each voter may “spend” his or her votes in various ways, distributing them across the referendum as he or she likes4. It is one shortcoming of all conventional democratic systems that one’s vote on a deeply-felt matter will be “cancelled out” by other voters who have nothing at stake and who may even flip a coin to decide how to vote. The proposed system of weighted voting gives all citizens more opportunity selectively to influence the issues that are salient to them and to skip others. Decisions will sometimes be made by a small number of voters who care strongly about a given issue — a circumstance that will especially please minorities, while also augmenting the political power of allvoters.

Let us consider, as an illustration, three hypothetical citizens of a democratic nation, Mrs. Urdoh, Mr. Ivanov, and Dr. Yang, who confront a referendum listing 20 propositions, each of which will be enacted by a simple majority of the votes cast on it.

Let us suppose that Mrs. Urdoh cares profoundly about an issue that her ethnic group placed on the ballot — a measure that would require that the nation’s paper money be printed in her group’s traditional Somali language. Mrs. Urdoh may “spend” all 20 of her votes to endorse this proposal, Proposition 4, though she must then forego voting on any of the remaining 19 propositions.

Another voter, Mr. Ivanov, may not care at all what language is displayed on the paper money. He decides not to vote on that item, thereby saving one vote which he uses by casting two votes against Proposition Eleven — a measure that would prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sundays. Apart from that, Mr. Ivanov casts one vote in favor of each of the propositions.

The third voter, Dr. Yang, is also indifferent as to which languages will be displayed on the national currency. She does have a firm opinion on the alcohol issue, however, and differs from Mr. Ivanov. Dr. Yang spends her 20 votes equally on four issues. She casts five votes against Proposition 5 (which would require women to cover the whole body with a veil whenever appearing in public), five votes for Proposition 11 (which would forbid the sale of alcohol on Sundays), five votes against Proposition 12 (which would authorize the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the country’s largest river), and five votes in favor of Proposition 17 (which would authorize a system of alternative service for young men who are conscientiously opposed to military action).

Table 1 displays the results as far as these three voters are concerned, with respect to only five of the 20 propositions. (Since Mr. Ivanov voted on 19 propositions, his effect on the outcome of this referendum will not be fully apparent here.)

Table 1: Results of hypothetical referendum for five propositions and three voters.

Proposition Result for against
4: Somali language on national currency: passed 20 0
0: Veil in public: defeated 1 5
11: Alcohol prohibition on Sundays: passed 5 2
12: Hydroelectric dam: defeated 1 5
17: Alternative service: passed 1 0

It can be seen that the weighted voting scheme used in this referendum has an unusual consequence, namely that every voter can have more influence over the decisions that he or she cares about than would be the case given the usual system of voting. Everyone — not only minorities — will gain from this approach. However, minorities may be the most enthusiastic supporters of such an innovation because now they will sometimes win. No group will necessarily constitute a permanent minority any more, perpetually outvoted and unable to effect their cherished cultural goals.

Best of all, the rest of the society will be satisfied whenever the minority wins a proposition. In the example shown above, only one person voted on Proposition 1, which would print the country’s money in the Somali language, yet that proposition received the most substantial victory of all, making Mrs. Urdoh a satisfied citizen. But Mr. Ivanov and Dr. Yang are also satisfied with this outcome; if they had not found it acceptable, they would have voted against it. The strength of their opinions is registered in the proportion of votes that each person casts.

The proposed system is egalitarian. All voters have the same amount of power. It is also a win-win solution, benefiting everyone and disadvantaging no one. Minorities will sometimes win political contests — at least when the majority does not disapprove. Not only minorities will gain political power through weighted voting; so will all other citizens. Everyone can influence the decisions that they most care about and allow others to do likewise.

However, a single referendum may not be the last word on a controversy. Issues that pass easily in one referendum may become sources of dissatisfaction later, and reappear on a subsequent referendum. For example, this voting scheme has been simulated in several settings, including a 120 member sociology class in Canada. Four of the students approached the referendum in a playful mood. They formed a constituency representing “anglo-Canadians” and put forward a proposition that all Canadian beer must have an alcohol content of at least 5 percent. In fact, they argued spiritedly before the amused class in favor of this legislation. They were the only students, in the end, who voted on it, and they “spent” all their votes supporting their proposition, with good results — it carried. At first glance this example merely seems to show that a silly measure can pass if too few people care enough about it to waste votes in blocking it. On the other hand, one can welcome this outcome as evidence that a minority group can win — at least on measures toward which others are indifferent. Conceivably, if this beer proposition were enacted by a real electorate, it might cause so many negative social consequences that another group might mobilize itself to put the issue on another ballot later.


In a few rare cases, a case can be made for partitioning states. However, it is a dangerous expedient, to be avoided except when there is mutual consent among all the participants — including all minority groups. Since this degree of consensus is rare, political incentives will frequendy be required to induce disaffected minorities to remain part of an integrated polity instead of demanding territorial independence. The incentives of conventional democratic electoral procedures turn ethnic groups in the other direction — toward separatism, since they must expect to be permanently outvoted, whereas by seceding they could become a permanent majority in their locality. What is needed is a way of giving minorities a chance to win sometimes, with the full approval of the rest of the citizens. We have considered several proposed advances in democratic practice that offer minorities the possibility of attaining some of their ambitions, while also increasing the satisfaction of the wider electorate.

The use of functional (instead of territorial) constituencies is a democratic version of “corporatism” or “neo-corporatism” that is rather widely used in some Western European nations. Its advantage is that fairly small minority groups could be represented in the legislature, and each would be guaranteed a right to place one proposal before the electorate in the form of a referendum proposition. This incentive would diminish the urgency to minority groups of having their own separate nation-states. Moreover, if (as many theorists have argued) ethnic identity will be salient only for a limited historical period, then it is important to define constituencies that will allow minority groups to express their concerns on a voluntary, changeable basis. It is a mistake to build permanent political entities that assign territory to particular ethnic groups, since minorities will still be found inside almost any boundaries that could be drawn. Besides, the longer-term trend is for more of the world’s problems to be transnational in scope, which calls for polities that are more, not less, inclusive. The challenge at this historical moment is to find ways of satisfying local interests and of protecting local cultures without slicing the map into smaller units.

While most electoral theorists appreciate the value of functional constituencies, some of them are wary of giving up the territorial basis entirely, and their reasoning should be taken into account, Thus Andrew Reeve and Alan Ware, having discounted as specious a number of justifications for territorial subunits, submit that “it is important to retain structures around which potential opposition can mobilize. Local party organizations, centred on territorially-defined Parliamentary constituencies, constitute one of those structures.” There is merit to this point, and it would be a mistake to take away all the functions of parties. In a parliamentary system, the administrative branch of the government is formed on the basis of the number of seats that each parry wins. The political parties in Britain or Canada would lose their raison d’etre if constituencies were defined entirely on a functional basis.

For these reasons, the executive leadership should be elected separately through candidacy in parties. Functional constituencies could elect the legislature while territorial constituencies elect the chief executive. Indeed, a plausible case can be made for retaining territorial constituencies in one house of a bicameral legislature5. This would allow parties to continue to mobilize opposition against interest groups, and thereby prevent national politics from becoming dominated by single-issue campaigns.

All the functional constituencies would be allocated a number of seats in proportion to their size, and the political parties would name a list of candidates for each constituency. This would create a system of proportional representation of parties (Reeve and Ware, 1992: 69-93) which, for Canada, would be a significant and constructive change. Other than that, however, most nation-states could implement the present proposals with limited change in their existing constitutional structures.

The three proposals here, taken together, offer new hope for Minorities who are otherwise disempowered in their own polities. If these initiatives toward greater self-determination are to be effective in forestalling secessionist movements, they must be undertaken well in advance of any nationalistic conflict. By the time partition is being promoted, it is probably too late for these innovations to reverse the tide.

The proposals have been discussed here with reference to nation-states. This problematic has been chosen from a concern for the urgency of preventing secessionist wars. However, these proposals were initially considered as a response to a different problem — that of forming democratic systems of governance for large transnational bodies. The problem of integrating large polities comprising diverse populations is the same, whether the polity is a nation-state, a province, a continent, the entire planet — or just a non-governmental organization such as a professional association.

Organizations that provide representation to large populations usually adopt a federal structure, with the top decision-making positions being filled by representatives of nation-states, which are the “basic units” of the whole organization. On what possible basis can votes be aggregated, except by the existing “sovereign” states? How can the larger region be integrated across the borders of these states? These difficulties can be seen in the case of the European Community, for which there is yet no blueprint that looks democratic. It is inherently hard for top decision-makers to remain responsive to individual citizens or small, grass-roots bodies far away. The larger the body, the less democratic it is likely to be — a fact that must worry anyone who sees the increasing need for world governance.

Instead of trying to weld together congeries of hard-shelled nation-states, it is more promising to begin new organizations whose constituencies are not territories or nation-states, but voluntary, transnational groupings formed without regard to geographical location. Multiple communities of like-minded planetary citizens, each unified by common identities and concerns, can elect delegates, hold referendums, and express their concerns through the means that have been outlined here. They need not attempt to supplant nation-states, but help fuse the cracks between them. Such international societies, thickened by frequent interaction and politically mobilized, can contribute informally to the integration of global society, countering the centrifugal forces of nationalism. And more formally, transnational decision-making bodies can represent flexible self-defining constituencies more democratically than do present structures, which are built on the system of nation-states.

Unfortunately, electoral innovations are rarely adopted. There are some valid reasons for conservatism in such a matter. Decision-making procedures in a nation-state are so fateful that it is often better to adhere to flawed ones than to adopt “improvements” that are untested. One cannot expect a set of proposals such as those presented here to be accepted by existing states. However, non-governmental organizations can use some of these ideas. If such experimental approaches do, as expected, advance democracy and empower both minorities and majorities, nation-states or inter-governmental bodies may subsequently adopt them.


1 In Canada or in Britain, the relevant House would be the Lower House, unless the Upper House became elected.

2 Trends in the direction of this system — called “neocorporatism” or “liberalism” — are observable in certain European countries, where interest groups cooperate with government agencies in the formation and administration of policies. Concerns have been expressed that this approach might take over some of the usual functions of political parties, but this is not regularly the case (Ware, 1986:126).

3 In some states that hold referendums regularly, groups of citizens collect signatures on a petition in order to place a given proposition on the ballot. In Switzerland, 100,000 signatures are required. This rather costly practice could be continued under the new arrangements. Alternatively, the parliamentarian(s) for each constituency might have the responsibility for formulating their group’s proposition, and would doubtless be lobbied by the electorate. Yet a third approach might be to have each constituency elect a nonpartisan panel that would formulate its referendum proposition. The argument for this third approach is that it may be not be desirable for political parties (or their nominees) to formulate the propositions, since this would open the way for manipulation. The combination of propositions on any one referendum will sometimes affect the prospects for an individual proposition. It would be better, therefore, for all the different constituencies to formulate their items separately, so as to preclude manipulation.

4 The present proposal applies weighted voting only to a referendum, but the same principle is sometimes applied to elections of representatives. For example, in Switzerland in a ten-seat constituency, a voter may give a single vote to each of the ten candidates, or may divide his ten votes among three or four candidates from the same or different parties (Urwin 1977:21). Since Switzerland is taken as the best example of a successful multinational state with very little internal strife, it is worth paying particular attention to their innovative and highly democratic political structures, including weighted voting and the extensive use of the referendum, which seem to accommodate minorities extremely well.

5 In a parliamentary system, the party in power in either house might elect the prime minister, as in Britain. Alternatively, party leaders might continue to be chosen by party conferences, as in Canada, though this approach has its critics. Its main disadvantage is in stripping backbench parliamentarians of their power.


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