What We Don’t Know: Some Care Has to be Taken When Anticipating the Consequences of Electoral Reform

Electoral reform is on the political agenda again in British Columbia as the Green supported NDP government has committed to holding a referendum on proportional representation (PR) in 2018. As expected, this has produced contentious debate between advocates and opponents of PR.  The examples used by each side of this debate are predictable.  Advocates of PR point to Germany and sometimes Sweden as examples of how such systems can produce stable, effective, and inclusive governments.  Opponents point to countries such as the Netherlands and Israel as examples of how PR can produce large numbers of parties, unstable governments, and coalitions beholden to fringe parties.  There is some truth to both claims.  Debates over electoral reform require individuals to make guesses as to what will happen in future elections.  This, like much of politics, involves making decisions based on uncertain estimates as to what will happen in the future.

A common argument against proportional representation systems is that they lead to the creation of large numbers of parties, unstable coalitions, and governments that can only hold power if they satisfy the wishes of extremist fringe parties.  The Netherlands and Israel are often pointed to as examples of this.  The last Dutch election saw 13 parties win seats in parliament, the largest of which won just 22% of seats.  It then took 225 days to form a coalition government that included four different parties.  Israel’s last election saw 10 parties enter parliament, the largest of which has just 25% of seats, and features a coalition government with 6 parties.  The coalition includes a nationalist pro-settler party (Jewish Home), a secular nationalist party (Yisrael Beiteinu), two moderate right parties (Likud and Kulanu), and two religious parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism).

It is not clear whether proportional representation in BC or federally would create a party system like the Dutch or Israeli ones.  Proponents of PR point out that a threshold can be used to keep out the weakest of small parties.  A threshold of 4%, however, has not prevented Sweden’s last election from producing a parliament with 8 parties and a weak centre-left minority government coalition that is reliant on support from the centre-right to stay in power.  Indeed, coalition instability in PR systems is not as much a result of the entrance of really small parties as it is the weakness of the largest two parties.  The 5 or 6 parties that win between 5% and 15% of the vote are the parties that create the instability in both Dutch and Israeli coalitions.

The emergence of a large number of parties in PR systems is often driven by the extent to which there are a large number of political cleavages in the country.  This is particularly the case in Israel where divisions over left/right politics, security, ethnicity (both between Arabs and Jews and between Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardi Jews), and degree of religious observance create space for a wide-range of parties that can all claim to represent different groups of Israelis.

It is hard to imagine that BC and Canadian federal politics would become as divided as Israel, but there may be enough divisions to substantially increase the number of parties competing in elections.  It is plausible that the BC Liberals breaking into a more centrist and fiscally conservative party and a more socially conservative, rural party.  One can also imagine a rural/urban split threatening the NDP’s cohesiveness.  At the federal level regional as well as ideological divides could threaten the stability of Canada’s parties.  The Conservative party could break into more fiscally conservative and socially conservative wings, similar to what was seen with the split between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform in the 1990s.  This could be exacerbated by divides between Western and Ontario/Quebec Conservatives, particularly over issues related to the accommodation of Quebec.  The NDP may also have problems holding together Quebec supporters that might have different views on multiculturalism than the rest of the country and voters that differ on the extent to which they want the NDP to move to the centre in order to win votes.  In both British Columbia and in federal politics it is not hard to imagine the emergence of a far-right party in a PR system given that almost every European country has seen the emergence of such a party.

On the other hand, advocates of PR often point to Germany as a case where PR has produced quite stable governments.  Germany is not an isolated case.  Indeed, many of the countries that are now used as examples of how PR can create unstable governments and party systems have had stable governments under such systems in the past.  Israel was governed by relatively stable Labour led coalitions from its creation in 1948 to 1977.  Italy, which now has so-called “pizza parliaments” with large numbers of parties, was governed by Christian Democrats from the end of WWII to the early 1980s.

There are good reasons to believe that both BC and Canada could end up like Germany.  Canadian parties have a long history of brokering regional and ideological differences.  They are also likely to have a strategic incentive to continue to do this.  Larger parties are more likely to be able to form government.  Even in a PR system, a group of left or right parties that are too fractured may end up conceding government to parties on the other side of the political spectrum.  It is entirely possible that even if regional break-away parties do form that they could be incorporated into permanent alliances with one of the major parties.  This has happened in Germany where the Christian Democratic Union is in a permanent alliance with the Christian Social Union (a party that only runs in Bavaria).  The two parties do not run candidates against each other and always work together in parliament and in government.  Similar arrangements might develop if the NDP breaks into Quebec and rest of Canada factions or if a Western faction were to break away from the Conservatives.

It is finally worth noting that this uncertainty over the future of Canadian parties and government is not limited to proportional representation systems.  Electoral systems do not have to change for party systems to.  Canada saw its party system fracture as a result of regional tensions in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It is entirely possible that debates over multiculturalism and religious accommodation could create divides between parties in Quebec and the rest of Canada that fracture the Liberal party or NDP, lead to the emergence of a new nationalist party in Quebec, or lead to the revival of the Bloc Quebecois.  The emergence of the Bloc Quebecois and the Reform party in 1993 demonstrates that the first past the post electoral system does not completely protect a party system from insurgent parties (even if it can often make life more difficult for them).  The ability that far-right Republicans such as Donald Trump to gain Republican nominations demonstrates that first past the post systems are not immune to far-right politics.  As much as one should be uncertain about how BC or Canadian politics might change if either adopted a proportional representation electoral system, there is also some uncertainty that would exist if either decides to keep a first past the post electoral system in place.

Uncertainty is a necessary part of politics.  It is impossible to know for certain what the effects of a change in electoral system will be, nor is it possible to say for certain that a first past the post electoral system will ensure stable governments and keep far-right parties out of politics.  With respect to proportional representation there are plausible cases to be made that the adoption of such a system will lead to a stable party system and stable governments similar to Germany (as PR advocates argue), or that such system will lead to more fractured government and party system similar to the Netherlands or Israel (as opponents of PR argue).