2007-05-10

One party rule rules

A fun aspect of the recent British regional elections was observing people accustomed to plurality elections come to grips with proportional representation. Seeing commonplace, accepted features of our political system like coalition governments and post-election negotiations to form a government program assailed as strange and counterproductive showed just how different political cultures can be. Simon Jenkins, a columnist for the Guardian, produced a heated example of the genre.

It turns out that sometimes parties don't even announce what sort of a coalition they'd like to form after the election, thus removing "the outcome of an election from the hustings to the private deal of corridors, cabals and careerism." The poor electorate is kept in the dark as party leaders go as far as to offer cabinet posts to potential coalition partners. What's even worse, because pluralities of the vote well short of 50 percent don't routinely amount to majorities in the legislature, proportional representation almost always leads to power sharing among parties. This in turn leads to a "diluted, unstable, and unaccountable" executive. It's clearly a terrible way to rule a country. I wonder how we've managed to sustain it for 100 years.

For once I'd like pieces assailing proportional representation to survey how the various election methods known by that name perform in practice. Given that proportional representation is more common than first-past-the-post, there isn't a shortage of data to study, but the only examples that are used with any regularity are Israel, post-war Italy, and Weimar Germany. Those three don't exactly amount to a representative sample.

Incidentally, first-past-the-post was considered in Finland when it came time to pick an election system. It was proposed by the Finnish Party. They wanted 160 single seat districts with a set majority of the seats being located in the countryside, where they were the most popular party at the time. The proportional system was picked in part because it was thought to better guarantee representation for minorities, i.e. give seats to the Swedish Party. This was somewhat illogical, I think, as single member constituencies tend to help regionally based parties.

The results of first-past-the-frozen-post would have been interesting. The Social Democratic Party would have persisted as the left-wing alternative and the Swedish (People's) Party would rule the Swedish-speaking areas, I would say. The pressure on the Fennoman parties to merge into one, which was considerable even under proportional representation, would increase further. But what would have happened to the Communists electoral prospects? (My guess: they would have tried to take over the SDP with unpredictable results.) Would the Fennoman parties have merged? (Yep.) If so, would they have split again? (Yep.) Would the new dividing line have been rural/urban, liberal/conservative, or right-wing/centrist? (A bit of each.)

5 comments:

Mark said...

its clearly a terrible way to rule a country. I wonder how we've managed to sustain it for 100 years

By having a strong and powerful president who can heavy-arm the parliamentary parties into line, surely.

The head of state of the UK can't constitutionally do that. All she's allowed to do is say, "Hello, what do you do?" at various dictators.

My problem with Proportional Representation is that I don't think there's anything proportional in the executive. The greens get 1.6% of the vote, and as is likely, they'll get a seat in Cabinet. Labour gets 36.2% and they don't.

I appreciate that Labour wouldn't be in power in either system, but only the party with the most votes get to run the country. Small, narrow minded parties get excluded.

Which is better for stability.

Ari said...

Mark, there are many well-functioning parliamentary monarchies with proportional representation, like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and New Zealand. In my opinion Finland's semi-presidential system has partly contributed to past periods of political instability. Forming a stable government becomes that much harder when an extra-parliamentary force, even a democratically elected president, can exclude one or more parties from consideration, or demand that a certain party be included. Finnish governments have never been as long-lived as after the role of the president in forming governments became largely ceremonial.

With regard to the Scottish Greens, I believe they got four percent of the vote and 1.6 percent of the seats. In any case, it's usually a good idea to include an electoral threshold in a proportional election system. The five percent used in Germany is a bit excessive, but something in the 2-4% range works well to keep the number of small parties to a manageable level. (Finland doesn't have a set limit, but in practice the system of electoral districts provides in-built thresholds that keep tiny parties out unless their support is highly concentrated in one region.)

As for the nature of the executive, it's true that power isn't shared proportionally to vote shares. Still, I think it confers some legitimacy to the government when its parties received well over 50 percent of the vote, as is currently the case in Finland, compared to the less than 40 percent of the vote that Labour received in the last election. Compromises among parties that have majority support should usually match the electorate's wishes better than one party rule backed by plurality support.

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