Perhaps it is the language barrier, but I have never seen much analysis of the relationship between the German and New Zealand electoral systems, or of its consequences. But as I learned back in POLS101, the new electoral system which New Zealand adopted in 1996 (MMP) was the same system used to elect the lower house of the German Parliament, the Bundestag (and most German state parliaments). With elections to the Bundestag coming up later this year it is a good time to look at both countries from a comparative perspective.

This system is characterised by one main purpose: creating consensus across political parties and reducing the chance of one party gaining an absolute majority. The main mechanism to this end is the proportional allocation of seats in the house according to total votes cast, allowing a wider variety of political parties to be represented and a large chance of coalitions having to be formed.

It is worth noting that this system was developed after WWII and sought to prevent the sort of situation which allowed Hitler’s NSDAP (Nazi party) to gain control of the Reichstag, outlaw opposition parties and create a one-party dictatorship, with disastrous consequences. (Not all of this was done lawfully or facilitated by the constitution; however it was not prevented by it either.)

How interesting that New Zealanders would be so disillusioned with their electoral system that they would adopt another that was developed as a direct consequence of one of history’s most appalling and disastrous perversions of democracy.

New Zealand’s reasons for adopting a proportional representation system were of a much, much lower order of injustice and can be summarised as frustration at:

1. Distortion of election results: The old First-Past-The-Post (FPP) system on occasion – but, perhaps fatefully, twice in a row in 1978 and 1981 – rewarded more seats in the House to the Party which had won less votes.

2. Underrepresentation of Minorities: FPP consistently returned only the two largest parties, Labour and National, to the House.

3. The ‘Absolute Power’ of Cabinet: With a party majority in the House and control of Cabinet a small group of people could in effect control all legislation passed by Parliament. This was perceived to be the situation especially between 1984 and 1993 when wide-ranging reforms were made by Government which sections of the public felt were not mandated.

Yesterday the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband gave a speech to NATO members outlining a comprehensive British policy for further military involvement in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t forget that the main ISAF force in Afghanistan is supplied by NATO, alongside the US Operation Enduring Freedom. Back in 2001 NATO member states saw the September 11 terrorist attacks as an attack on a member state and invoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty, compelling all member states to react. The result was the ongoing military involvement in Afghanistan.

In the speech, Miliband gave a broad outlook on British involvement in Afghanistan, setting both a clear goal:

‘to protect our citizens from terrorist attacks by preventing Al Qaida having a safe haven in the tribal belt – in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.’

And conceding that military measures alone will not be able to fulfil this goal, but real progress will be made through political measures:

‘strategic progress relies on undermining the insurgency through politics’

Thus Miliband sees three main political challenges which must be met by Western forces in Afghanistan:

‘First, a political strategy for dealing with the insurgency through reintegration and reconciliation…

Second, a political strategy for the wider population, through reassurance about their future…

Third, a political strategy towards the neighbours in the region – including Pakistan and Iran – to ensure that they accept that Afghanistan’s future is not as a client of any, but as a secure country in its own right.’

The British must be congratulated for communicating a comprehensive strategy towards military involvement in Afghanistan – for setting clear goals and a path forward towards achieving them.

And it is worth noting that this strategy follows the broad lines which have been recommended by many in the wider policy community, and you read about here at Comparablog.

The New Zealand government would do well to learn from the clear policy statement of the British and formulate a comprehensive strategy of their own on military involvement in Afghanistan.

It was inevitable that the election of a National-led government in New Zealand would provoke debate on privatisation of state-owned assets. John Key’s pre-election assurances that National planned no privatisation in its first term in government were almost provocative in their allusion to a change in policy after that.

Colin Espiner is right to describe privatisation of state assets as a key ideological divide in New Zealand politics (Stuff, July 24). This issue is a lightning rod for heated debate from both the left and the right.

It is, however, not a new debate. The heyday of the issue was the 1970s and 1980s, when perceived poor economic performance led many countries to question their economic institutions and structures. Thus Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher championed a vision of small government and aimed to radically reduce the role of the state in their respective economies. New Zealand had its own shake-up from 1984 to the early 1990s under finance ministers Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.

Then, as now, the real debate was not around whether a certain government would sell off an electricity company, or contract out state services to private firms. The real debate was, or should have been, around what form of capitalism is best for a country.

Piecemeal and partisan discussion of specific policies is, in this context, irrelevant and unproductive. Even worse, for a country to attempt to switch from one form of capitalism to another from one decade to the next is simply a waste of scarce resources. Most countries have reached a broad (but not static – drastic change is still possible e.g. Regan or Thatcher) consensus as to which form of capitalism, paired with which brand of democracy, they are most suited.

Western countries in a post-Soviet (i.e. excluding democratic socialism) world can generally be distinguished between along two main lines:

Economic: Private Enterprise Economies vs. Mixed Economies

Political: Pluralist Democracies vs. Corporatist Democracies

A Civilian Surge?

July 23, 2009

A recent publication by Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations entitled Shaping Europe’s Afghan Surge is a very readable account of recent developments in Afghanistan, and is especially informative on recent developments in troop numbers.

Korski points to a lack of a coherent European strategy for Afghanistan – a similar situation to New Zealand’s – and therefore¬† suboptimal performance in placating and stabilising the country. He goes on to make numerous policy recommendations which are not necessarily relevant to New Zealand, however some of his broad points are.

One is that there has already been a large increase in troop numbers in Afghanistan – and this is not even including the additional 20,000 promised recently by the United States. Troops from European Union countries increased by almost 10,000 between November 2006 and March 2009. Even the German army, normally hamstrung by popular opposition to overseas troop deployments, concedes that it has no lack of fighting men on the ground.

Therefore Korski recommends following this military surge with an equivalent surge of civilian experts such as police, military advisors, and observers for upcoming democratic elections. This civilian surge should serve to add a new nonmilitary dimension to the conflict (which Korski sees as a stalemate which cannot be won militarily), complement the ongoing military surge and lay the foundations for enduring political progress.

These recommendations are broadly echoed by Christia and Semple in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

Debate in New Zealand around a new overall strategy for engagement in Afghanistan should take these contributions into account and ask where New Zealand’s scarce resources are best spent.

Afghanistan in Context

July 22, 2009

John Key’s National Government looks likely to send New Zealand SAS troops back to Afghanistan; a decision which Key has not taken lightly and which has not been without public controversy. Rightly so. It is, after all, the new government’s first major decision on an overseas military deployment and therefore a chance for the Prime Minister to prove his foreign policy credentials.

Key’s initial preference for a New Zealand military role in Afghanistan was one as part of¬† ‘an overall exit strategy’ (Herald, April 20). This stance has since been watered down to a general hope that Afghanistan be ‘stablised’, allowing for Western troops to leave the country (Herald, July 20).

The lack of clear objectives or time frame for New Zealand military involvement in Afghanistan (this applies not just to SAS missions but to the PRT in Bamiyan), plus the Prime Minister’s both vague and shifting positions on the issue, indicate no coherent overall strategy on the political level for the New Zealand Defence Force in the country. Indeed, it seems that any decisions on such a strategy are to be delayed until after a review of the Defence Force is completed in August.

At this point then, it could be of much use to consider European nations’ current predicament in Afghanistan.

They too are facing heated public debate on the conflict: Casualty numbers are growing; in Britain the opposition alleges troops are underequipped for the fighting; in Germany the first new military medals for bravery since WWII have been awarded to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

They too are under pressure from the United States to provide additional military assistance: President Obama sees Afghanistan as a ‘litmus test’ of European reliability in military matters.

Now is a crucial, paradigm-shifting point in the conflict, offering Europe the chance to redefine its strategy in Afghanistan. It makes sense, therefore, for New Zealand to take note of how Europe approaches this process and take its lessons into account when formulating its own policy on engagement in the conflict.