An examination of the effects of electoral systems on the growth and influence of radical political parties can be used to predict the possible success of radical parties within certain nations. Four case studies have been used with varying contexts: Britain, France, Israel and Greece. The study found non-weighted proportional representation to benefit smaller parties, and by extension, radical parties. It also concluded that electoral systems are not sufficient or necessary for the rise of radical political parties, but rather that the unique socio-political and economic circumstances of a country have a more profound effect on the rise of radicalism.
Electoral Systems can have a profound effect on the power of political parties in a given nation. As Ball (1993) argued, electoral systems affect the relative strength of parties as well as the quantity of contesting parties (Ball, 1993:98; Rae, 1967:4). Majoritarian systems are designed to benefit the conservative and the status quo (Norris, 1997:298). Majoritarianism requires either plurality or an absolute majority of votes for a given party or candidate to win (Norris, 1997:299). In this regard, it can be presumed that only large parties, with mass based ideology, will gain power under majoritarian systems. Proportional Representation (PR), on the other hand, centres on including minority parties (Norris, 1997:303). Parties gain seats in accordance with the proportion of votes that they received. Different formulas exist to calculate this proportion (Norris, 1997:303), but the essence of PR is the increased presence of smaller parties in politics.
PR does allow for increased influence by smaller parties and, in this regard, has been accused of allowing extremist parties to gain a political foothold (Carter, 2002:125). Majoritarianism is designed to lock out smaller parties in order to create stabler governments (Norris, 1997:301). Norris (1997) argues that majoritarianism is designed to prevent the influence of radical parties (Norris, 1997:305). In contrast, Lakeman and Lambert (1955) argue that PR is a fairer mechanism for representation, as it allows for the inclusion of smaller parties (Lakeman & Lambert, 1959:84). The majoritarian system of First Past-the-Post does not accurately reflect the opinions of the electorate and, rather, focuses on creating exaggerated majorities (Lakeman & Lambert, 1959:47; Norris, 1997:299). Many members of the electorate may very well support radical parties but, due to political culture and the electoral system itself, the government does not reflect their opinions.
Theoretically, as Lakeman and Lambert argue, this exaggeration of majorities in plurality can result in a radical party rising to power (Lakeman & Lambert, 1959:34). Electoral systems do have an affect on voting habits (Ball, 1993:99), however, and the presence of a majoritarian system has resulted in the existence of tactical voting, wherein voters would rather support a centrist party in order to avoid a worse alternative (Carter, 2002:126). It is this presence of tactical voting in majoritarianism which is the main cause of lack of support for radical parties.
Radical parties differ widely in opinion but share the common trait of espousing an extreme political view (De Tarr, 1961:1). This is typically in opposition to the perceived majority (De Tarr, 1961:3). Ultimately, radical parties can be described as political parties with a set ideological goal and an optimistic view of the effects of that ideology on society (De Tarr, 1961:5). In contrast, mass parties do not promote set ideologies and rather focus on achieving popular support through centrist policies.
Through the analysis of the majoritarian systems in Britain and France, in contrast with the proportional representation systems of Greece and Israel, this essay will prove that proportional representation is necessary but not sufficient for increased influence of radical parties on policy.
The recent British general elections are a testament to the effects of majoritarian systems on political culture and results. The election resulted in a Conservative Party victory, despite the general wave of popularity being awarded to radical parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Greens and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Many critics have attributed this to Britain’s First past-the-post system – a system which has been criticised by MacKenzie (1967) as not accurately reflecting the opinions of the majority (MacKenzie, 1967:52).
The Electoral Reform Society calculated the British election results if the electoral system was to utilise the D’Hondt method of proportional representation. The analysis sees a dramatic rise in the seats of all radical parties across the spectrum, with UKIP possibly gaining 83 seats (BBC, 2015). This analysis does not take into account the possible difference in political culture that PR would bring. UKIP’s nationalist campaign managed to gain 3.9 million votes under a majoritarian system. This could have been even larger if tactical voting was not an issue.
The social effects of majoritarianism have resulted in voters resigning themselves from the elections as they do not feel that the results reflect the actual will of the population (Lakeman & Lambert, 1959:47). Records of UK General Elections show that, even with minor fluctuations, voter turnout has steadily decreased (Politics Resources, 2015).
This is not a new issue in Britain. Despite defenders of the British electoral system stating that a “general trend in opinion” is sufficient for a representative government (Lakeman & Lambert, 1959:34), there is adequate evidence to show that the system does not reflect the varied opinions of the electorate (Lakeman & Lambert, 1959:47). The Green Party, despite a long history of sustained support, continues to lose elections due to the requirement of plurality in a geographical constituency (Norris, 1997:301).
As a result of the failure of mass parties to accurately reflect the opinions of the electorate, voters have turned to smaller, often more radical, parties (Franklin, et al., 1992:3-4). British voters have increasingly been voting based on issue-preference rather than party loyalty (Franklin, 1983:5), but the inherent restriction of the first past-the-post system has resulted in the creation of a two-party system (Franklin, 1983:22).
British election results in the last century and, most notably in the present, provide profound evidence of the power of majoritarian systems to keep minority radical parties out of government – and counterfactually, how proportional representation could have given increased power to radical parties.
France’s shifts between PR and majoritarianism had heavy influence on the power of radical parties. During the post-WW2 recovery, France was in need of a stable government. During the 4th Republic (1944-1957), French politics had been dominated by a myriad of radical parties who refused to cooperate (Charlot, 1978:6). In 1958, France’s political system was replaced with a more majoritarian system wherein many radicals had to form more centrist alliances or fall into obscurity (Charlot, 1978:5). The 5th Republic resulted in centrist coalitions dominating elections (Charlot, 1978:9), but the government becoming stabler as a result (Charlot, 1978:8).
Election results during the 5th Republic depict the lack of traction that radicals possessed under majoritarianism. The far left parties gained a minority of votes (Charlot, 1978:21), centrists gained a huge majority (Charlot, 1978:49), and the extreme right received a tiny number of votes (Charlot, 1978:60).
Radical parties knew that they could not gain or maintain power under France’s electoral system. The Socialist Party, after managing to gain a majority beforehand, maintained power in 1987 by changing France into a PR system (Carter, 2002:133; Álvarez-Rivera, 2014).
Under PR, the radical French Front National gained many votes and political support while, under majoritarianism, it shrunk into obscurity (Carter, 2002:125). Recently, this may be changing as the Front National gains increasing popular support and influence on policy, despite not winning any seats (Trivett, 2011). This is as a result of the social and economic influences on political support, rather than the electoral system. Electoral systems have an effect on party support but ideological shifts have a much more profound effect on voter preference (Franklin, et al., 1992:4).
The success of radicals under proportional representation and their losses during majoritarianism is a testament to the importance of electoral systems with regard to radical political influence. It cannot be ignored, however, that social and economic changes can affect ideology and lead to the rise of radicals in spite of the electoral system.
Greece’s historical lack of radical political power can be attributed to its weighted proportionality, while its current radical domination should be ascribed to socio-economic factors. Greece’s system of weighted proportionality made it practically more akin to a majoritarian system than PR. The top party in Greece receives bonus seats in order to establish a strong majority (Norris, 1997:303; Kohler, 1982:103). Until recently, this resulted in centrist party domination with minimal radical influence, similar to a majoritarian system (Kohler, 1982:103-105).
Before the recent financial crises, radical parties throughout Europe received very little vote share (Carter, 2002:136). This was the same in Greece which, despite having a PR system, did not receive much influence from radical parties (Carter, 2002:134).
The Eurozone crisis has seen a dramatic shift in the voting behaviour of citizens – resulting in a rise in radical support. Greece has received the brunt of the Eurozone crisis due to its massive debt and opposition to austerity. As a result of desperate times, radical political movements such as the fascist Golden Dawn and leftist Syriza have gained increased support.
In the most recent Greek elections, Syriza – a party describing itself as a radical leftist party – won 149 seats and entered into a coalition with its ideological opposite, Independent Greeks (Lynch, 2015). This coalition, as a result of a shared policy of anti-austerity, can be seen as tempering both radical parties to act more moderately but the fact remains that the dominant coalition, as well as the majority of parties that performed well, are radical in nature.
Present-day Greece is dominated by radical parties but, under its circumstances, this could have also happened under a majoritarian system (of which some would argue that Greece may be). The real success of radicals in Greece is strong social and economic problems leading to voters becoming desperate for extreme answers. Crisis rather than system led to the rise of radical parties.
Israel provides a unique context due to its historical and military importance, either leading to a fuelling of radicalism or a rise of pragmatic centrist politics. Israel uses the D’Hondt method with a single national ballot (Norris, 1997:303), meaning that the entire nation votes for complete representation over the country.
Israel is a hotbed for radicalism as political movements vie for the independence, inclusion or imprisonment of Palestine. With major conflicts erupting every few years, a heavily religious population and a strong martial culture, Israel seems like the prime home for parties that could be perceived as radical.
The recent perceptions of growing anti-Semitism in Europe, true or not, has led to increased support for more hardline policies by already right-wing parties (Fletcher, 2014). The results for the 2015 Israeli elections are a telling sign that the radical-right dominates the poilitical scene (Beauchamp & Lee, 2015). Likud, who gained 30 seats in the Knesset, could be seen as moderate by Israeli standards, but its refusal to allow Palestinian autonomy and its growing use of “scaremongering” to win votes, firmly places it on the far-right of the radical spectrum (Knesset, 2007; RT, 2015). Jewish Home, another influential right-wing party with ultranationalist leanings, can also be viewed as radical with its refusal to ever consider a two-state solution (Bennet, 2014; The Associated Press, 2013). The Orthodox and religious parties, with their ultra-conservative message, can also be firmly categorised as radical parties.
PR, rather than increasing the power of radicals and decreasing the influence of moderates, may actually be the only reason that there is representation of moderate parties. Under majoritarian plurality, a radical party such as Likud would completely dominate the parliament. Under PR, moderate but small parties representing minority interests have gained seats (Rahat & Hazan, 2005:341).
Almost half of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) can be described as radical, with mostly complementary policies with regard to religious orthodoxy and anti-Palestinianism. Israel’s coalition government, containing a few parties that could be described as moderate, may temper that radicalism, but Israel’s circumstances and current national perception makes that unlikely. Israel’s PR system, in this regard, was able to allow a range of many radical parties into power and then allow them to form a coalition to dominate the moderate parties. Under a first past-the-post system, however, a single radical party may have dominated the government.
As the case studies have revealed, radical parties require two things to have profound influence on policy. They require appropriate circumstances in order to gain supporters and an electoral framework that allows them to enter into politics.
Britain’s circumstances have led to a number of radical parties gaining support but its majoritarian system has prevented these radical parties from making a huge impact on elections or policy-making. France’s shifts between proportional representation and majoritarianism create a timeline wherein it can be seen that radical parties perform better under PR while centrist, mass parties dominate majoritarian systems. Greece, in the past, had been dominated by moderate parties due to its system of weighted proportionality, but the Eurozone Crisis and the hatred of austerity have led to radical parties dominating the government and parliament. Israel’s religious and militaristic circumstances have made it a hotbed for radicalism and its electoral system may be the only reason that moderate parties have a place in government. The PR system of coalitions, however, has allowed the radicals to dominate the Knesset.
Many case studies exist under many very different contexts. These four case studies reveal that majoritarian electoral systems do hold back radical political forces, while proportional representation does allow increased radical influence through a freer political culture, the necessity of coalitions and fairer proportionality. What is clear is that radicalism grows in times of crisis and that a system of PR can create the necessary political culture and electoral framework to allow radical parties increased power in government.
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(This article was originally written as an undergraduate essay for first year Politics at the University of Cape Town)