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’s article in Tyee
NOTE: for the Fact Check about “fringe” parties, click here.
Fact Check Summary
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 facilitated it.
Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the election.
Each of these leaders came to power after earning a minority of voter support with first-past-the-post. Many people would consider one or more of these leaders, or some of their policies, “extremist” in some way. First-past-the-post means a single party supported by only a minority of voters can gain 100% of the power.
NOTE: Some people equate “extremist” with “fringe” – a point of view supported by only a tiny fraction of voters. This is a different claim – addressed in the Fact Check here.
Now let’s look at proportional representation.
Do more voters choose far right parties in countries with proportional representation?
People are NOT more likely to vote for far-right parties if they live a country with a proportional system. PR doesn’t make those parties more popular.
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 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?
In general, it easier for voters of smaller parties of any kind (left, right, centre) to gain some representation with proportional representation.
But it very much depends on the type of proportional system.
New Zealand, Scotland, Germany, Ireland…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), 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 (being able to elect MPs in proportion to voter support) is not the same as influence or 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. This means transparency.
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 kept quiet. 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 small far-right parties are included in governing coalitions, but most often they are not. It depends on their policies and how much support those enjoy with the other parties and the public.
In New Zealand, which uses proportional representation, a “populist” party – New Zealand First – was in a stable coalition government with the Labour Party (with a supply confidence agreement with the Green Party – three parties representing a governing 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. This is the common experience of small parties in a coalition – the tail does not wag the dog.
Experience in countries with proportional representation shows that if a small far right party’s policies are too far out of line with mainstream opinion, the other parties will cooperate with each other and govern collaboratively, to ensure the smaller party is excluded from government. This has happened in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.
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
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