What about “fringe parties”?

Claim: “But proportional representation systems allow parties with extreme positions of the right or the left to be elected with a tiny percentage of votes – and then use that validity, legitimacy and platform to further their cause”.

Stated by: Bill Tieleman in No to PR press release and BC Liberal website

NOTE: For the claims about “extremist” parties, see here.

Fact Check Summary

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The claim that parties with a “tiny” percentage of the vote will be elected is mostly false in the context of the proportional systems recommended for Canada.

Proportional systems usually have a threshold of support a party must meet to win seats. 4-5% is common.

For example, in the recent BC referendum the Attorney General’s report guaranteed a 5% threshold that a party must reach before being able to elect MLAs to proportional seats. 5% is a the threshold used in Germany and New Zealand. Those countries have no more parties elected than Canada. 

In addition, the way proportional systems for Canada would likely be designed – on a regional basis, or with small multi-member districts, means there will be a limited number of seats to fill in each region/district. The threshold to win a seat in many regions/districts would be higher than 5% by the design of the system. If a region elects 8 members, a party may need about 12% of the vote to be guaranteed a seat.

In Canada’s last few federal elections, all 15-20 “fringe” parties put together didn’t get 1% of the vote.

(For an evaluation of that same claim for “extremist” parties who may not be “fringe” parties see here – the evidence does not strongly support that claim either).

How Many Parties Can We Expect with PR models for Canada?
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As you can see in the image above, places which use proportional systems similar to what has been recommended for Canada do not have a significantly more parties with seats than Canada does. (Note: In 2011 and 2015, Canada had 7 parties with seats. We haven’t had a two party system since 1921).

Proportional Representation in general is associated with an increase in the number of parties represented in legislatures. PR undeniably makes it easier for voters for smaller parties to achieve representation.

Lijphart’s (1994) comparison of advanced industrialized democracies in 1945-90 found the “effective number of parliamentary parties” (ENPP) –  which takes account not only of the number of parties but also the relative size of each – was 2.0 in plurality systems (first-past-the-post), 2.8 in majority systems (like Alternative Vote/Run-Off) and 3.6 in proportional systems.

Norris (1997) looking at elections in the 1990’s found that the effective number of parliamentary parties was 3.1 in majoritarian systems (first-past-the-post and Alternative Vote), 3.9 in mixed or semi-proportional systems, and 4.0 in proportional systems.

However, the number of parties depends on the political culture, the particular election, and the design of the system.

No-one has proposed a pure “List PR” system for Canada with a low threshold – the type of proportional system that would be most likely to facilitate many more parties. Israel – often brought up by opponents – is a red herring. 

Do any of the proportional systems Fair Vote Canada endorses make it even possible for a party with less than 5% support in a province win a single seat?

Yes.

Since Single Transferable Vote (STV) elects all local MPs in multi-member districts – there are no list seats – there is no party-based threshold to apply. It is a candidate-based system. The most popular individual candidates are elected. 

In a 5 seat local district, a popular local candidate would be guaranteed one of the local seats with about 17% of the vote. Obviously, this is a strong level of local voter support and would not be considered “fringe” by voters in that district!

In Ireland, which uses STV, representatives from a few small parties (such as “People Before Profit”) have a seat in their legislature because their popular local representative was elected by voters in a particular district, even though nationally, support for that party is in the range of 2-3%. Similarly, Ireland also elects many independent representatives.

Ireland’s elections are more locally-focused than most countries with proportional representation.

Tasmania and Malta, which also use STV, have no representatives from small parties or independents and only two or three parties win seats! This reinforces the large role that voter preferences – a countries’ political culture – plays in how many parties win seats.

Would “fringe party” MPs be able to use their few seats to “further their cause”? (How much power would they have?)

This would assume that an MP from a “fringe party” would be elected – as stated above, with the thresholds involved, it’s somewhere between not easy and impossible 

This claim is difficult to evaluate objectively. But let’s take a practical example from a country where there is no threshold – the Netherlands. The Netherlands is an exceptional case of PR because they have no threshold. So very small parties do win seats, and they have more parties than most countries with PR.

The 50PLUS party in the Netherlands got 1.9% of the vote and 2 seats. Has this allowed them to “further their cause” of benefits for people age 50+? They have a voice, but they’re not exactly holding the balance of power or driving the national agenda! (See more of the “tail wags the dog” myth in the Fact Check on “extremists“).

Remember the two MPs from the Strength in Democracy Party in Canada’s 2011-2015 Parliament? No? Most readers may not even remember they existed – which speaks to how much power a party that size usually has, especially if their goals do not align well with the public or the priorities of the other parties.

References

Lijphart, Arend. (1994) Electoral Systems and Party Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norris, Pippa (1997). Choosing Electoral Systems – Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed. https://sites.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/Choosing%20Electoral%20Systems.pdf

Claims about “fringe parties

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