The ERA report: is Cambodia’s representation system unfair?

[Published in the Cambodia Herald on 3 January 2014.]

In the previous article, I raised a number of reasons why the recent report of the Electoral Reform Alliance deserves to be approached with a very sceptical attitude; these included the ERA’s apparent domination by foreign government agencies and the contempt of the report’s authors for democratic procedures such as elections. In this and further articles, I will look at some of the report’s specific complaints and suggested or implied “remedies”.

But these specifics should always also be considered in terms of what they have in common. One is that few of the criticisms are new, despite attempts in the media to portray the report as something new. They have been heard before, and have mostly been replied to by the government or the governing party.

Secondly, most of the complaints or criticisms display an intention to portray the government in the worst possible light. To cite just one example: the report spends three of its 60 pages criticising the “media environment” (especially television) for being too favourable to the CPP. Nowhere does it mention that the media environment includes free time provided on state TV to all parties to present their platforms. Nor does it mention the large number of Cambodian newspapers, many of which are critical of the government and/or supportive of the opposition.

Inequality among provinces

One aspect of the ERA report that may be new is its criticism of the inequalities in seat allocations among provinces. It complains that one member of the National Assembly “in Preah Vihear represents 260,034 constituents, while in Kep, one representative represents 42,838 constituents. In Oddar Meanchey, an MNA represents 235,897 constituents compared with Kratie, with 121,294.”

It certainly sounds like the ruling party has rigged things here, and the ERA will not say anything that might disabuse you of that notion. For example, it will not point out that the present system of representation by provinces has been in effect since 1993, when it was instituted, not by the CPP, but by UNTAC, which no one except the Khmer Rouge has ever accused of trying to favour the CPP.

Aside from who created it, is the system wildly unfair? The answer to that depends on a number of considerations.

The only electoral system that could treat all voters’ ballots equally and still have proportional representation would be one that treated the entire country as a single electorate. Then the number of NA seats assigned to each party would be determined by its percentage of the national vote. Such systems have not been generally popular. The reason is that elected representatives do not represent any specific location or section of the population, so voters have no particular representative whose behaviour they can approve or disapprove of, no specific representative they can ask for assistance or complain to about government administration or the need for some piece of legislation; people in less populated areas feel unrepresented.

At the other end of the spectrum is a system similar to that used to elect the United States House of Representatives, where districts are as close as possible to each other in size, and each elects one representative. Such an arrangement treats all voters equally and allows all voters to have one particular representative, but cannot be made proportional; it is theoretically possible for the same party to win 50.1% in each district, and therefore to have all the representatives in the parliament, while 49.9% of the population have no representative. Another undesirable possibility – less theoretical, since it was the actual result of the 2012 election in the US – is that the party that gets the largest number of votes ends up with fewer representatives than a party that received significantly fewer votes.

The electoral system in Cambodia lies somewhere between the two extremes. It therefore has some of the advantages and some of the disadvantages of each. This arrangement is of great benefit to the authors of the ERA report, because it allows them to ignore the advantages, focus on the disadvantages and pretend that these are the fault of the government.

The ERA report considers the inequalities between provinces in terms of population. Here, I use the number of votes recorded in the 28 July election, which is another way of illustrating the principles involved.

In Kep, the smallest province by population, 19,624 votes were cast. The national total of votes was 6,627,159. So if Kep is taken as the standard, and every 19,624 votes are entitled to one representative, the National Assembly would need at least 338 members.

But Pailin had 26,917 voters, which means it should have 1.37 representatives in a National Assembly of 338 members and would therefore be either underrepresented or overrepresented. To represent Kep voters and Pailin voters equally, Kep would need to have 20 representatives and Pailin 27. That is, the voters of Kep and Pailin could be given equal representation only by a national ratio of one representative per thousand voters. Applying that ratio requires a National Assembly of 6627 members. And it would get worse as inconvenient numbers in other provinces entered the calculation.

The other way of overcoming inequalities between provinces, without enlarging the National Assembly to absurd numbers, would be to combine two or more provinces into a single electoral district – so that, for example, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri would among them elect only one representative. This would shift things towards the single-district end of the spectrum, at the cost of depriving smaller provinces of a local representative.

The ERA report does not advocate either such an enlargement of the National Assembly or such a merging of provinces into larger electoral districts. All it does is criticise an unavoidable choice between local representation and equality among voters, in which improving one side makes the other side worse, and imply that this dilemma, inherent in the election of representatives, is somehow the fault of the government.

Redistribution

A subsidiary ERA complaint is that redistribution of seats among the provinces has not been done “in a decade”. This is a valid point, but not a very important one. It seems to have been included only because the authors were tasked with raising every possible electoral complaint, regardless of its significance.

The report reproduces a simulation by the NDI of a redistribution. (The National Democratic Institute is an agency created by the government of the United States, where electoral redistributions occur only once in a decade, a fact to which the NDI has never objected.)

The implication of the report is that an inaccurate distribution must somehow advantage the CPP. However, for 14 provinces, the simulated redistribution causes no change in the number of representatives. Five provinces would gain seats (Siem Reap two, and one each in Battambang, Kampong Speu, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear). Five provinces would lose seats (two in Kampong Cham and one each in Kampot, Kandal, Phnom Penh and Prey Veng). Would a redistribution have produced a different election outcome?

The CPP and CNRP votes in Kampong Cham and Siem Reap were close enough that reducing Kampong Cham’s representation by two would mean that each party would lose one seat, and that increasing Siem Reap’s representation by two would mean that each party would gain one seat.

In Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear, both of which the ERA redistribution would increase from one seat to two, the 28 July vote would have given both extra seats to the CPP. In Kampong Speu, where each party won three seats but the CNRP had a plurality, an extra seat would have gone to the CNRP. An extra seat in Battambang would also have gone to the CNRP. So far, that adds up to no net change.

Of the four other provinces, each of which would lose a seat in the NDI’s redistribution, in Kampot, where the CPP and CNRP each won six seats, the lost seat would have to be taken from the CNRP, which trailed the CPP by 22,000 votes. In Prey Veng, where the CNRP won six seats and the CPP five, the CNRP would have lost one seat if the province’s representation had been reduced to 10. On the other side, a reduction of one seat for Kandal and Phnom Penh would both have been at the expense of the CPP. So here also, there appears to be no net change in the number of representatives that would have been elected if the NDI’s simulated redistribution had actually been carried out.

Hence it is clear that the delay in redistribution could not have altered the overall election outcome. Even more obvious and important, given the ERA’s perspective that anything not perfect is the result of a CPP plot: no one could have calculated reliably beforehand whether a redistribution would have benefited the CPP or the opposition.

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