Bernard Owen onthe effects of electoral systems.

November 2008

Bernard Owen is the head of the Centre for the Comparative Studies of Elections (in Paris. Professor Owen participated in more than forty international electoral assistance and observation missions, reviewed or helped draft electoral laws of several nations, and participated in over forty international meetings and research conferences concerning elections. Every year, he organizes a conference on electoral matters in the French Senate.

Research by Professor Owen explains the role played by proportional representation in political disasters that hit various European nations.

In this series:

Part l: How proportional representation brought Adolf Hitler to power

The Weimar Republic (Germany, 1919-1933) had a very interesting proportional representation system. They had regional votes, but the transfer from votes into seats was at the national level. So it was quite proportional, when you look at the results, you compare them, you have practically identical results in votes and in seats.

Now, there were great problems in Germany. The Nazi party really appeared in the election in 1923, but they only got 6% of the votes. The German mark almost disappeared, 10 000 marks were worth 1 dollar, and the population did not like inflation, it was a very bad sign for a country. So they voted against, they voted for this new Nazi party, which was not alone actually, there were two other right wing parties working with it on a proportional list.

So the Germans got rid of the inflation, things got better organized, and at the end of 1923 a second election was held, and the Nazi party felt down to 3% of the votes. They lost half of their votes. Then Germans got organized, and for the 1928 elections the Nazi party only reached 2.6% of the votes, which is a very low percentage of votes for an extreme party when you have a very proportional system. So it was quite a success, Germany was on the way to recovery.

Then in 1929 unfortunately the Wall Street crash happened. We can talk about it now, because it was a similar situation, but then it was even worse, especially in Germany, because Germany was very technically organized. The only really organized countries, from a mechanical point of view, were Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, and the United States.

The United States had invested a lot in Germany, the country that was coming out of the war, and had the ways of dealing with mechanical things. So Americans invested huge sums of money. Siemens, for example, was bought by America. And when the crash came, Germany was hit just as hard as America. In France, with strong agriculture (about 60% of the population was in agriculture), the question was not a priority.

Within Germany at the time, in 1929, with proportional representation, you had five political parties in government, plus one independent minister. Now, with five political parties, when such an event occurred, that is, unemployment suddenly came up to a level of millions of people, the government collapsed. So Germany, when it really needed a strong government, had no government, and there was no alternative.

What were the alternatives? There was this very small Nazi party, which only got 2.6% of the votes. There was the Communist party, that got a little more votes, but Germans were a little afraid of communism, the Bolsheviks. So, to everyone’s surprise, in the 1930 elections, which were held to find some kind of government, you saw the Nazi party suddenly reach 18% of the votes.

Nobody accepted it. Nobody thought it could be such a level. And remember, in 1928, 2.6% of the votes had been what they obtained. So we can say that in Germany there were 2.6% of the population which was extreme right. The 18% which came up suddenly in 1930, to everyone’s surprise, was not ideological, but the Nazis were saying “we are in a mess, we will get rid of the problems, and Germany will be strong again ».

And then, from 1930 to 1932, the five ideologically moderate parties could not agree on what they should do. So there was no real government. There was a government made up of the 10% of votes obtained by the Catholic Party (Germany is not all Catholics, so it only reached 10%). There was a good prime minister.

The president of the republic (Paul von Hindenburg), who had been previously for the Emperor, really played the game of the democracy, the Weimar democracy. He was able to govern for two years with what they call presidential decrees: the prime minister proposed measures, and the president made them into decrees.

So during two years the Nazis, who now had 18% of the members of the Reichstag, could say: « you say that we are not democrats, but neither is the government, there is no democracy here; we will not be different from them, but we will know what to do, and we will make Germany into a large state, as it should be”.

Then of course in 1932 there were presidential elections, Hitler was one of the candidates, but was beaten by the incumbent Hindenburg. But in the following election, the Nazi party obtained over 30% of the votes. People say that proportional representation has nothing to do with it, that Germans, and especially Prussians, are warmongers. But people forget that Prussia was socialist, and the head of the Prussian region was called the “red tsar »; even once the Nazis took power in 1932, Prussia stayed socialist, and the Prussian police was actually going against the Nazi brown shirts.

Other people will say that the army was Nazi. But von Seeckt, the head of the German army, who had won one of the last battles won by Germans in 1918, would not have any politics in the army. Von Seeckt was then replaced by Hindenburg, who had the same position. And any officers who were thought of being Nazi were thrown out, which happened twice as late as 1932.

So ideology played a very small role in the political situation. Something very interesting happened in 1932. There were two elections: people were afraid of all these Nazis coming into the Reichstag, so a second election was held. Now the German people thought that Nazis were getting out of hand. They were getting scared of them. So now the Nazi vote dropped by about 3%, but, interestingly, the communist vote rose by the same level. That is, people wanted to vote against the republic, that was not functioning normally.

art II: How proportional representation allowed neo-Nazis to enter the government of Austria

It started with the election of Kurt Waldheim in 1985. He was nominated as a candidate for the Catholic party.

In Austria the two main parties, Catholic and socialist, are really embedded into the countryside. They have many ramifications. And if you are born in a socialist family, you go socialist sporting activities, you even die in a socialist cemetery, all your way through you are followed by the same ideology. The Catholics are in a similar situation.

But in 1985 the Catholics nominated for the presidential election someone who seemed very interesting, Kurt Waldheim, who had been the head for about 10 years of the United Nations. He was a good candidate. Unfortunately, a year before, in the Wall Street Journal, and in a number of American newspapers, there had been accusations against Austria, that Austria had been giving to the Soviet Union military secrets from the United States. Of course, true or not, this created an uproar in Austria, and all the Austrian newspapers were really mad at the American newspapers for saying that they were traitors to the Western ideals.

Just a year later Kurt Waldheim is nominated as the Catholic candidate,

AUSTRIA – JANUARY 01: Kurt Waldheim, UN – secretary general. Photography. 1972. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) [Kurt Waldheim, UNO-Generalsekretaer. Photographie. 1972]
and this was a good idea from the Catholics’ point of view. But the World Jewish Congress, which is not representative of the whole Jewish population, far from it, accused Kurt Waldheim of having, before the 1939 war, been a member of riding school, which was Nazi oriented, and, during the war, as all Austrians, he was obliged to go into the German army, and he was in Greece when there were supposed to be some atrocities, which were not really proven, but he was there, but still, a lot of noise was made about it.

And this had the Austrians react against what had been an attack coming from the outside.

This was interesting because we had those two main parties who reach somewhere around 40-45% of the votes, and there was a small liberal party, which would reach between 5 and 10% of the votes. That was all right, but the stance of the World Jewish Congress got together everyone who was antisemitic in Austria, and a small party is easily taken over by a minority. And that is what happened to the Liberal Party. Jörg Haider took over the Liberal Party, which became a neo-Nazi party.

In Austria, in order to govern, one of the main parties has to have a coalition with a smaller party. And at that time the Socialists had in their coalition the Liberal Party, which was no longer liberal, it was now a Nazi party. So they could not make up a government as they wished to, they decided to do what is called now an « elephant’s government » in Austria, that is, a great coalition government, Catholics and socialists. Everybody was quite happy, and most people liked the idea. Newspapers liked it, they said « they are now together to work for the common good, and things are fine ».

Well, things were fine, except that however good a government may be, there are always people who will want to vote against it. And when you have the left and the right together in government, the party affiliation goes down, because real Catholics are not happy to see in the government their candidates with the socialists, and the socialists have the same reaction.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Roland Schlager/EPA/Shutterstock (7987573f)
Candidate of the Austrian Right-wing Freedom Party (fpoe) Joerg Haider (l) and Socialist Party Candidate Peter Ambrozy Smile Ahead of a Tv Debate About the Outcome of Carinthian Regional Elections Klagenfurt on Sunday 7 March 2004 the Fpoe was Likely to Win the Most Votes in the Regional Elections According to First Television Estimates Austria Klagenfurt
Austria Carinthia Haider Elections – Mar 2004

So party affiliation goes down, and when the next election comes around, which happened in Austria, suddenly the Liberal Party, which had become neo-Nazi, suddenly sprung up and doubled its vote. It was the structure for the vote against the government. And people always forget that. They say « it is ideology that counts, people are becoming Nazi ». No, it is not that at all. It is just that the government, however good it may be, will raise concerns in some people’s minds, and they will want to vote against it. And that is what happened in Austria.

And in the third election, that happened afterwards, the neo-Nazi party had exactly the same number of votes as the Catholics, and the Socialists have gone down. So the only way to deal with this was to have a coalition between the Catholics and the neo-Nazis. Of course, the European Union was very much against that, they said « the Austrians are getting Nazi-oriented », one of the members even refused to shake hands with the Austrian ambassador.

No, it had nothing to do with ideology, it was just that the welcome structure for the vote against the government, was only the Nazi, ex-liberal party. And what happened was very interesting, because at the next elections, when the two, Catholics and neo-Nazis were in power, the neo-Nazi party lost its position of the welcome structure for the vote against and from 25% of the votes (I believe) went down to 10%.

The vote was not ideological. And that is the thing that people usually do not know, even commentators on the radio, television and the press or even researchers look at ideology. Ideology has not got the importance that people got the importance that people usually believe it has .

Part III: Proportional representation and government instability

There has been a tendency to use proportional representation in new democracies. It’s a non-committal attitude: people will say « proportional representation, there is no harm in it, it is used in Western Europe, so why not use it in these new democracies? »

People are not used to making comparisons, they forget exactly how things work in Western Europe. You have a general good situation, but when you start getting into details, if you take ten of the old European democracies, then you see that things are not exactly as they should be.

Some countries have very weak party systems, that is, there are maybe six, seven or eight political parties, so that governments can only be made by coalitions.

Coalition governments are fine – why not have a coalition? But the trouble with coalitions is that once there are problems that occur in the country, whatever kind of problems, be they economical, social, political, the government collapses. So the country, when it most needs a government, just does not have a government, and they have what we call a caretaker government. That is dangerous for demacracies.

Of course in Europe, since the 1945 war, extreme right parties, extreme left parties did exist and the fact is that communist parties were getting up to 25 or 30% of the seats in some countries.

Extreme right parties are not dangerous. But these periods when you do not have a government are dangerous. They are especially dangerous if you look at it from an emerging democracies point of view.

For example the Dutch can have periods of six months without a government. That is not an example to give to anyone. Belgium is in the same case. Usually, the periods when they only have what we call caretaker governments, that is, they do not have a majority in the assembly, are shorter. Same for Finland: Finns do not have what they call usually caretaking governments, they have technical governments.

If you add together the periods that each of these three countries has been without a government (a normal government in a parliamentary system, that is, with a majority in the assembly), it adds up to somewhere around four years. Now four years from 1945 to nowadays without a government is not a good example to follow.

There is another danger of course in proportional representation. It is that when you have more than just two parties, even three parties, then you should have barriers, like in a majority system, in favor of the leading party, that is, a party which attains, say, 45% of the votes could get 53 or 54% of the seats and form a majority one-party government. Proportional representation usually limits these barriers in favor of the main party, so that you find situations which can be dangerous.

tors on the radio, television and the press or even researchers look at ideology. Ideology has not got the importance that people usually believe it has.

Part IV: More examples: Germany today; Denmark in 1972-73

Morgens Glistrup

ermans have an interesting mixed electoral system. Half of the members of parliament (Bundestag) are elected on a majority system, on plurality, and the other half on a proportional system. All the candidates who are elected in the majority part keep their seats, and in the proportional part only those who are needed so that their party obtains (when all the candidates are added) proportionally the same percentage of seats as the percentage of the votes, are kept.

That means that the result in a way is proportional (approximately), but the fact that they have first-past-the-post in the majority part means that they have almost a two-party system. Now this proportional part, of course, brings with it a certain number of difficulties that we have seen in other European countries, that have only proportional representation.

And this happened first in 1960. The Liberal Party (like in Austria, but which had no Nazi connotations) was the ally in government with either the socialists or the CDU/CSU, which are right parties, normal right parties. This grand coalition had the same effect as it had in Austria, that is the NPD (the neo-Nazi party) began gaining in regional elections. They got more and more percentage, and more seats. And people were very much afraid that NPD would reach the limit in the next federal elections to get into parliament. The NPD just missed that limit and did not win the three majority seats that were needed to enter the parliament. But at that time the Federal Republic of Germany thought of changing systems to adopt just a majority system, and do away with the proportional part.

But since the NPD did not get into the parliament, they just let it go.

But now that Germany got into a similar position, it would be interesting to see what happens to the NPD in the ex-Soviet Germany. And in other regions, where there exists a strong socialist or a strong right party, whether you will see them lose seats to the Greens or other small parties. It will be interesting to see in the next federal election whether the small parties do not gain sufficient seats to change the regular working of the German Republic. That is a danger, and I think that the Germans are aware of this, they are thinking of what could be done, maybe doing away with the proportional part of the election would certainly be a good thing.

Had they not had this compensation making the result proportional, it would have been better. The fact that they have this compensation, which gives an almost proportional result, is the danger.

Denmark in 1972-73

What happened to Nazi Germany happened in Denmark in 1973. It happened in Norway at the same date. Danish political parties have been in place for many, many years. The scene is very stable. And suddenly the Scandinavian countries began reacting against too much taxes, against paying too many taxes. And the government of Denmark decided to put a new tax on detached houses. And one day on television there was an interview of a man called Mogens Glistrup, who pretended that he did not pay any taxes at all. And he became a hero! People wrote in: « who is this man who does not pay taxes? » and all that. And for the election which followed the introduction of new taxes and the fall of the head of the coalition, Glistrup put up his own party. He had had until then absolutely no political engagement, but people wrote in so much that he said « OK, come in ». And just like Hitler in 1930 in Germany, he got 18% of the votes, to everyone’s surprise. No one expected that he would reach that level.

He was imprisoned later, because his way of avoiding taxation was not quite legal, so he did not make it. But his party still exists, and it means another fragmentation of the Danish political parties.