National, regional and local elections are important to a democracy, in the overall affairs of their country. We emphasise and talk a lot about general elections. They are indeed important, but the election systems are not always as neutral and fair as we make them out to be, not even in the old democracies in the West. Besides, elections are only the top of the ‘iceberg’ in a democracy, especially those at national level.

I shall, in a couple of articles, write about formal and informal aspects of democracy, some of them general to all countries and some specific to some countries and communities. As usual, I shall use examples from my home country Norway, and I shall try to make the content relevant to Pakistan, or at least, interesting to us here in this young and beautiful land, where democracy is still being shaped and formed.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a few sessions at a course in Islamabad for youth leaders about international issues, organised by COMSATS and the Institute for Peace and Democracy, run by a few young people. I was impressed, and I am optimistic. Yet, we older people can also give some advice, at least as background knowledge, but the young will have to figure out what to do.

In my schooldays, especially at upper primary and secondary schools, we discussed many aspects related to democracy and the political system of my country, with comparisons, too, to other countries in the West, indeed UK and USA.

The Norwegian election system, with multiple-representative constituencies was something we often talked about and were proud of. We thought it was more democratic than just having single-representative constituencies, like in the UK, where the winner would take all, and there would only be one parliamentarian representing the constituency. In the UK, there are a large number of constituencies that have always had their MP from one and the same party. That raises questions about democracy.

In the Norwegian system, we would have many representatives from each constituency based on a proportional system where several parties would get representatives according to the percentage of votes they receive. There are 19 provinces in the country and they form the constituencies in the national and regional elections (and then there are over 400 districts which have their local councils). The number of representatives (seats in parliament) from each of the 19 constituencies depends on the number of inhabitants in the constituency/province, with some adjustment mechanisms to make it fairer.

Although there are two blocs in politics in most countries; one party or parties with the highest number of seats, form the majority, while the other party or parties form the minority. The majority forms the government cabinet while the minority forms the opposition, to keep the sitting government at their toes. A democracy cannot work without an opposition; hence, I am sceptical to so-called ‘unity governments’ for long periods of time.

In many countries, a sitting government can be voted out of power if the opposition parties get majority when voting about important issues. Then a new government has to be formed. In some countries, the time of elections are decided by the sitting government within a term of a maximum number of years, usually 3-6 years. In other countries, elections are held at a fixed date only; in Norway in early September every four years.

Today, the large number of parties usually leads to a cabinet being made up of several parties which feel they stand for similar values and policies. Such coalition governments, often with one very large party and other smaller ones, usually have a majority in parliament, but not always. Sometimes, they may form a minority government if the opposition parties cannot agree on a common set of ideas and policies.

Sometimes, there are extremist parties too, that the mainstream, establishment parties do not want to work with. They could be on the far left or the far right. In Sweden, with an almost identical political system to Norway, the Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, SD) on the far right, are not included in any of the two blocs’ parliamentary decisions. They are still considered unacceptable and too extreme; they have or have held racist and other extreme views, especially regarding blocking immigration to Sweden. However, SD received 13 percent of the votes in the last elections in 2014 and have 48 representatives in a parliament with a total of 349 seats. Norway has a less extreme right-wing party, the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet), which currently is even a member of the cabinet, led by the Conservative Party (Høyre).

In the Norwegian election system, it should be noted that elections are more for political parties, and less for individuals. The lists of candidates have been made by the parties. Voters can change the order of the members on the list (but usually it has little effect), but cannot add other candidates.

The Prime Minister (PM) is not elected directly, but is chosen and elected by the party, the same way as other candidates. Usually, the PM is from the largest party, but can also be a compromise candidate from a smaller party. In Norway, we have had examples of good PMs from smaller parties, facilitating cooperation between members of different views. It is an essential aspect of Western democracy that minority views must also be taken into consideration, especially in areas where minority parties have strong value opinions; thus, it is not always about quantitative, numerical majority, but also about qualitative and other aspects.

In the UK, the new PM, Theresa May, was chosen by the members of parliament and her Conservative party leaders. But there was no broader election. One could say that she is not a democratically elected PM, although the rules of the system have been followed. Furthermore, in the UK, the leader of the opposition in parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, has only slight support from his MP colleagues, but he has clear support from his party leadership, and he was indeed elected by the Labour party’s congress.

In Norway, the other Scandinavian countries, the UK, and several other countries, the Head of State is not elected. They are constitutional monarchies with a king or queen, who has ‘inherits the throne’. It is certainly not democratic, but it works well, most would say. The head of state shall be a unifying and symbolic head, yes, above party politics and government – although we usually suspect that the royals everywhere are quite conservative and on the right.

In countries with executive presidents, such as USA, the head of state and government is the same person. The presidential election process in USA, indeed the way that is performed this year, is not an example to be followed, and the system has probably outlived itself. Among other things, it focuses too much on personal rather than political issues. The dragged-out election process does not educate nor inform people about substantive political issues, and I find that it lacks democratic depth – and this is in the land which boasts of being a model to other countries’ democratic rule. But there are also other elections in USA at local and state levels, and at national level to the Congress’ two chambers of House of Representatives and the Senate.

I will write more about these issues later, some of them quite specific and ‘juicy’. Politics is serious business, but it must also be fun. People’s participation includes all facets of big and small issues.