Asses the claim that proportional electoral systems are superior to majoritarian or plurality systems (50) Most constitutional reforms see electoral systems as how democratic a country is. This is illustrated with ‘elections are the defining institution of modern democracy’. All new countries or democracies seem to choose a form of Proportional Representation (PR), for instance following the collapse of Yugoslavia post 1989, the Czech Republic chose AMS and similarly after the fall of Sadam Hussein Iraq went for the list system. What is more, even countries that do away with PR systems, have gone back to it.
For instance Italy dropped PR in 1995 and has recently returned in 2005. The UK, a proud supporter of FPTP, uses PR systems outside general elections. This evidence seems to strongly point to proportional systems, yet the arguments for majoritarian systems are still strong, with the US said to be the ultimate democracy pioneering FPTP. The debate of the question seems to be which is more superior out of a representative or strong government. Any supporter of majoritarian systems will claim there is the retention of a clear strong constituency link.
With FPTP, Members of Parliament owe their allegiance to the people where as PR systems the MP can find themselves being responsible to the party. For example in the Israeli List system, the parties make lists of candidates to be elected, and seats get allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes the party receives. As a result the parties themselves can decide who gets elected in each constituency. If there is a safe seat in Israel for example the Likud party could field a party robot who will act as a puppet to the party in the Knesset.
Unlike this which is clearly undemocratic, FPTP allows the voters to decide their MP in a clear and simple election. This can bring benefits to the voter, for instance there is a great tradition of pork barreling in the US Congress, where members of the House and Senate, bring home the bacon for their voters rather than the party. This also allows for accountability where voters cannot only hold their MP as well as the government to account. With majoritarian systems, election day is a judgment day and voters can get rid of a tired government.
For instance after the Conservative reign in the 90’s, the voters felt change was needed and did this by voting Labour in 1997. With PR systems this is more difficult as if there is a permanent coalition this cannot happen. For instance in Japan, only in 2009, did the social liberal Democratic Party take power after 54 years of the Liberal Democratic Party’s rule. In this system, each voter votes twice, once for a candidate in the local constituency, and once for a party, each of which has a list of candidates for each block district.
However, as was seem in the 2010 election in the UK, majoritarian systems cannot always provide a clear winner. There is now a coalition government in the UK and for many it is difficult to see who is to be held to account. With this said, it seems that majoritarian systems do provide a clear winner as dispute minor slips, the current UK coalition seems to be working well and the hung parliament has not happened since the 1930’s. With plurality systems this will happen every election, ridden with confusion and problems. For instance, with PR, decisions regarding the government are made after the election has taken place.
The list system is a recipe for confusion, as seen in Holland where there is little difference in the number of seats won by the party with the most votes and the party who had the 4th most. What is more the election was held in June and the government was formed in October leaving the country without a government for several months. This uncertainty and a lack of policy advancement is clearly a problem which FPTP generally does not face. In American Presidential elections there is always a clear winner and there is no confusion, despite the situation in 2000 with Bush and Gore.
Yet there is a system in place for these events where the Supreme Court stepped in awarding the presidency to Bush. Although this can be said to be undemocratic, the fact that decisions are decided behind closed doors, and the 3rd party having the balance of power is far more undemocratic that FPTP giving a clear winner almost all the time. Like majoritarian activists, those who favor proportional systems stress the fact that forms of PR give a more representative outcome in elections where as majoritarian systems can be said to distort the vote.
For instance in the US under FPTP after a Presidential election it would appear that each state is simply either red or blue, yet this is not the case. The ‘winner takes all’ scenario can severely distort the vote. This happened in the 1956 Presidential election where with only 57% of the vote, Nixon’s Republican Party managed to win 41/50 states. Similar to this theoretical example is Lesotho in 1998, when Lesotho Congress for Democracy won 79/80 seats with only 61% of the vote. The winner took nearly everything and the losers secured practically othing, showing that all votes for the other party were seemingly wasted as well as the popular vote being distorted. Furthermore Canada is challenging FPTP with Quebec claiming that the amount of underrepresentation in elections is unconstitutional, ‘interfering with the capacity of individuals to participate in the election’. The underlining principle of PR is to achieve representation from a range of parties rather than just elect representatives for a given territory. In a pure list system for example, an elector votes for a slate of the party’s candidates rather than for a single person.
For instance in the 2008 New Zealand general election, the Green Party won 6% of the vote and in turn was given 6/120 seats, proportionate to the number of votes won. Under majoritarian systems, 3rd parties are severely damaged. For instance in the UK the BNP’s vote is spread out over a wide proportion of the country and they may come a close second in many constituencies but gain no seats. As a result this means they have to concentrate all their efforts into one particular constituency giving certain areas more of their efforts than others.
This in its self is undemocratic and would happen to a much less extent with PR systems as the representation is given and there are no wasted votes. Furthermore, proportional electoral systems can create constrictive politics. A single party rarely wins a majority of seats under PR. Hence majority governments are unusual and coalitions become standard. This representation of views can be seen as a god thing, rather than the ‘elected dictatorship’ that can be said to be in UK politics.
For example in Northern Ireland the coalition is useful as under FPTP with the likely hood of a majority government the two main parties are so opposing they would never accept each other, and the civil fighting which plagued the country would continue. Many supporters of majoritarian systems claim that coalitions inhibit strong government. Yet under the German AMS system there is no evidence of this, with Germany leading Europe in economic and political power. PR systems also help to increase turnout which is a real problem in countries where votes are wasted such as the UK.
In the 2010 general election, said to be the most exciting in years, turnout was only 63%. Although having compulsory voting, countries such as Belgium and Malta who operate under PR have turnouts reaching 95% clearly giving a more democratic result in elections than the UK and US. Another argument which many supporters of FPTP give is that under PR the constituency link is removed. Yet this is not the case. For instance in Germany the AMS system allows voters to vote for a candidate and a party.
Similar to this, the claim that extremist parties are ripe within PR systems can be eliminated with laws such as in Germany where a party must gain 5% of the vote to get on the ballot. Although this can be said to undermine the whole purpose of PR, it is far more constructive than the winner takes all method which is FPTP. Overall neither the proportional advantage creating a so called ‘fair’ result nor the majoritarian system advantage of a strong government outweighs the other as there are anomalies for each.
The fact that in Germany, parties have to gain 5% to get on the ballot is undemocratic in its self, yet so is the wasted voted under FPTP. However, in terms of what is superior, within PR there are more superior systems. AMS in Germany seems to be the best of both systems, as it is representative, and still retains the constituency link. If there was compulsory voting in countries such as the UK or America under FPTP then the system may not create the problems it does. The referendum in the UK in May seems to be an example of politicians avoiding the underlying problem, being themselves not the electoral system.