Keep Government Responsible: Citizens of Parliamentary Democracies Should be Working to Inoculate Their Institutions Against Trumpism

The election of Donald Trump and his flouting of the liberal and democratic norms that underpin society has much of the world worried. These fears are made worse by the increasing strength of far-right parties in much of Europe, and the presence of Trump-like candidates Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary in the Canadian Conservative leadership races. The rise of the far-right should raise concerns about the concentration of power with positions such as the Prime Minister or President. When a far-right candidate, such as Trump, wins control of executive office they have a great deal of power to affect policy. In parliamentary systems, parliament is supposed act as a check, holding the Prime Minister and cabinet accountable for their decisions, and removing them from office when they put forward or implement policy ideas that are at odds with elected MPs.  In practice, however, the ability for parliament to do this is constrained by the power the Prime Minister has over MPs. Two measures, the adoption of proportional electoral systems and increased MP control over leadership selection, offer important counter-balances to a potential far-right Prime Minister.

Parliamentary systems, in contrast to Presidential ones, rely on a fusion of power between the legislature and the executive. The Prime Minister only remains in power so long as she has the approval of parliament. If the PM and cabinet put forward legislation or enact policy that parliament dislikes, parliament can remove the PM from power through a confidence motion. In theory this practice ensures that PMs and their cabinets act in a way that reflect a country’s broader interests. In practice this can hand the PM a great deal of power to implement their policy. The PM can reward those MPs that support her with promotions to cabinet positions and punish those that do not by limiting their opportunities to rise beyond the backbenches. The power that the PM wields over MPs, especially when she leads a majority government, can prevent parliament from acting as an adequate check.

The adoption of a proportional electoral system, though it would make it easier for a far-right party to enter parliament and even to become a junior coalition member, would limit the ability for a far-right party to lead a government. Because proportional systems rarely produce majority governments, parties that win office in such systems have to share power, either through coalition governments or through minority governments that make significant concessions to opposition parties. The need to obtain the cooperation of other parties can make it difficult for a far-right party to gain control of government.  Because a PM’s power over MPs is usually limited to those in her own party, forcing the PM to work with other parties weakens the power of the PM and strengthens parliament.

The current Dutch election illustrates how PR can constrain the far-right.  In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ Party For Freedom looks poised to win the more votes than any other party in March elections but is unlikely to win a majority. Wilders, however, is unlikely to become the Dutch Prime Minister because, to this point, no other party has expressed a willingness to join him in coalition. It is more likely that other parties will form an alternative coalition that keeps him out of power. Even if Wilders does manage to become PM, he will need to temper his extremism in order to maintain power. The threat that parliament can remove a far-right leader from power immediately through a confidence vote should prevent a far-right PM from acting in the same way that Trump has since becoming President.

Allowing MPs more say over their leaders would also empowers them to act as a check on the take over of mainstream parties by far-right candidates. One of the reasons that Trump was able to win the 2016 election was that he was able to win the support of loyal Republicans- individuals who might not have supported Trump had he run as an independent. In Canada, Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary serve as similar examples of populist candidates seeking to take over a mainstream party. Allowing MPs a greater say over leadership selection or the power to remove leaders could serve as a check against this. MPs come from a diverse group of ridings and need reasonably broad support to win office. Leadership candidates often need only a subset of party members in order to win leadership election. Because many MPs need broad support to hold on to their seats they have an incentive to push back against leadership candidates that may be well-liked by a subset of the party’s base but have little appeal to the broader national electorate.

The extent to which MPs were able to push back against more extreme candidates was illustrated in the recent British Conservative leadership race. To become leader of the British Conservatives one must finish first or second on a vote of the parliamentary party (Conservative MPs) and then win a majority vote of the broader party membership. A third place finish on the parliamentary party ballot took candidate Michael Gove (who had campaigned to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum) out of the race. Indeed the other leave campaigner, Andrea Leadsome who had finished second, ended up dropping out because she did not feel she had sufficient support amongst Conservative MPs. MP’s ability to exert control over the leadership selection process helped the moderate Theresa May defeat more extreme rivals. Either increasing MPs’ ability to affect leadership races or giving them the ability to remove leaders they do not support would give MPs much greater power to check a far-right leaning leader of a mainstream party.

The way democratic institutions are set up affects the ability of individuals to win power and the ability of elected bodies to check those that wield it. Robust democracies do not grant a single individual the ability to rule by fiat, they force those that exercise executive power to be accountable to elected bodies such as parliaments. In the wake of Trump’s election victory and the threat that similar candidates could rise to power in parliamentary systems, there is a need to consider ways in which parliaments can be empowered to check such candidates. Proportional electoral systems and increasing MPs’ ability to choose or recall their leaders offer two ways through which this can be done.

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