Poll chaos throws spotlight on creaking British system
Mon, May 10, 2010

LONDON - The poll deadlock gripping Britain has fuelled criticism of its creaking electoral system - ranging from anger over chaotic voting arrangements to bemusement at how power is shared out afterwards.

In the country renowned for the so-called mother of parliaments, it was embarrassing to be accused by African observers of serious organisational lapses at polling stations last Thursday.

Hundreds of voters in urban areas were left fuming after being preventing from casting their ballots because they were still queuing outside at 10:00 pm (5am local time) when voting stations closed.

"What does it say about the state of our democracy?" asked Dr. Stuart Wilks-Heeg of the University of Liverpool.

"We can project election outcomes using sophisticated .. forecasting techniques, but we cannot devise a voting system which can cope with a fairly moderate increase in turnout in some densely populated urban areas."

Some compared it to the "hanging chad" debacle of the 2000 US presidential face-off between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when seemingly banal polling details ended up potentially having a crucial impact on the vote result.

With Britain facing its first hung parliament for 36 years, some even claim the polling station chaos could have influenced the overall result here.

One study said the main opposition Conservatives, struggling to agree a power-sharing deal, would have won an absolute parliamentary majority had just 16,000 people in 19 close-run constituencies voted differently.

After the polling chaos came electoral stalemate.

Bidding to end 13 years in opposition, David Cameron's main opposition Conservatives won the most seats in the House of Commons - 306 of 650 - but fell 20 short of an absolute majority of 326.

Despite being the biggest party, under Britain's idiosyncratic system incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown had the right to try first to form a viable government, even though his Labour party came second, with 258 seats.

Fortunately for Cameron, Nick Clegg of the third-placed Liberal Democrats stood by a pledge to negotiate first with the biggest party - even if the Tories and Lib Dems are strange political bedfellows, to say the least.

Although kingmakers, the Lib Dems had a terrible election - winning 23 percent of the votes but fewer than 10 percent of the seats, due to Britain's first-past-the-post system.

Not surprisingly, one of Clegg's central demands in the negotiations with the Conservatives is "extensive" reform of the political system.

Introducing proportional representation (PR) would greatly benefit the Lib Dems because their support is distributed more evenly around the country than Labour and the Conservatives.

But the Tories are strongly opposed to PR, and Cameron would appall his party's membership by signing up to such a radical change to the first-past-the-post system.

The coming days' talks will tell whether that obstacle can be resolved.

But amid the continuing political stalemate, one of the enduring images of Thursday's vote was voters angrily protesting at polling stations because they were unable to cast their ballot.

In some parts of London and in Manchester and Sheffield, election officials were either unable to deal with a late rush of voters or simply ran out of ballot papers.

That led to allegations of a third world voting system in a first world country - and a group of Commonwealth observers who oversaw the election raised other concerns.

Ababu Namwamba, a lawmaker from Kenya, was astonished at the lack of security surrounding the ballot.

He said that one of the parliamentary candidates he spoke to in Birmingham, central England, described the British system as possibly the "most corruptible system in the world".

"The vulnerabilities are inherent in such areas as potential for postal ballot fraud and possibilities of double voting due to the carte blanche provided for dual registration and absence of any requirement for identification at polling stations," Namwamba wrote in Kenya's Sunday Nation.

Another member of the Commonwealth mission, Marie Marilyn Jalloh, a lawmaker from Sierra Leone, told Britain's Sunday Times: "There has to be doubt over the legitimacy of the result."

"Your system is a recipe for corruption.

"It was a massive shock when I saw you didn't need any identification to vote," she added.


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