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Bernard Owen on effects of electoral systems

Part III: Proportional representation and government instability

Bernard Owen, November 2008

The Polish-language version of this page (click) - polska wersja tej strony

This is the third in a series of short talks by Bernard Owen about effects of proportional representation. Also published in this series:

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Listen to the talk:

There has been a tendency to use proportional representation in new democracies. It's a non-committal attitude: people will say "proportional representation, there is no harm in it, it is used in Western Europe, so why not use it in these new democracies?"

People are not used to making comparisons, they forget exactly how things work in Western Europe. You have a general good situation, but when you start getting into details, if you take ten of the old European democracies, then you see that things are not exactly as they should be.

Some countries have very weak party systems, that is, there are maybe six, seven or eight political parties, so that governments can only be made by coalitions.

Coalition governments are fine – why not have a coalition? But the trouble with coalitions is that once there are problems that occur in the country, whatever kind of problems, be they economical, social, political, the government collapses. So the country, when it most needs a government, just does not have a government, and they have what we call a caretaker government. That is dangerous for demacracies.

Of course in Europe, since the 1945 war, extreme right parties, extreme left parties did exist and the fact is that communist parties were getting up to 25 or 30% of the seats in some countries.

Extreme right parties are not dangerous. But these periods when you do not have a government are dangerous. They are especially dangerous if you look at it from an emerging democracies point of view.

For example the Dutch can have periods of six months without a government. That is not an example to give to anyone. Belgium is in the same case. Usually, the periods when they only have what we call caretaker governments, that is, they do not have a majority in the assembly, are shorter. Same for Finland: Finns do not have what they call usually caretaking governments, they have technical governments.

If you add together the periods that each of these three countries has been without a government (a normal government in a parliamentary system, that is, with a majority in the assembly), it adds up to somewhere around four years. Now four years from 1945 to nowadays without a government is not a good example to follow.

There is another danger of course in proportional representation. It is that when you have more than just two parties, even three parties, then you should have barriers, like in a majority system, in favor of the leading party, that is, a party which attains, say, 45% of the votes could get 53 or 54% of the seats and form a majority one-party government. Proportional representation usually limits these barriers in favor of the main party, so that you find situations which can be dangerous.

In this series:

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Let us discuss electoral systems - zapraszam do dyskusji o systemach wyborczych by skubi December 14, 2008, 02:19:06 AM

Back to English-language articles:

Weimar Germany:
Government stability:

Powrót do artykułów po polsku:

Niemcy weimarskie:
Stabilność rządów:

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