Under a Proportional Representation election the voters across a region are offered a list of political parties and vote for the one they prefer. The votes are added up and seats allocated to parties based on percentages of the popular vote won.

In Part 1 we covered the difficulties a democracy using First Past The Post (FPTP) voting systems faces when dealing with diversity, the classic examples being Britain and the US. These democracies evolve towards a two party system where the main aim of the opposition is to present a viable alternative while hoping the incumbent screws up. The people aren't offered a choice as to how they want the country run and it ends up being more about electing individuals than voting for issues. This is fine for a small, homogenous society - and leads to one that is quite agile - but the more diverse your democracy the less stable and less representative this becomes.

After eliminating FPTP the obvious alternative is Proportional Representation (PR) which is widely used in mainland Europe. It's almost the polar opposite of FPTP in outcome, but as will become clear - it's pretty far from being the perfect tool to fix democracy's failings. Nonetheless, discussing it and its limitations goes a long way to explaining where to look next.

Proportional Representation and Multi-Party Democracy

The key assumption of PR shown at the top of this essay - vote for the party not the individual - is a bit of a shock after the power we saw political parties have under FPTP. Surely an improvement on FPTP needs to weaken the parties' hold on politics, not strengthen it? But, since such a large proportion of voters in a FPTP system vote by party line it's merely an acceptance of the inevitable to formalise it on the ballot. And once we've made this initial leap significant benefits emerge.

Each party produces a list of candidates and these become representatives when percentages of the vote are translated into parliamentary seats. Since there is no premium on coming first, only on being able to engineer an overall majority of seats, there are none of the spoiler effects of FPTP (vote A to keep B out). This allows specific, singular interest groups to form parties (such as religious, green or feminist groups) based on issues that couldn't get the support of a majority of the population but which are strongly supported by committed minorities. Coalition governments become the norm as a field of typically 5 to 12 political parties carve up the parliament between them and are forced to form alliances after elections in order to obtain a governing majority. Under this system, because no individuals are directly elected and everything must be up for negotiation during coalition formation, the electorate votes on ideological and broad issue lines with the expectation that these will govern the party's agenda when they negotiate to form a government. Typically, the Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party within a viable coalition.

PR demonstrably leads to multi-party democracies. There are two structural choices needed to make this work - a minimum vote threshold to be allocated seats (typically between 2% and 5% of the popular vote), and how many seats the chamber is going to contain (usually more than 100 and less than 500). The minimum vote threshold makes it harder for a new party to emerge without a strong initial mandate, and minimises the number of marginal parties represented in the legislature. The number of seats in the chamber provides a talent pool for jobs in the executive, on committees and a body of representatives to evaluate legislation and prevent flawed law-making. As example: in a system with a 5% vote threshold, the parliament would have a maximum field of 20 parties, should they all get 5% of the popular vote each. They would then divide the parliamentary seats between them with each getting 5% of the total number of seats. It would take 11 of these parties to come to an agreement in order to form a majority government. Of course this never happens since some parties get a stronger mandate, and we end up with the less than 12 represented parties as described above.

It's possible for one party to get an overall majority of seats, so having a strong majority government rather than coalition is still possible. Typically any party that achieves this becomes something akin to a permanent government, as even afterwards its in a position to cherrypick coalition partners. There is less incentive to change your vote from election to election than under FPTP, so situations are common where one large core party swings subtly from side to side in different coalitions formed with different minor parties. Under PR there is nothing preventing you from voting with your heart for the party you would most like to see in power, but at the same time that party is unlikely to be in a position to give the voter the ideal that it stands for. PR provides a system of diverse, well-defined parties, which must use consensus politics to achieve their ideals.

I'm going to focus here on parliamentary systems - where maneuvering an overall majority in the legislature leads to power over the executive - because PR is fundamentally a way to elect a chamber of representatives. Examples exist (Brazil, Argentina) where this is mixed with a presidential system but I'm avoiding addressing those here.

The Israel case study (with a little of Scandinavia thrown in)

In its way Israel is a fully evolved PR democracy - while the specific geo-political problems Israel has always faced make the tone and specifics of its political debate exceptional, its technical mechanism shows PR working efficiently. Other than Israel the Scandinavian countries have the most evolved cultures of pure PR, and they operate in a very similar way. However, where Scandinavia has a political culture that has developed complexity over a thousand years, Israel laid down a set of rules in 1948 and mostly stuck to them. A few technical facts about Israel's system:

Characteristics of the Legislature:

  • Name of the chamber: The Knesset
  • Structure of legislature: unicameral
  • Size of chamber: 120 seats
  • Vote threshold: 2%
  • Maximum length of terms: 4 years
  • Chamber has absolute sovereignty to pass laws on any topic

Stats from the 2009 election:

  • Voter turnout: 65.2%
  • Number of parties elected: 12

After reviewing the US and UK systems that chamber's nature is rather shocking - a single chamber (unicameral) government with total authority looks dangerously tyrannical against the checks and balances we expect of bicameral legislature. But then, since all legislation must pass through at least two party's hands in the governing coalition - with much haggling - before it can be enacted, the single chamber provides the check and balance itself. Scandinavian countries have seen previously bicameral chambers merge into unicameral ones after they adapted to a pure PR system. Also, 120 representatives seems a small pool of talent to provide politicians and to criticise legislation. This is also one of the arguable benefits of a pure PR system. Because the party list is all-powerful in selecting politicians, each party can parachute in talented candidates and strip away deadwood at will. This is a smaller, more streamlined government than in the US/UK, with the legwork of evaluating proposed legislation delegated to the administrative machines of the political parties who make the decision as to whether it should pass.

Israel is probably as streamlined as any system can get away with. With a low (2%) threshold and a chamber size at the lower end of the average range; it has resulted in a large populations of parties and with each politician having to do a lot of legwork in evaluating legislation. It is a Punk Rock government, stripped to the bone but with the essentials intact.

There's much to be said in its favour. It negates the old British-American argument that coalition governments lead to weak consensus-obsessed executives, since so much of Israeli politics focuses on applying hard-power to the Israel/Palestine problem. Israeli governments are prone to collapse over ideology - and collapse is common, with the average government lasting 25 months - but the executive is often strong, as was the case under Ariel Sharon. Coalition appears to be brittle, rather than inherently weak. Holding an election is the only way out of coalition and the result of this is unpredictable or even dangerous for all the coalition partners. It allows party representation for the disparate immigrant, ideological and strongly religious communities that form Israeli society. These parties evolve, with new ones coming to prominence and previously powerful ones expiring on a decade to decade basis, when they become outdated these institutions fade and die. The choice this offers to the electorate promotes voter engagement, and the lowest voter turnout seen in Israeli electoral history (63.5% in 2006) is roughly equivalent to the highest US voter turnout over the same period.

Israel - a small country with a pure PR system run efficiently

It still boils down to an offer to the electorate of two basic alliances - a coalition around the largest party of the left or around the largest party of the right, with a number of centrists parties that can play either side. So, we see haggling during coalition formation on the issues that define each of the smaller parties, and pressure to move away from the centre of debate is exerted by the more radical parties, but the choice offered to the electorate is still between party leader Right and party leader Left to become Prime Minister and run the executive.

For a state of Israel's scale this is an awfully elegant and simple way to run a country, and largely it appears to provide the changes of regime and maneuverability that keeps stagnant institutions from failing to reflect the people. Since I picked a country that is so politically controversial it's worth pointing out that I'm not suggesting Israel is a democratic paradise, simply that it's politically system is close to an ideal (and with Israel's underlying problems an idealised political system goes a very, very small way to making their society well-run). Still, the system is not without its disadvantages and these problems are also seen in Scandinavia.

The biggest is that while there are often token gestures towards constituencies, PR systems basically ignore regionalism, and the political culture is dictated entirely by national shares of the vote. This isn't such a problem in Scandinavia where we have countries of less than 10 million people with roughly homogenous concerns; Israel is of similar size and populated largely by immigrants. 12 party blocks offers considerable space with which the population can define their collective political concerns. Regional diversity isn't a great concern in either Scandinavia or Israel. Nonetheless, if you were to scale this up to a multi-lingual country of 60 million with a political history going back thousands of years this sort of national debate would break down fast. I'm talking here of Italy, the country that tested PR in a most demanding situation, and watched it shatter.

The Italy Case Study after WWII and before 1992 - Tangetopoli

Here's how it broke: In February 1992 Mario Chiesa, an Italian Socialist Party politician, was arrested for taking a bribe from a cleaning firm. As the investigation hit the media Party representatives began publicly demonising Chiesa. His response was to candidly begin implicating his fellow politicians of more corruption. This was the beginning of the Mani Pulite or Clean Hands investigation - revealing what became known as Tangetopoli or Bribesville - with politician after politician confessing to bribe-taking and implicating others. Systematic corruption was revealed in the entire political system from Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti on down. Over the following months Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two prosecuting magistrates who had clamped down on Mafia activity in Sicily, were assassinated in their cars by massive bombs. The damage to the political system was so severe that the Christian Democrat Party (CD), a dominant player in almost every coalition since the second world war, was disbanded. The system that had produced these governments was viewed as contaminated, and a referendum was offered to the country that came back endorsing a new, non-proportional, electoral system.

So, Italy was revealed to be infested with crime and corruption, this is unlikely to surprise anyone. The temptation would be to see this as reflecting more on Italian society than on the electoral system. However, there were clear, systemic reasons why the mechanism was blamed by the Italian people, and they illustrate well the fundamental limitations of PR.

Some details about the nature of Italian government: between 1946 and 1992 Italy had 48 separate governments, and during the 1970s these were so unstable they averaged a lifespan of 9 months. Yet of these only 2 were formed without the CD party, and 13 had the CD holding a flat majority. While the individual coalitions were unstable the core, and particularly the party-politicians, formed a permanent government. The external opposition to the CD party was the Italian Communist Party, which received upwards of 20% of the vote but (partly for geopolitical reasons) was maneuvered against to prevent it forming a government. The electoral system didn't have a well-defined threshold, allowing at its most fragmented a field of 17 represented parties. Italy had a bicameral legislature with a main chamber of 630 and a minor chamber of 315 politicians. This is almost the opposite of the elegance of the Israeli system, but it would be a mistake to view these as an aberration. Italy was a large and diverse society and these parties all represented specific interests of the population. The second chamber served its role of monitoring the enormous first; Israeli style simplicity was not an option.

Italy - a big country with a pure PR system, its inherent failings hanging out for all to see

With the basic composition of Government the same both before and after elections, the influential political debates were conducted at the margins and within the CD party itself. Small parties could hold the rest of the coalition to ransom since the threat of dissolving the government could be enough to make the coalition move to the left, right or towards a marginal specific interest. Having a stable, explicitly centrist, party swallowing the middle ground left the political debates to happen at the far edges. And because regional diversity had no place within a proportional system, but regionalism led to friction between Italy's constituent parts, this played well to the universalist agendas of the hard left and right. PR was the perfect vehicle for the core debates of the Cold War to run rampant across domestic politics.

But the worst problem was the lack of direct accountability to the electorate. Unless their political parties were rigorously internally democratic then permanent government made individual accountability a fiction. Party lists were all powerful in selecting politicians, and since the CD dominated the political landscape, one particular party machine had the gateway to power. These same party-machines were in charge of producing the lists for city and regional elections. It was the most powerful mechanism in the nation, standing behind every political decision made at every level. Regional democracy became an extension of national democracy with little real autonomy. This went all the way to the top - the Party Leader of the CD needed to defeat a handful of internal rivals and could be guaranteed executive power indefinitely. This led to the reign of Giulio Andreotti, a figure of such Machiavellian scale that this writeup cannot possibly do him justice. The potential for corrupting this mechanism did not go unnoticed by the various Italian Mafias which used their enormous wealth and hard-power to lobby for their interests. Over the decades, Italy became akin to a mafia-state as politicians were subject to very little direct democratic accountability while enormous financial and criminal pressure was exerted on them.

This is, obviously, a gross simplification since I only want to address this on a technical level. But these trends that brought the Italian system crashing down can be seen on a lesser level in all countries with a pure PR system (including Israel, and particularly in Weimar Republic era Germany) - the external appearance of unstable coalitions but the reality of permanent government, and the overwhelming power of the party list in making the politicians less accountable to the nation. In Italy's case this was made worse by Italy's own difficult history and by the fact that it was the biggest country ever to attempt an experiment in pure PR. Italy's edifice remained standing as long as the Italian Communists remained a powerful force outside government throwing rocks at it (and despite never running the country they ran numerous regional bodies, and were as invested in the system as anyone), but with the end of the Cold War it soon began to crack.

So, that didn't work either. What now?

FPTP and PR offer two basic shapes of politics. FPTP provides a two party system where centrist parties of equal size trade power roughly once a decade - the faces change but the band still plays the same tune. This leads to a politically disengaged population but strong maneuverable executives that can respond rapidly to external change. The debate is driven towards a centre-point between the parties while ignoring the subtle wishes of the people. PR provides a system where much of politics is delegated away from elections and into the internal machines of the political parties, but where the choice between multiple parties means that voters are more likely to feel involved. It pushes the debate to the edges, giving periods of some influence to groups with marginal viewpoints while other parties form permanent governments. Worryingly, PR based elections seem to lead to parties defined on ideology or strong group-identity and so the mundane diversity that influences our daily lives (language, gender, city, place, career) is forgotten amidst battles between dogmatic artificial identities like the proletariat, the bourgeoisie or Haredi Judaism. PR emphasises all the worst aspects of the worldviews that dominated the 20th Century.

Diversity doesn't really work like this, the narratives of the Left and Right are a mask for the real differences between people's lives that need politics to represent and arbitrate for them. Every person has countless aspects to themselves, and an ideal democratic system would find a way for representation to reflect this diversity without forcing them to either grudgingly offer their support to the less-hated of two centrist parties, or take on single, box-like, identities as if it was all they were. Surely, there is something better than this?

One option would be a constitutional approach (as the US applied to the FPTP they inherited from Britain), applying a long list of axioms and structures to brute-force a PR system into something more accountable to the electorate. This has been tried in countries such as Greece, Brazil, Norway and France's earlier republics. But unfortunately this doesn't change the fundamental nature of this sort of democracy and so there is only so far we can moderate its limitations for representing diversity. But the most promising approaches are attempting to compromise between FPTP and PR, or adjust the voting mechanism itself and trying to make it a more subtle tool. These will be addressed in part 3 of this essay.

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