Recently, a friend in the United States has expressed frustration with the political situation and has been seeking information about the pros and cons of multi-party government systems. I would like to discuss this issue, with a focus on the US and Canada, about which I know the most, and some discussion of what little I know about some European governments.
The obvious advantage of a 2-party system is that it is easier to get a majority in the legislature, which should make laws easier to pass. It also ensures the country’s leader is endorsed by a majority of the population.
In general however, I believe multi-party systems are a better option. If you do not happen to agree with the position of either party in the United States, you have no options. In Canada there are three parties that run everywhere in the country (and an additional very powerful party in Quebec only) and have significant representation in parliament with a fourth party beginning to emerge with significant vote totals, though they do not yet have any representation in government. As a result, we have not had any one party with majority control since 2004. Despite this, things still get done and they have gotten done with minority governments in the past. In fact, Canada’s most significant piece of legislation was created by a coalition government. This was the Canada Health Act, which guaranteed our universal health care. This measure was promoted by the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s “third party”, which leans to the left and was supported by the larger, centrist, Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. On a side note, I firmly believe Pierre Trudeau was Canada’s best prime minister. In addition to bringing about universal health care, it was during his leadership that Canada received its own constitution, finally achieving complete independence from England. Included in the constitution was the Charter of Rights, which I already posted about some time ago (see the post titled Rights and Freedoms, posted September 29). Trudeau was also a key figure for gay rights in Canada. It was Trudeau that removed homosexuality from the criminal code. In explaining his reasoning, he used a line that has become very famous: “The government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation”.
The obvious drawback of a multi-party system is the threat of repeated, frequent elections when no majority can be reached. To try to avoid this, coalitions are often formed, as has happened recently with the British government. It seems to be going very well there, as the Conservatives are being tempered by the Liberal Democrats. Then again coalitions can bring their own problems too. An example of this is Israel. In addition to the 2 largest parties, there are numerous small parties with representation in the Knesset, some representing radical elements of society, especially the religious right. To hold power, one of the main parties usually requires coalition support from these fringe groups, and I believe that these compromises hurt possibilities for peace with their neighbours, as these parties tend to insist on growing the settlements and promoting other contentious issues. A method some countries use to get around the issue is to require a minimum percentage of the national vote to be able to get seats in their parliament. Germany is an example of this and Italy has apparently recently done this as part of a plan to reform their notoriously messy political setup.
Part of the blame for Italy’s political troubles derived from the multitude of small political parties that made up their parliament. To get anything done, many behind the scenes deals would have to be made. That would seem to be a recipe for corruption, and that is what they got. Their system also does not have the people directly elect individual representatives but rather vote for parties, a system called proportional representation. When used in a small country like Israel, it is the only way that makes sense, but in larger countries that have distinct regional differences throughout the country, this method poses problems. Germany has used a mix of direct regional representatives with at-large politicians chosen from party lists. Canada and the UK take a different approach, simply choosing all members of parliament individually in their local districts, called ridings. While I believe our system would work a little better with a mixed system, and I would like to see Canada move to some semblance of a mixed proportional system, the current system is a little more similar to what happens in the United States.
This is where the possible benefits of two party systems return. Most elections are understood by the people as a choice between the current governing party and making a change. When there are many small parties, they can split the total vote opposed to the current government, thus ensuring the incumbent wins again, even though a majority of the voters did not want to continue with the status quo. We see a lot of this in Canada. Our current prime minister, conservative Stephen Harper is liked by about 35% of the population, and despised by most of the rest, myself included. However, this opposition is split between the Liberals, the NDP and the Green Party. This scenario often allows the Conservatives to continue to win elections, albeit without a majority of seats (I fully realize there are other dividing issues that influence how votes are split, but this will get me too far off track). Americans seem to prefer a binary, either/or solution. When an exception appeared in 2000, the response was telling. Ralph Nader entered the presidential race as a third-party candidate and did succeed in attracting more votes than a third party candidate ordinarily would. Since the race between the two leaders, Bush and Gore, was so close, even the relatively small number of votes cast for Nader greatly influenced the final results. It is widely believed that Nader’s votes came from people who would otherwise have voted for Gore, allowing Bush to win (of course this analysis sets aside the controversy over electoral college votes and the general weirdness of what happened in Florida). During the next presidential election, in 2004, many people wanted Nader not to run. He ran anyway, but he received far fewer votes this time around. Of course by then it was clear that the American people were divided more or less 50-50, with very strong convictions over which leader to choose. The people clearly did not want a third option that might risk easing the way for the candidate they opposed.
So what options are there for those who might like to have a choice other than the obvious two in the US. Perhaps if a third party can find a way to get candidates elected to the house, it will become genuinely impossible to get any legislation enacted without some form of compromise, something that is generally avoided in the current situation. You would not expect the politicians to be less partisan, as that does not happen even in multi-party systems, but at least the government will have to find some way to incorporate diverse opinions and policies rather than the current obstinacy. But whether the desire for representation is more important for enough Americans than the preference for clear black and white solutions is an open question. Furthermore, there is an attitude among some people that every new idea that comes from outside America, especially from Europe, is evil and dangerous, while the American solutions are always the best. With this in mind, we will probably never see any dramatic changes to the political model there.
Finally, for those of my readers from European countries, I want to say that my research on European governments has been minimal so, if I got things wrong, feel free to let me know. I would also like to know your thoughts on this issue, wherever you may live.