Administrative Reform Packages, pt. 1: On Secret Ballot


Y’all already know all about how the PM nomination of Zoran Janković fell through and how it wasn’t clear until the results came in whether he had the necessary 46 votes. Since both the right- and left-wing parties both nominally hold 44 votes, with the two minorities MPs in between, Zoran Janković had to secure at least two votes from the other side, sparking a frantic search for “rats” in the ranks of right-wing parties. A drastic measure was taken with those MPs being instructed not pick up ballots at all. In the end, some of those MPs (presumably party leaders) picked up their ballots to ensure a quorum, but the move caused much controversy and prompted calls for a change in constitution where the PM nominee would be voted on by a public vote rather than a secret ballot. Which is utter nonsense. Oddly enough, this is also one of the constitutional changes that the SDS of Janez Janša floated yesterday. And even more oddly, DLGV of Gregor Virant did not echo the sentiment, although it was Virant himself floated the idea. Then again, it shouldn’t really be a surprise. It really is a fucking bad idea.

Political Science 101

Broadly speaking, the concept of division of power differentiates between legislative, executive and judicial branches. These are independent from one another and interact via a more or less complex system of checks and balances which is suppose to ensure that no branch prevails against the other two in the long term.

One of the mechanisms to ensure this is the way representatives of these branches are selected. Members of the parliament, that is to say, the legislative branch is selected in a secret ballot. It should be therefore obvious that the executive branch should be selected in a similar manner. And as things stand now, it is. Members of the parliament vote on a candidate for prime minister in a secret ballot. Understandably, this goes for the Constitutional Court (the third factor in this balance of power) as well. Its members are voted on by the parliament in a secret ballot. It’s the way it should be. And there’s a reason for it.

You see, this is not just about coalitions, votes and majorities. It has to do with sovereignty. In Slovenia (as in any other republic), the people are the sovereign. Additionally, the people are also the sole bearer of power. This power is then executed either directly or via elections, where it is transferred to the three branches of power. The parliament is the bearer of this delegated sovereignty, the government is the one to execute the sovereignty, with the constitutional court mostly acting as the arbiter between the two. It is therefore necessary for the three branches of power to be selected by the same (or at least similar) method, i.e. a secret ballot.

Shotgun elections

But why secret? Usually, the MPs votes are public and their voting record speaks volumes on their adherence to party platforms, pre-election promises and special-interest influence. In short: public votes on legislation are a matter of transparency and accountability. But the same thing that works in favour of the democratic process when passing legislation is concerned, works decidedly against it when establishing the branches of power is concerned. When voting for specific candidates running for specific offices, open ballot is subject to control, pressure being brought to bear and all other forms of perversion of decision-making process including implicit and explicit threats and even bribery.

True, many if not all of these can be used in a secret ballot, but in the end no-one really knows how any given person voted, the only thing clear is the end result. Which is why today we still can not say for certain which four MPs did not vote for Janković on that fateful Wednesday even though they were expected to. The only thing we know is that at least four more people should have voted for Jay-Z were he to become the PM, but didn’t. We’ll never know just who exactly went rogue. And that’s the way it should be. That, ladies and gentlemen is the most basic of democratic standards. Take that away and we’re half-way to shot-gun elections.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

4 thoughts on “Administrative Reform Packages, pt. 1: On Secret Ballot”

  1. As I understood it, your argument is that because the people vote for the legislative branch by secret ballot, the legislators should vote for the executive branch by secret ballot. I admit there is a nice symmetry here, but that does not necessarily imply democracy. There is a big difference between the legislators and the people: the people represent themselves, their own consciences, but the legislators represent the people and should therefore be held accountable to the people. The only way for this to happen is that the people know what or whom their delegates voted for. This becomes especially necessary when the delegates who have been elected are still rather unknown — as was the case in the Jankovic vote. The people need to know whom they have elected, i.e. they need to know what vote the delegates have cast and, indeed, why. The secret ballot only serves the parties and backroom arm-twisting. It does no service whatsoever to democracy. By the way, in the United States (admittedly, a very different system) each of the three branches is selected in a different way: the executive branch is selected by the Electoral College, based on the popular vote in each State; both houses of the legislature are selected by popular vote, and the judiciary is appointed by the executive branch. So there is no symmetry but, for all the system’s problems, there is a fairly good system of checks and balances that has been in place for two centuries.

  2. Wrong, actually. MPs are indeed representatives of the people, but they are not delegates, i.e.: individuals to whom “the people” delegated instructions on how to vote. The so called “delegate system” is what we had in the self-management (final) phase of socialism and didn’t exactly work out. Instead, the MPs are elected individuals, who legislate in the name of the people and do it as they see fit.

    Secondly, you make an understandable but unfair distinction between “veteran” and “untested” MPs. There is no correlation between the number of terms an MP had served and his (non)representing the will of the people. Instead, the veteran MPs are often given “safe precints” to run in, full well knowing they’ll be elected on account of their party affiliation and not necessarily their voting record, let alone their credibility (case in point being Branko Marinič, MP, of SDS who is facing charges of having someone else take an exam in his name).

    Thirdly, your arm-twisting argument is wrong. Yes, in addition to political negotiations there’s also the strong-arm stuff no one likes: pressure is being brought to bear, threats are being made and bribes are being offered. But after all is said and done, it is the secret ballot which ensures that the one applying pressure can not be sure whether threats and/or bribes worked. Also, you wrongly assume that MPs would balk at switching sides if the vote on Prime Minister were public. They wouldn’t.

    And fourthly: the comparison with the US is – as you already hint at – misplaced. The genesis of their political system is completely different from those in Central Europe (grass-roots vs. political parties), their constitution is vague as they get (which works for them), they are for all intents and purposes a federation of states and (finally) the symmetry exists because the executive branch is under much greater control of the Congress than you’d have us believe. For example, the President appoints Chief Justices, but only after the Congress approves them.

    Oh, and one final point: Even in the US, the College Electors are not bound to vote for whomever their state voted for. They are actually free to support whomever they like. It has happened.

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