Monday, May 7, 2012

You can't be half-pregnant, but it seems you can have PR without much proportionality

There's much consternation in the elites of the EU this morning, because it looks like the two pro-austerity parties in Greece, New Democracy and PASOK, will fall just short of an outright parliamentary majority. But in truth it should never even have been close. The two parties' combined share of the vote tumbled from 77.4% in 2009 to just 32% yesterday, so the fact that they've still ended up with more or less exactly half the seats is a perversion of the democratic process that you'd only ever expect to see under "good old British" first-past-the-post. Given that Greece supposedly has a system of proportional representation, how on earth did it happen? There are two reasons. The more prosaic one is that a great many parties fell below the 3% threshold required for any representation, meaning that all the parties that reached the threshold had surplus seats to share between them. The more eccentric reason is that the Greek system randomly hands 50 bonus seats to the party in first place. This applies regardless of whether the leading party has 60% of the vote or 7%, and regardless of whether its lead over the second-placed party is 23% or 0.00001%. It is, in short, a nonsense, and has clearly thwarted the democratic will of the Greek people on this occasion.

I can only assume that the rule was introduced to produce a decisive winner in old-style two-party contests, but when the party system suddenly becomes more fractured, the effect is far more distorting. To put it in perspective, New Democracy are projected to secure 108 seats with their "election-winning" 18.85% of the vote, whereas the left-wing coalition in second place will claim just 52 seats with their 16.8% of the vote.

But there are more insidious ways in which the devisers of electoral and governing systems can deliver 'proportional representation' without much proportionality. One of the very first posts I wrote on this blog back in May 2008 pointed out that PR for the London Assembly is a sham, and the election last Thursday illustrated that point beautifully. London voters were deeply divided - the Tories led by 44% to 40% in the mayoral vote, and Labour led by 41% to 32% in the Assembly election. The purpose of PR in such circumstances ought to be to produce balance and pluralism. But because a two-thirds majority is required for the Assembly to exercise its one and only meaningful power (to reject the Mayor's budget), the Tories are left with absolute power on a minority vote - just as would happen under FPTP. The irony is that, in combination with the two-thirds rule, PR for the Assembly actually makes it less likely that there can be any check on the Mayor's power, because the distorting nature of FPTP would have made it easier to achieve the big majority required to alter the budget.

So London has the superficial appearance of proportionality and pluralism without an iota of the substance - a characteristically Blairite concoction. Thanks heavens we in Scotland (to use Mrs Thatcher's phrase) have gone in completely the opposite direction, and instead of concentrating local government executive power in the hands of one person, have dispersed power by means of a genuinely proportional system.


  1. The Greek PR system was devised in entirely different circumstances than today's. It probably made sense then, and looks to have been designed to solve the problems with forming stable majority governments in the period before the military putsch.

    In detail, if you look at the '74 election, the winner was got 40-odd% and that was true up until things went tits up. And whereas the opposition was a bit fragmented in '74 or '77, by 2004 the winners (ND) had 45% of the vote and the main opposition (PASOK) 40%. So although the 50-seat bonus looks odd, there were good reasons for it.

    It has only become highly distorting because ND and PASOK have lost so many votes (ND down 15 points, PASOK down 30!). The people who created the electoral system decades ago can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee yesterday's results. Five or six years ago nobody could have foreseen them.

  2. "The people who created the electoral system decades ago can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee yesterday's results."

    True, but they didn't have to foresee absolutely every eventuality to realise that they were introducing a very, very silly system!