Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

In defense of proportional representation

It was inevitable, I suppose, that someone was going to come out and blame the crazy results of recent elections in Germany and New Zealand on that gosh-darned proportional representation. And if it was inevitable that someone was going to do that, then I suppose it was equally inevitable that that someone was going to be Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail:

Nobody knows who'll form the government in either country. The wheeling and dealing, haggling and bargaining has begun to form minority/coalition governments. When the bargaining's done, and new governments emerge, they'll likely be weak, unstable and incapable of making difficult, unpopular decisions. That's just what many PR advocates want. They don't like strong governments. For them, strict representation trumps effectiveness. They want strictly representative governments in which votes match seats. They want negotiations, haggling and coalitions. This is democracy. They like minority governments, thinking them more "responsive" to the people than majority ones based on the first-past-the-post system. So they're going to love what will unfold in Germany and New Zealand.
Unfortunately for the soundness of Simpson's argument, there is no such thing as "minority/coalition governments," and the equation of minority and coalition governments is lumping together apples and oranges. It is certainly the case that minority governments (in which the governing party or parties do not have a majority of the voices in parliament) have been historically unstable. In the entire post-war history of Germany, for example, there have been only three minority governments on the national level (Ludwig Erhard's 1963 government, Willy Brandt's 1972 government, and Helmut Schmidt's 1982 government), and due in large part to that sort of instability, each was very short-lived. Coalition governments, on the other hand, are formed precisely to do away with that sort of instability, and in practice, they have been extremely effective at doing just that. The recently defeated coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens was stable enough to be reelected in 2002. Extremely stable coalition governments of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Free Democrats (FDP) have also existed under chancellors Adenauer, Erhard, and the seemingly undefeatable Helmut Kohl, who was reelected a total of five times. And as for the supposed ineffectiveness of such governments, it seems not only disingenuous, but also ludicrous to claim that the vast majority of the governments in a country that has gone from near-total destruction to the primary European power in a mere sixty years (while integrating an entirely separate country only fifteen years ago) have been "weak, unstable and incapable of making difficult, unpopular decisions."

Simpson throws out another strawman argument as his column continues, this time in the form of the bogeyman of ideological or regional parties:

In Germany, the conservative forces won 35.6 per cent of the vote, the Social Democratic party 34.2 per cent. Smaller parties did well -- something that often happens in PR, because parties spring up around ideology, region or ethnicity. The small parties are now the political kingmakers. In New Zealand, the Labour Party won 50 seats, the National (conservative) Party 49. Six minor parties held the remaining 23 seats. As in Germany, these small parties will determine who governs.
Although Simpson would clearly like to blame the good result for small parties on proportional representation, the facts about these particular elections don't bear that out. Both Germany and New Zealand have high (5%) thresholds specifically to discourage the proliferation of tiny parties in parliament, and this threshhold in fact did keep out most of the tiny parties that had sprung up "around ideology, region, or ethnicity." Only those with a significant percentage of the voters behind them were able to make it over this hurdle. And in the case of New Zealand, there are in fact several more parties than have been elected in the past, but this is because they won constituencies, not because of proportional representation.

Finally, Simpson attempts to make one point that is just plain incorrect, no matter how you slice it:

Germans cast two ballots: one vote for the constituency, one for the party list. The result always produces a minority winner. That party then negotiates with others to form a coalition. Or, the coalition partners are known in advance. If you vote for Party A, and that party wins the largest number of votes, you know you'll also get a coalition government of Party A and Party B. New Zealand uses a complicated version of this dual system. It's called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).
Germans do not cast two ballots; instead there is a single ballot with two separate votes. As I explained back here, in the first vote, or "district vote," Germans vote for the person whom they think can best represent their district in parliament. In the second vote, or "party vote," they vote for the party whose policies are most closely aligned with their own preferences. Those candidates who are directly elected then serve in parliament, and candidates from party lists are added to this group by means of this second vote. It is also not the case that this ballot "always produces a minority winner"; there have been single-party majority governments in several different German federal states. And finally, it is not the case that New Zealand uses "a complicated version of this dual system called Mixed Member Proportional" -- New Zealand uses essentially the same system as Germany, and they are both called Mixed-Member Proportional. As to whether it is overly "complicated," keep in mind that Germany managed to successfully explain it to seventeen million new citizens after East and West Germany reunified in 1990.

Are the election results in Germany and New Zealand a problem? You bet. Are they the norm? Hardly. Are they an inevitable result of a Mixed-Member Proportional electoral system? Absolutely not--and anyone who thinks that hasn't done their homework. The problem this time around wasn't the way the Germans and New Zealanders elect MPs, but the positively miserable performance of both of the major parties in both countries. Under MMP, it is normal for the major parties to have one or more potential coalition partners in the works going into an election, so that once the result is known, the winning party is able to establish a working government right away. This time, the major parties did badly enough that this wasn't possible, but the blame for that muddle needs to rest with the current unpopularity of those parties, not with an electoral system that has worked perfectly well for decades.

Ironically, if the current negotiations fail to produce a stable coalition in Germany, a chancellor will be chosen by a relative (rather than an absolute) majority of the newly elected Bundestag. The result of this failure would then be a minority government, which, given past evidence, Simpson would almost certainly be justified in calling unstable and ineffective. But we Canadians know all about that sort of thing. After all, it would be the exact same situation that Simpson's beloved first-past-the-post system produced right here.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

I think you're making some strong points here, particularly in showing that what Simpson would appear to dismiss as 'splinters and fringes' are in fact important constituencies that have earned a voice as the result of a free and fair democratic contest.

When I read Simpson this morning, I actually found his assumptions elitist and, frankly, undemocratic. More than one right-leaning columnist, including Simpson, has talked about the need in Germany for 'strong governments' capable of making the tough, unpopular decisions. This sort of rhetoric, in my view, smacks of a 'Father-Knows-Best' attitude: the people can't be trusted to do what's in their true interests, but the enlightened elite of elected representatives from the major political parties can know, and will act in the best interests of all, even if the people are too short-sighted to understand the wisdom of the 'tough choices' (which are often unpopular, I might add, because they end up harming the public.)

Myself, I'm very suspicious of this 'tough choices' rhetoric, because I find that many of the politicians and pundits who've used it have done so to sell political choices whose results don't end up being 'tough' at all on the classes and interests they truly represent.

Not saying governing doesn't mean choosing, and that democratic governments might not face tough choices: they surely would. But if we really believe in democracy--and not rule by the enlightened few who know our interests better than we know our own--then we face that problem squarely, and work through the difficulty of building a consensus with the 'splinters and the fringes,' instead of just marginalizing them via the electoral system.

Just my thoughts.

Anyway, good post.