Opinion: The mandate of MPs

POSTED: 06/26/12 12:33 PM

In St. Maarten it is possible to win 186 votes in national elections, become the faction leader of a party and bring your own government down. If there are, as was the case in 2010, only 13,708 votes cast, and the three party leaders win 5,870 of them, politicians vying for the remaining 12 available seats have to win 653.2 votes to be average, or 559.9 assuming that at least two party leaders will end up in the government and not in the parliament.
The only parliamentarian who overshot this standard in 2010 was Frans Richardson with 695 votes; Patrick Illidge was the only one to overshoot the second average by winning 593 votes.
At the bottom of the pile was United People’s Party candidate Rhoda Arrindell with 120 votes which does not look like much of a mandate; but still, she became the country’s first Minister of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports.
Other MPs and ministers with a debatable mandate are Roy Marlin (128 votes), Maria Buncamper-Molanus (136 votes), and Jules James (152 votes), Leroy de Weever (172) and Romain Laville (186). Other candidates won between 255 and 476 votes.
The situation in the Netherlands is not much different, Roderik van Grieken, the director of the Dutch Debating Institute, noted yesterday in an op-ed in the Volkskrant. The average parliamentarian wins in the Second Chamber elections not more than a couple of hundred votes, he claims. Given the fact that the numbers are much larger in the Netherlands; in 2010 more than 9.4 million votes were cast in the Second Chamber elections. Rita Verdonk’s Trots op Nederland won four times more votes than the total that was cast in St. Maarten (52, 937) and still it was not enough to win a seat in the parliament.
Van Grieken notes that voters in the Netherlands do not feel connected with their Members of Parliament. If you asked people to name ten parliamentarians, they would not know what to say, he argues.
This lack of connection undermines the function of the people’s representatives, Van Grieken wrote. Somebody becomes a Member of Parliament in the Netherlands on the strength of a party leader and one or two well-known parliamentarians. That is of course also the case in St. Maarten.
If seats were given to individuals based on the votes they won, Theo Heyliger would have ended up in 2010 with 3.19 seats, William Marlin with 1.74 and Sarah Wescot-Williams with 1.5 seats. No other participant in the elections won enough votes to meet the quota of 913.8 necessary to claim a seat.
Like in the Netherlands, local politicians have to rely on their family, their in-laws if they have them, their personal network and a number of people that vote for them because they happen to come from the same neighborhood.
CDA dissidents Ad Koppejan (3, 604 votes) and Kathleen Ferrier (1, 269 votes) were in a position to make or break the Rutte government. That is an inappropriate position of power, Van Grieken wrote, and we just have to think about the 186 votes of Romain Laville that broke the UP/DP-government.
Like in the Netherlands, there is a firm faction discipline in St. Maarten. It is unheard of for a member of any party to vote against the party line. Laville did so at least once when he was the UP-faction leader when he voted to approve a motion aimed at protecting Mullet Pond.
In Great-Britain party-whips have a full time job keeping parliamentarians in line. They have an easier time following their conscience, because they have been elected directly. Dutch MPs know that they have their position because of the party they belong to. And because they know this, they display the appropriate level of humility.
That is a weakness in the system, Van Grieken wrote. Dutch MPs have close ties with their party and they are depending on it. Their ties with their voters are much weaker, because they are not depending on the voters’ judgments. When a party is doing well and an MP functions decently within the faction she or he has little to worry about.
The situation in Great Britain is totally different. MPs in the UK are supposed to represent the interests of the voters in their district and they are constantly busy keeping their voters happy. The British talk about “their” MP. The line between citizens and their representatives is much shorter.
This system produces MPs that in general have the gift of the gab and that are more passionate. This is because they’ve had to campaign to win their seat.
Dutch MPs have worked their way up the ladder within their party and they largely have their party to thank for the fact that they have a seat in parliament. The distance between Dutch MPs and their voters is significantly bigger.
During the campaign leading up to the September 12 elections, parliamentarians will do their best, but the message they take to their voters is basically the party program. This way, MPs are hardly different from party members who are distributing flyers in a busy shopping street.
Van Grieken regrets all this. There is nothing wrong with the way MPs execute their controlling task, and they are in general on a par with their foreign colleagues. But what is missing is their connection to the electorate.
St. Maarten does not have a district system like the UK, but it would not hurt to think about this system as an alternative for the current winner take all system. After all, the political parties we have are not grounded in any particular ideology. We do not have a left wing labor party or a right wing VVD or, God forbid, PVV. Our politicians move easily from left to right and vice versa without giving it a second thought.
If they had to campaign in their district for a seat, that campaign would be against other candidates from the same district. It would certainly bring politicians closer to the electorate and it would diminish the tendency to come up with empty campaign promises, because they would meet their voters every day they get out the door.

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