Party Time!


Most countries that claim to be democracies do not do so because they allow people to vote. In most countries and smaller jurisdictions, it means you have a real a choice between representatives of different parties with different philosophies or policy platforms. The multi-party democracy was, at one time, the gold standard of political freedom. In almost all cases, that meant a voting system that actually reflected the choices that voters made, in other words, proportional representation.

There are exceptions. The UK, the United States and Canada still cling to a system called first-past-the-post (FPTP) where the candidate who gets the most votes wins the district, A product of historical chance rather than design. America twists that slightly by placing the electoral college between the voters and the president so that a candidate can become president while finishing second in popular vote.

The distinguishing feature FPTP is the two-party system. Hence for the last 100 years or so, all three of the countries mentioned above have alternated governments between just two parties—one slightly to the right of centre and one slightly to the left. While third parties have occasionally won seats and even held the balance in power in minority governments, they rarely achieve much prominence unless they succeed in replacing one of the other parties.

PR systems have much more fluidity in governments. While some parties have more support than others, a single party or two seldom dominates for long and parties, once they establish a solid, if small, caucus in parliament, seldom disappear. This is troubling in some European countries where far-right and far-left parties, or those established by clowns, now have a permanent legitimized place in the national dialogue (though the recent election in Spain holds out some hope for the future)..

Still, that may be preferable to what is currently happening in the United Kingdom and Canada. The proliferation of small parties has gradually led to parties able to form majority governments without the support of significant sections of the public. Since 1997 only once has the winning party had more than 40% of the vote, yet we have had 4 majority governments and three minorities where the leading party was grossly over represented in seat count. It is quite likely that the result of the next election will return a majority with less than 36% of the vote.

Meanwhile in the UK, the latest polls give the two largest parties considerably less than 70% of voter support—the lowest levels in more than 80 years. Because most of the smaller parties have strong regional support, the chances of the UK having a majority government in the near future seem dim. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the current leadership, the FPTP system will grant fringe or even fanatic parties disproportionate power while still shutting out much larger national parties like the Liberal-Democrats. Britain faces the prospect of become the new Italy.

In the USA, the two party system still seems alive and well but close examination shows how divided each of the two parties are with more than a dozen factions represented in the House of representatives.

Meanwhile in Canada, it is likely that we will see seats split between five or even six parties but with all or most of the power going to one. Hardly a formula for national unity or even, as Justin Trudeau argued in reneging on electoral reform, a more civil discourse in politics. That particular decision may be one we all live to regret.

And that’s 10 minutes from Hayden Trenholm

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