Claim: “Do you think that Kellie Leitch should have her own party?”Because if you have a party that represents the fringe voices … or the periphery of our perspectives and they hold 10, 15, 20 seats in the House, they end up holding the balance of power.” – Justin Trudeau when confronted with a voter upset about his broken promise on electoral reform

Claim: “Those who want to get rid of the first-past-the-post system will have to explain why we should change to an electoral system that would help far-right politicians — who would have no chance otherwise — gain the legitimacy, prestige and influence of seats in the B.C. Legislature. – BC NO leader  Bill Tieleman’s article in Tyee

Claim: “Extremist groups will win seats” – Leaked BC Liberal memo on anti-PR referendum messaging plan

NOTE: for the Fact Check about “fringe” parties, click here.

Fact Check
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This claim is difficult to evaluate since there is no single definition of “extremist” and each claim is slightly different. 

When many people say “extremist” they really mean “far right”.

Using this definition, some of the policies of Doug Ford and Donald Trump – elected with first-past-the-post – may be viewed as “extremist”.

“Extremists” by this definition exist in all countries, and win seats in all systems. How much power they have can vary with the voting system, which will be explored below.

Others equate “extremist” with “fringe” – a point of view supported by only a tiny fraction of Canadians. This is a different claim – addressed in the Fact Check here.

Do more voters choose far right parties in countries with proportional representation?
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No.

People are NOT more likely to vote for far-right parties if they live a country with a proportional system. Here is what the research shows:

  • A study looking at 33 right wing extremist parties over 23 years found: “While proportional electoral systems do undeniably make it easier for extremist parties to gain legislative representation, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they promote extremism. Instead, the share of the vote going to extremist parties appears unrelated to the type of electoral system employed.” (Carter, 2002)
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  • A study looking at 13 anti-immigrant parties over 10 years found “the effect of proportional representation turns out to be not significant” (Van Der Brugh, 2005)
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  • A study looking at Austria, France, Belgium, Norway, Germany, Italy and Denmark found: We can see that the coefficient for the disproportionality of the electoral system is in fact positive, rather than negative as was anticipated. That is, the odds of voting for the extreme right actually increase as the disproportionality of the electoral system increases.” (Carter and Arzheimer, 2006).

Do small far-right parties in Europe win more seats on average with proportional systems than with “winner-take-all” systems?
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Yes. 

But but it very much depends on the type of proportional system, with the types of systems recommended for Canada making it only slightly easier for those parties to win seats. 

Proportional representation makes it easier for voters for smaller parties in general (left, right, centre or green) to achieve representation, but how much easier depends on the design of the system.

The proportional systems recommended for Canada don’t tend to result in any more parties with seats than Canada has right now (see Fact Check on number of parties with seats and fringe parties).

Research by Pippa Norris (2004), cited by opponents of proportional representation, looked at 39 countries over 14 years. Norris showed that under winner-take-all systems, with 8.6% of votes, far right parties won 3.5% of seats, or a ratio of 0.40. Under combined or ‘mixed’ systems (often recommended for Canada), with 4.4% of the vote far right parties won 2.1% of the seats, or a ratio of .48 (only slightly more seats with mixed PR than with winner-take-all systems). Norris notes that far right parties can do very well in winner-take-all systems, citing Canada’s Reform Party, because Canada’s geography means with first-past-the-post a party can concentrate all their support in one region.

How much power does the far-right have in different electoral systems?

Representation is not the same as influence or power. Many people are more concerned about politicians with far-right views having too much power.

With proportional representation, those with far right views may be more likely to form their own party – where their views and proposals are on full display for voters to assess.

With first-past-the-post, those same individuals exist now within the “big tent” parties. Sometimes they are marginalized in their party, and their “extremist” views are shut down. Sometimes they can wield considerable influence over policy – such as the Conservative’s “barbaric cultural practices hotline”. Sometimes they can even win the leadership of a big tent party.

In countries with proportional representation, sometimes far-right parties are included in governing coalitions, but often they are not. It depends on their policies and how much support those enjoy with the other parties and the public.

When Trudeau stated that a party with 10-20 seats could hold the balance of power, he might remember that the NDP under Tommy Douglas held somewhere between 17-22 seats from 1962-1968. They were instrumental in creating medicare.

In terms of the “far right”, experience in countries with proportional representation shows that if a small party’s policies are too far out of line with mainstream opinion, the other parties will cooperate to ensure the smaller party has no influence at all over policy.

In other words, thanks to the cooperation between parties in countries with PR, their small far-right parties can only wish they could force a wall to be built. 

Examples of the fortunes of far-right parties – including countries often brought up by opponents

  1. In Austria, which uses proportional representation, a far-right party with 26% of the vote (definitely not a fringe party) is in a majority coalition government with a centre-right party (which got 31.5% of the vote). With this level of public support for their shared policies – a real majority – it is hard to argue that these parties would not also have done very well, or even better, in winner-take-all system.
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  2. In Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, which use proportional representation, the major parties in the legislature (representing over 80% of the voters) have chosen to cooperate with each other to deliberately prevent their small far-right parties from being in government or having any power over policy.While the media in Europe love to focus on the drama of a small party running on controversial issues (like immigration), the reality is those parties do not “hold the balance of power” as Trudeau suggests. They are completely shut out of government after the election.
    aa
  3. In New Zealand, which uses proportional representation, a “populist” party – New Zealand First – is in a stable coalition government with the Labour Party (with a supply confidence agreement with the Green Party – three parties representing a majority). New Zealand First was also in a coalition government with the Labour Party in 2005.New Zealand First leader Winston Peters unquestionably has a strong anti-immigration position.However, his other policies are more difficult to fit into a “right wing” box, including centrist and left wing economic policies such as opposing privatization of state services, enhanced benefits for senior citizens, nationalizing banks, writing off student loans, and increasing minimum wage to $20 an hour.Thus, characterizations of New Zealand First as a “far right” party are not correct. As the smaller party in the agreement, New Zealand First was not able to see many of its policies enacted.
    aa
  4. In the United States, with first-past-the-post, Donald Trump was elected President, despite winning less of the popular vote than Hilary Clinton.
    aa
  5. In Ontario, with first-past-the-post, Doug Ford received 40% the popular vote but 100% of the power. While it may not be accurate to compare Doug Ford’s policies to those of an anti-immigration party in Sweden, for example, some of his policies related to sex education, immigration and cutting funding for student unions he says are “Marxist” have been described as “extremist”, and he has been compared to Donald Trumpaa

Conclusion

Politicians with far-right views are elected regardless of electoral system. First-past-the-post does not protect us from them. 

With first-past-the-post, they more often work within a big tent party, including the governing party.

With proportional representation – particular the List PR systems in Europe that are not on the table for Canada – they may form their own small party. This has the effect of making their views more transparent to voters. When their views are too extreme, the parties commanding the support of the vast majority of voters refuse to include them in coalitions. Even if they were included in coalitions, the government has no need to agree to their extreme policies.

The countries with proportional systems recommended for Canada, such as Mixed Member Proportional and Single Transferable Vote, are not producing legislatures with any more parties than Canada has right now.
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References

Arzheimer and Carter (2006). Political opportunity structures and right wing extremist party success. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1475-6765.2006.00304.x

Carter, E. (2002) Proportional Representation and the Fortunes of Right-Wing Extremist Parties. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/713601617

Norris, Pippa. Does PR promote extremism redux? https://www.academia.edu/2748982/Does_PR_promote_political_extremism_redux

Van Der Brugh (2005). Why some anti-immigration parties fail and others succeed. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0010414004273928

 

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