Tag Archives: proportional representation

What Difference Do Electoral Systems Make?

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

The Canadian elections concluded this week, with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada soundly defeating Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party to take control of the country’s parliament. Most observers cast the election as a stinging rebuke to the Harper’s nine year tenure.  Indeed, the center-left Liberals gained 148 seats in parliament, stealing 60 from the center-right Conservatives and 51 from the leftist New Democratic Party, marking the swing in seats in parliament for any Canadian political party since 1984. The final results give the Liberals a ruling majority in parliament, with control of 184 seats (54% of the total number of seats). The Conservatives move in to the role of official opposition, with 99 seats (29%). The New Democrats fell to third party status, with 44 seats (13%). The Bloc Québécois will control 10 seats (3%) and the Green Party has one seat (0%).

Canada’s single-member district electoral system (sometimes called a first-past-the-post system) functions in a manner similar to that of Congressional electoral districts in the United States. The candidate that receives the most votes in any district wins that seat, and the party that controls the most seats in parliament chooses the country’s Prime Minister. But Canada’s multiparty system means that the party that secures a majority of seats in the parliament does not necessary win a majority of the votes in the electorate. Indeed, the single-member district electoral system tends to amplify the support of large parties and marginalize the role of smaller parties, leading many political commentators to call for electoral reform and a shift to a more representative electoral model that allocates seats in parliament in a manner proportional to the share of the popular vote received.

If the most recent election in Canada had been held under a proportional representation system, the Liberals would have held approximately 133 seats (39.5% of the seats in parliament, based on securing 39.5% of the popular vote. This would be more seats than any other party, but not the strong majority they currently hold. Conversely, all other parties would have received more seats in parliament than they received under the current model, with the Conservatives holding 107 seats (31.9%), the New Democrats holding 67 seats (19.7%), the Bloc holding 16 seats (4.7%), and the Greens holding 11 seats (3.4%).

What do you think? Should countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States—which all currently use a first-past-the-post electoral system—shift to a proportional representation system? Why? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each system? And which is more democratic?

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The Politics of Parliamentary Systems

GermanElectionAs German voters head to the poll this weekend and interesting challenge is emerging for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats. While the CDU appears to be well positioned to retain its dominant position in parliament, early polling suggests that their coalition partner, the Free Democrats, may underperform. If the Free Democrats do as badly as expected, Merkel may be forced to find a new coalition partner or to include a third party in the ruling coalition, making the government more fragile. Some analysis are even projecting another “grand coalition” that forces rival center-right Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats into a government together.

The news is not good for Merkel, whose party is ironically expected to win their largest share of the vote ever. But that’s the politics of parliamentary systems. The voting system encourages a larger number of parties, representing a broader array of interests and issues, to participate. But because of the large number of parties, compromise between rivals is often necessary for government to function effectively, and no single party is usually able to rule without the assistance of others.  It will be interesting to see what the vote—scheduled for Sunday—produces.

What do you think? Does the more inclusive nature of proportional representation systems like that of Germany offset the disadvantage of greater instability? Or is the stability of first-past-the-post electoral systems preferable to the inclusiveness of parliamentary systems? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The Continuing Challenge of Coalition Politics

Julia Gillard

Australian Prime Minisiter Julia Gillard

Australia has a new government, two weeks after elections left the future of Australian politics in uncertainty. Two independent members of parliament (MPs) announced they would back Julia Gillard’s minority government, permitting the Labour Party to continue to try to govern the country. But Gillard’s government is fragile. She’s promised the Greens a renewed effort to address climate change in exchange for their support and three rural MPs a high-speed fiber optic cable to connect their rural constituencies with the national broadband network. The deals give Gillaard’s center-left Labour Party coalition a narrow two-seat advantage over the rival Liberal/National coalition. But Gillard’s ability to manage her narrow majority will be tested at nearly every turn, as a single defection from the coalition could trigger a confidence motion in the government.

But the news is less positive in Belgium, where three-month old talks collapsed over the weekend, leaving the country without a national government. Belgium, like its neighbor the Netherlands, has been without a government since elections in June. The defeated pre-election government continues to operate as a caretaker government. But Belgium has, since July 1, also held the rotating presidency of the European Council.

In both the Netherlands and Belgium, the inability of the various political factions to form a new coalition government stems largely from the rise of political parties which lack any real interest in establishing a national government. In Belgium, the longstanding linguistic division and the rise of parties like the Vlaams Belang make it difficult to form alliances between traditional allies across the Flemish-French linguistic divide. Strong anti-immigration platforms in the Netherlands have also undermined coalition possibilities.

But the challenges facing Belgium and the Netherlands (and the crisis narrowly avoided in Australia) demonstrate the challenge of coalition politics. While the proportional representation electoral system [glossary] used in Belgium and the Netherlands affords voters a greater choice of political parties, it also fractures the political spectrum. Twelve separate political parties are represented in the lower house of the Belgian parliament, the largest of which controls just 18 percent of the seats. In such a fragmented political system, it is hardly surprising that a coalition would be difficult to form. Indeed, any realistic coalition would have to (1) transcend the linguistic divide, arguably the most difficult and controversial division in Belgium today; and (2) involve more than five coalition partners.  A tall task indeed!

Clegg the Kingmaker

Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron
Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron

Results from yesterday’s election in the United Kingdom are in, and they produced some surprising results. The Liberal Democrats, which had been riding high in the polls, performed worse than forecasted, losing five seats. As most analysts had been projecting, the Conservatives, who have been out of power for thirteen years, won a plurality of the votes. But they fell short of winning a majority of seats in the parliament—a situation referred to as a hung parliament. As a result, the Conservatives will likely be forced to enter an agreement with one or more of the smaller parties—most likely the Liberal Democrats—to gain control of parliament and the right to name the next Prime Minister.

The elections raise a few important points for students of comparative politics. First, they illustrate the challenges of Britain’s (and by extension, the U.S.) first-past-the-post system [glossary]. This system, in which the winner of each electoral district or riding is the candidate that secures the most votes, produces stable, majority governments when there are two dominant parties, as in the United States. But when a third party enters the mix, unusual results can develop. Take the results from yesterday’s election, for example.

The BBC is reporting the following results:

Party

Seats Won

Votes Received

Conservatives

305

10,681,417

Labour

258

8,601,441

Liberal Democrats

57

6,805,665

Democratic Unionist

8

168,216

Scottish National Party

6

491,386

Sinn Fein

5

171,942

Plaid Cymru

3

165,394

Social Democratic & Labour

3

110,970

All Others

3

2,406,787

Totals

 

29,653,638

So what does this tell us about the British electoral system? Several things. First, think about how votes convert into seats. If we look at the average number of votes each party receives to win an individual seat, we get the following:

Party

Votes per Seat Won

Conservatives

35,021

Labour

33,338

Liberal Democrats

117,339

Democratic Unionists

21,027

Scottish National Party

81,897

Sinn Fein

34,388

Plaid Cymru

55,131

Social Democratic & Labour

36,990

All Others

802,262

Consider the data. The Conservatives won 305 seats on 10,681,417 votes. They thus won a seat in Westminster for every 30,021 votes. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, won just 57 seats on 6,805,665 votes, or one seat for every 117,339 votes. This means that the Conservatives were more than three times as efficient as the Liberal Democrats at converting votes into seats in Westminster.

How does this happen? Winning a district in a first-past-the-post system requires only that you get more votes than any other candidate, not that you receive a majority of the votes cast. If a party receives 30 percent of all the votes cast across the country but does not get more votes than other party’s candidates in any district, it would receive no seats. It’s even possible that a party that receives fewer votes could receive more seats in parliament. Again, the U.K.’s election provides an interesting example. Smaller parties that are concentrated in a relatively small area tend to be over-represented in parliament. For example, the Democratic Unionist Party (a party based in Northern Ireland) won 6 seats on just 168,216 votes. The U.K. Independence Party, by contrast, received more than five times the number of votes but failed to win a single seat in parliament. Voters supporting the U.K. Independence Party tended to be geographically dispersed, this diluting their support across a larger number of ridings (electoral districts). A similar phenomenon regularly occurs in Canada, where the regionally-based Bloc Quebecois tends to over perform, while the nationally-dispersed Liberal Democrats tend to underperform in national elections.

In a proportional representation system [glossary], like that used in most parliamentary democracies around the world, votes are translated directly into seats. A party that receives 40 percent of the votes would be entitled to 40 percent of the seats in parliament. Not surprisingly, proportional representation tends to expand the participation of small parties in parliament, often fracturing the political spectrum into a larger number of smaller parties. This can lead to instability, as the recent history of Belgium and Italy attests.

So how would the British parliament look under a PR-based system? Let’s think about the number of seats each party received and compare that to the percentage of the popular vote each party won, using that figure as an appropriate number of seats that party might win in a hypothetical proportional representation (PR) system. Here’s what we get:

Party

Seats Won under FPTP

% of Seats Held under FPTP

% of Seats Held under Hypothetical PR System

Difference

Conservatives

306

47

36

-11

Labour

258

40

29

-11

Liberal Democrats

57

9

23

+14

Democratic Unionists

8

1

0

-1

Scottish National Party

6

1

2

+1

Sinn Fein

5

0.7

0.6

Plaid Cymru

3

0.5

0.6

Social Democratic & Labour

3

0.5

0.4

Green

1

0.002

1

+1

Alliance Party

1

0.002

0.1

UK Independence Party

0

0

3

+3

British National Party

0

0

2

+2

The big winners are the Liberal Democrats, who would net an increase of eleven seats in the parliament. The other winners are the UK Independence Party, the British National Party, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens, all of which net an increase in representation. The big losers? The Conservatives and the Labour Party, each of which would lose eleven seats.

Given these hypothetical results, it’s not surprising that the Liberal Democrats have been pushing hard for electoral reform. It’s also not surprising that the Conservatives and the Labour Party have both historically opposed electoral reform. The interesting question now is whether or not Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, can translate his position as potential kingmaker in any governing coalition into real electoral reform that might solidify the position of the Liberal Democratic in the British political landscape. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has already alluded to the possibility, promising to make a “big open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats in exchange for their support. Labour leader Gordon Brown made a similar offer, stressing the “substantial common ground” that exists between Labour and the Lib Dems and promising real electoral reform.

There are, of course, other possibilities. The Liberal Democrats may choose not to enter an agreement with either party but agree not to oppose the Queen’s Speech or budget—a vote against either of the two could constitute a confidence motion in the government, triggering new elections.

Whatever happens, the next few days will certainly be interesting to watch.

German Elections

German elections are scheduled to take place on September 27, and the country’s five major political parties are busy campaigning for parliament. Although polling data suggests that Angela Merkel should handily win re-election, Germany’s parliamentary system will certainly force Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats into a coalition with at least one other party. An interesting article by Bertrand Benoit in Monday’s Financial Times suggests that the increase in the number of parties represented in the Bundestag, the national parliament, from three to five makes it difficult for traditional allies (the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Free Democrats on one side, and the Social Democrats (SDP) and Greens on the other) to effectively govern. Instead, what we are likely to see is a broader coalition incorporating either the two historical ideological rivals, the center-left SDP and the center-right CDU into a Grand Coalition—such as the one that has ruled Germany for the past four years—or a coalition involving three or more parties. Such an arrangement, Benoit believes, makes it impossible for parties to deliver on the promises made during the campaign and therefore runs the risk of leading to a greater sense of frustration and apathy among voters.

Benoit may be correct insofar as coalitions do indeed tend parties to moderate their platforms. However, this tendency for moderation is a strength of Germany’s parliamentary system. Parliamentary systems based on proportional representation (or in Germany’s case, a mixed proportional representation system) permit a broad range of parties to compete for representation. Germany’s mixed system imposes limits so that radical parties are unlikely to compete effectively, requiring, for example, that parties receive at least five percent of the national vote to receive any representation in the Bundestag. Once in parliament, the parties are forced to balance their desire to secure a seat at the table by moderate their positions against their desire to maintain their “ideological purity” by refusing to compromise.  In such a system, voters can cast ballots for parties which represent their views on the most important issues, reducing rather than increasing voter apathy. At the same time, radical parties are generally excluded from positions of authority.

South Africa’s Elections

The BBC announced the final election results from South Africa. According to its reporting, the ruling African National Congress won 65.9% of the vote, a decisive majority but falling just short of the 2/3 majority needed to amend the country’s constitution. The Democratic Alliance’s second place finish—with 16.66% of the vote—was based on its regional support in the Cape.  The new Congress of the People, formed by breakaway members of the ANC, was never able to establish itself as a real alternative to the ANC as many electoral observers had forecast. Turnout was an impressive 77.3%.  South Africa uses a closed-list proportional representation electoral system, which means that seats in the parliament are distributed to political parties based on the percentage of the popular vote they win.  So the ANC’s 65.9% of the popular vote entitles it to 65.9% of the seats in parliament.

So what does all this mean for South Africa?

Well, most obviously, it means that the ANC will continue to dominate South African politics, as it has since the country overturned apartheid in 1994. Jacob Zuma, the ANC’s leader, will be named president.

But Zuma’s victory raises concerns about increasing ethnic tensions in South Africa. The BBC’s Farouk Chothia asked the question, “Will Zuma bring tribalism to South Africa?” Zuma’s use of race and ethnicity during the campaign (often referred to as tribalism) may have brought tensions in the “rainbow nation”—as Nelson Mandela described South Africa—to the surface. Tensions between blacks and whites, between Afrikaners and English-speakers, between Zulu and Xhosa, appear to be on the rise. Justice Malala, a columnist with the Johannesburg Sunday Times newspaper, commented, “This is exactly the sort of divide-and-rule tactic used by Mbeki to alienate some sections of the country…It implies that there is a hierarchy of South Africanness: that some among us are more patriotic, more African, more deserving, than others.”  New challenges for the rainbow nation.

The Instability of Coalition Politics

The number of governments facing problems of political instability seems to be on the rise.  Yesterday, I mentioned problems facing Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Turkey as governments in those countries face increasing challenges from opposition groups hoping to secure political power for themselves. 

But other countries are facing similar challenges.  In India, the continuing debate over the status of the country’s nuclear deal with the United States has prompted a minor political crisis, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attempts to keep his fragile coalition together.  Singh’s government is comprised of a coalition of center-left parties.  Earlier this month, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the coalition’s junior member to Singh’s Congress Party of India, withdrew from the coalition over a nuclear deal signed with the United States.  The Communists argued that the deal represented a transfer of India’s sovereignty to the United States opened the way for the further colonization of India’s economy.  A confidence vote by the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, is scheduled for Tuesday.  If the government loses the vote, snap elections will be called.

A vote on the nuclear deal, which would see the US sell nuclear fuel and civilian nuclear technology to India, is also scheduled for a vote in the Indian Parliament later this month.  Ironically, the outcome of that vote may be inconsequential for the nuclear deal, as the deal is currently stalled in the US Congress and appears unlike to move forward before the November elections.

The ruling coalition in Belgium is in even worse shape.  On Monday, Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned.  Leterme took office in March after a nine month political deadlock in which the country officially had no Prime Minister or government.  The crisis sparked by Leterme’s resignation has been called the worst political crisis faced by Belgium in the country’s history.  Strong divisions between Belgium’s Flemish-speaking population in the north and the French-speaking population in the south have intensified in recent years, and it seems difficult to imagine how a new government, which because of Belgium’s electoral system will almost certainly have to develop out of a multi-lingual coalition involving four or more political parties, will be any more stable. 

So why all this political instability?  Certainly the nature of the parliamentary systems in Belgium and India play a role.  It’s widely held that parliamentary systems, particularly when based on proportional representation electoral systems, are inherently less stable than presidential systems based on single-member district electoral systems.  But for every unstable PR-based parliamentary system like Belgium or contemporary India, there is South Africa or historical India, which has the same political system but is far more stable.  Clearly the issues at play must also be important.  The unique status of identity politics in Belgium, given the country’s status as an artificial creation as a buffer zone between major European powers, clearly has an important influence.  Similarly, in India, the debate over the relative influence of the United States in Indian society is a serious one, as many Indian political leaders continue to hold to the tradition of non-alignment and home rule.