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Vol 2, No 17
2 May 2000
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Letters Page Letters:
Extremism and Proportional

Reacting to Ian Hall and Magali Perrault's article on the new extreme right in Europe, Frank Glodek asks why PR is not considered to be a part of the problem. Perrault responds.

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To The Editor:

Why does no one write an article investigating the system of proportional representation and the coalitions to which it gives rise as a central cause of many of the problems with extremist politics about which Magali Perrault writes?

It seems that European nations adopt the proportional representation system or parliamentary system of democracy without considering an alternative approach to democracy that would avoid many of its problems. I contend that this system is a central cause not only of the most vexing problems in Europe today, but also of similar problems in Turkey, Algeria, Iran, Israel, India, etc. All of the latter, the reader will note, use variations of the same troubling parliamentary system.

The system of proportional representation, by its very nature, begs for instability and extremism, especially in any nation or region faced with pre-existing internal tensions. At the same time, it almost always produces coalition governments, which tend to give disproportionate power to the last, small party invited to join in order to form a governing majority.

Has anyone considered that the system of proportional representation evolved in states which were relatively homogenous in terms of language, race, religion and ethnicity?

Will it be able to provide stable government in an increasingly multi-ethnic modern world?

Proportional representation is particularly dangerous in any nation that has suffered from ethnic, ideological or religious divisions, virtually compelling people to vote along these pre-established lines, regardless of whether they know it to be destructive and of their preference to do otherwise. Not even a five percent vote threshold for a party to hold seats in parliament is a barrier to these voting patterns and their negative impact.

Why? When you have proportional representation, you must assume the "others" will vote ethnically, putting you at risk. The only way to protect yourself is by doing the same, regardless of lectures from the UN, NATO or anyone else. It reminds me of how inmates in a prison find themselves forced to align with gangs – an unnatural situation in normal society. One need only look at the outcome of the recent local elections in Bosnia to see how this is so.

Anyone who believes that Europe can acquire, through a simple act of union, the kind of strong, stable government that makes the United States so effective and powerful will be sorely disappointed. It is only through the adoption of an electoral system similar to that found in the States that this could come to pass. A proportional representation system can never unite so many diverse nations and peoples effectively, as it is inherently and unavoidably biased toward extremism, instability, immoderation and ineffectiveness.

Let's look at some other examples:

- Italy recently formed its 58th government since the Second World War. Its last one featured a coalition with 11 parties, and its parliament is presently made up of 40 parties. (On a similar note, one may wish to consider: how many Republics has France formed?)

- If I recall correctly, some 300 parties participated in the first post-Communist elections in Poland.

- Under a system of proportional representation, Slobodan Milošević became a major power with a lousy 20 percent of the vote in Serbia, while Austria's Joerg Haider rose to political prominence with a similar take of the vote. Having 150 parties to play-off against one another didn't help.

- Germany tries to evade the potential dangers of proportional representation by outlawing certain parties, a dangerous, ham-handed Rube Goldberg kind of move that could encourage violence by the disenfranchised in a crisis.

- Although I despise Haider, I see a big danger in using the methods to which the EU found it necessary to resort in handling the danger he represented. The same proportional representation system that made Haider a big deal, with 24 percent of the vote, guarantees more Haiders and forces Europe to deal with the problem in this undemocratic and unsatisfactory way.

I don't like Haider, but he and the Austrians have a legitimate beef. This attitude of "We're for democracy except when we don't like the winner" creates resentment and undermines belief in the system. Look at what happened in Algeria, where such a system produced results that scared everyone and led to a "ban the party" solution. Similarly, if Turkey had America's plurality system, its generals wouldn't need to fear that an Islamic party would turn Ataturk's republic into another Iran.

- Finally, in a prolonged crisis such as the Great Depression, proportional representation is at its absolute worst, because centrist parties lose so many voters to the right and left fringes that the moderate parties must, to form a parliamentary majority, invite extremists whom they would not ordinarily consider. In the thirties the result was one of two things:

a. Absolutely ineffective coalitions composed of parties that hated one another and couldn't get a damn thing done (the Popular Fronts of France and Italy), or;

b. Seizure of the government by extreme parties invited into the coalition (Italy and Germany, where the Nazis got only eight percent of the vote).

Is there any alternative?

Yes. The kind of seat by plurality elections used in the United States of America is an obvious solution, as under it the politicians who moderate their views to appeal to the widest possible constituency tend to win. The American system favors moderation and two centrist parties, and has never once produced a coalition government. In the 1930s, for example, it was the only major democracy to retain a stable government capable of dealing with severe problems, avoiding the two alternatives described above. It's not that the United States didn't have extremists waiting in the wings, but rather that the plurality system's requirements made it impossible for them to take advantage of the situation.

A common, erroneous belief held by many Europeans is that Americans manage to handle multi-ethnicity without having Balkan- or Austrian-type problems because of some natural peculiarity of their culture or an inborn anti-extremist bent. This is not so.

Americans are no different from anyone else. Rather, it is their electoral system that makes it impossible for extremists to exploit such differences as they can elsewhere. Have no doubt: if the US switched to proportional representation tomorrow, the Democrats and Republicans would splinter at both ends. Pat Buchanan, David Duke, Jesse Jackson and several others could easily form parties capable of getting five percent of the vote. Hispanic parties would surely be major players in Florida, California and the Southwest, while ethnic parties would also fare well in the big cities, which would encourage many whites to react by clumping together under extremist leadership.

The system of plurality was created consciously, invented by a brilliant and scholarly group who wanted both strong government and democracy without extremism of the type found in Athens, Republican Rome, Renaissance Italy, etc. People forget that the United States was, from the outset, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Worse yet, the different groups tended to be geographically concentrated. There had been no time, when the American electoral system was constituted, for any mythical "special culture" to develop to protect Americans from ethnic rivalry. It worked then, as it does today.

I contend that, just as the USA would fragment into a multi-party coalition system if it adopted proportional representation, most European states (and any potential government) would see many of their problems with nationalism and extremism fade to the level presently found in the United States if they were to adopt plurality as an electoral model.

Swap electoral systems, and you swap the problems - of that I have no doubt.

One other future advantage of such a system would be that it could make it easier for others, including the United States and Russia, to one day join such an international political union. Were European nations to adopt an American-style electoral system, US fears of European instability would be alleviated as extremist domestic political parties faded. If such a system were adopted by Russia and others to the east, it would lessen the dangers to international stability posed by potent eastern nationalism. In such an event, I can foresee the possibility of a voluntary political and economic union extending to include Japan, Australia and New Zealand – one whose attractiveness would encourage even China to moderate her policies and seek accommodation.

Frank Glodek

Magali Perrault responds:

Frank Glodek makes a very interesting and highly relevant point worthy of further examination, even if I do not personally agree with his pessimistic assessment of proportional representation.

As a citizen of the French Fifth Republic (which has given up proportional representation and gained political and institutional stability in the process), I tend to be quite sympathetic to his argument. The evidence, however, seems to be more ambiguous and questions remain. Is proportional representation really producing divided societies? Or, perhaps, are divided societies using proportional representation because it is the only system likely to allow national minorities to gain representation?

Increasingly, many countries including the UK, France and even Italy are moving toward a hybrid using both systems at different levels of participation: national, regional, local, etc.

Proportional representation, if well applied with the help of a 5 percent or similar threshold, has the a potential to provide representation to minorities who would otherwise go without. Otherwise, for example, how does one provide representation for the Kurdish minority in Turkey?.

Moreover, evidence from the US and the UK does not look promising. The conservative party in the UK and the Republicans in the US are, of course, "broad churches" and they have prevented the emergence of extremist parties. However, recent outbursts of from William Hague on immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, do not really seem encouraging, to me, in this respect.

Perhaps the most important thing is how "liberal" and "tolerant" the national society actually is. The electoral system is an important factor, as it can of course significantly facilitate this, as it probably did in France. Still, extra-parliamentary extremist forces can also leverage a significant if indirect impact on politics. The National Front in France, for example, does not hold a seat in the French National Assembly, but this, unfortunately, does not mean that its ideas are not widespread in French society.

In the UK, introducing proportional representation at the national level, as is already the case in the Scottish Parliament, would of course probably and unfortunately allow nasty extremist movements such as the British National Party to gain representation in the House of Commons. By the same token, though, it would also allow the Liberal Democrats to gain more seats. If nothing else, the Liberal Democrats are far less "extremist" than the Tories and are the only genuinely pro-European party in Britain.

Magali Perrault

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