What about “extremists”?
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
NOTE: for the Fact Check about “fringe” parties, click here.
Fact Check Summary: proportional representation and the power of “extremists”
Although everyone’s definition of “extremist” may be somewhat different, when many people say “extremist” they really mean the far-right.
The fact is, those with extreme views, and parties that represent them, exist in all countries, and can win seats in all systems.
How many seats and how much power they have varies with how the voting system translates votes into seats.
Consider whether first past the post has prevented “extremists” from gaining power – or whether first past the post can make it easier.
First past the post and all winner-take-all voting systems mean a single party supported by only a minority of voters can form “majority” government with 100% of the power.
Now let’s look at proportional representation.
Do more voters vote for far-right parties in countries with proportional representation?
Research shows that voters are no more likely to vote for far-right parties if they live a country with a proportional system. PR does not make voters more likely to flock to the extremes.
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)
- 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)
- 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 increases as the disproportionality of the electoral system increases.” (Carter and Arzheimer, 2006).
Do small far-right parties have more seats in countries with proportional systems than in countries with winner-take-all systems?
In general, it easier for voters of smaller parties of any kind (left, right, or centre) to gain fair representation with proportional representation.
But how many parties with seats each country has is influenced by the type of proportional system.
New Zealand, Scotland, Germany and Ireland for example – countries using proportional systems similar to those recommended for Canada – don’t have any more parties with seats than Canada has. (IMPORTANT: see Fact Check on number of parties with seats and fringe parties).
Research by Pippa Norris (2004) that looked at 39 countries over 14 years showed that with mixed systems (often recommended for Canada), with 4.4% of the vote far-right parties won 2.1% of the seats. This was only slightly more seats with mixed PR than with winner-take-all systems.
Norris notes that far-right parties can do very well with first past the post, citing Canada’s Reform Party as an example of how a party can win a large number of seats when their support is concentrated in one region.
How much power does the far-right have in different electoral systems?
This is one of the most important questions. Representation in a legislature is not the same as influence or power.
Winner-take-all voting systems
With first past the post, politicians with far-right views exist now within the “big tent” parties.
Sometimes they are marginalized in their party, and their “extremist” views have little influence.
Sometimes those with far-right views can wield considerable influence over policy in a big tent party – such as the Conservative’s attempt to bring in a “barbaric cultural practices hotline”.
Sometimes they can even win the leadership of a big tent party, and go on to lead a “majority” government.
Political scientists refer to this as “internal capture” of a big party. This can have significant influence on policy. Read about the impact of the far-right on climate policy in different electoral systems.
Proportional representation voting systems
With proportional representation, those with far-right views are more likely to form their own party.
In a their own party, their views and proposals are on full display for voters to assess. This means transparency for voters.
In countries with proportional representation, sometimes far-right parties are included in governing coalitions, but often they are not.
Experience in countries with proportional representation shows that if a far-right party’s policies are too far out of line with mainstream opinion, the other parties will cooperate with each other to ensure the far-right party is excluded from power. This has happened in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.
Whether a far-right party is ever part of a coalition government depends on how much support their policies have, how much they have in common with other parties, whether other parties are interested in working with them, and whether the small party is even interested in working with others.
Often in countries with proportional representation, far-right populist parties (the ones often called “extreme”) will moderate their policies. As renowned comparative political scientist Pippa Norris, commenting on the impact of far-right politicians on democracy, noted in 2023:
“Are all the parties accepting this pushing back on liberal democratic values? No they’re not. Some of them have actually moderated their views. Parties get into coalition, and that’s an important difference I think between majoritarian systems like the United States and the United Kingdom and coalition governments, which are much more common in Europe with proportional representation.
In a winner-take-all system, if you’re going to be transgressive in your leadership style then it’s also the case that Presidents will try to go for executive aggrandizement, pushing back on liberal democracies, on liberal norms, basically.
In coalition governments, what we often find is that where populist parties get into power, they often tend to moderate their language and they moderate their policies and they often don’t push back so much on liberal democracy because that’s how they can actually get a coalition together with their centre-right parties and then they make gains on certain issues, like immigration policies and restrictions.”
In New Zealand, which uses proportional representation, a “populist” party – New Zealand First – was in a stable coalition government with the Labour Party for a full term (2017-2020). 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.
As the smaller party in the coalition, New Zealand First was not able to see many of its policies enacted. This is the common experience of small parties in a coalition – the tail does not wag the dog.
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/
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