Claim: “Proportional representation creates perpetual minority governments and it creates instability.”

Stated by: Bill Tieleman, spokesperson for the official NO campaign, Globe and Mail, July 1, 2018.

NOTE: The claim of instability is often made in connection with the economy. For a Fact Check on proportional representation and economy, see here.

Fact Check

This claim is mostly false. Elections are no more frequent with proportional systems, although changes in which parties form the government may be. Stability of policy may be improved with proportional representation.

What do people mean by “stability”?

“Stability” can refer to:

  1. Frequency of elections.
  2. Changes in the parties that form the government (which does not necessarily coincide with an election)
  3. Stability measured by the Fragile States Index (12 measures)
  4. Policy stability – the degree to which policy changes when governments change

See more on each of these areas below.

Which electoral system is associated with more frequent elections?
a
Research shows little difference between OECD countries using proportional or “winner-take-all” systems. Looking at elections from 1945 to 1998, Pilon (2007: 146-154) calculates that countries using FPTP averaged 16.7 elections, while countries using proportional systems averaged only 16.0 elections. There is no significant difference between the two.
a

Can governments change between elections?

Yes.

Most OECD countries with proportional systems are governed not by minority governments, but by majority coalitions of two or more parties representing over 50% of voters, with different parties holding Ministerial positions.

Sometimes between elections, there is a change in the parties that are part of the governing coalition. For example, a smaller party may leave the coalition. When this happens, it does not necessarily require another election. This is closer to what we would call a “cabinet shuffle” in a single-party government.

Data shows a somewhat shorter average government life-span in PR countries (1.8 years as opposed to 2.5 years in first-past-the-post countries). However, Pilon (2007) notes that this difference is largely due to the inclusion of Italy in the sample. Italy is an outlier that had multiple changes of government between 1948 and 1994.

Lijphart (2012), in his book looking at looking at 36 countries over 55 years, also found the average cabinet duration is shorter in countries with proportional systems. He observes:

It is actually easier to change a government in consensus democracies than in majoritarian democracies, as shown by the shorter duration of cabinets. Changes in consensus democracies tend to be partial changes in the composition of cabinets, in contrast with the more frequent complete turnovers in majoritarian democracies.
a

Which types of systems are more unstable using the Fragile States Index?

Every year, the Fragile States Index ranks countries for fragility. The index looks at 12 measures of stability. The index indicates that nine of the top ten most stable countries in the world use proportional representation. The more disproportional the electoral system is, the higher the instability.
a

Which types of electoral systems are associated with greater stability of policy?

According to Lijphart, policy lurch is “a serious problem from which majoritarian systems suffer“, first identified by S.E. Finer, as the main thesis of his 1975 book. Policy lurch refers to abrupt changes in policy when one majoritarian government is replaced with another. (For example, when a left wing government is replaced by a right wing government).

According to Lijphart, “Policies supported by a broad consensus of people are more likely to be carried out successfully and to remain on course than policies imposed by a “decisive” government against the wishes of an important sector of society.”

Lijphart cites Knutsen’s (2011) conclusion that higher rates of economic growth found in countries with proportional systems could be attributed to the focus on nation-wide economic growth over a focus on resources for individual districts in majoritarian systems.

Similarly, Nooruddin’s study of economic volatility and electoral systems found that coalition governments produced less economic volatility due to more stable economic policy. He notes:

When a single party controls all the levers of the legislative process, it is better able to enact policies closer to its ideal point. The resulting policy might in fact be the preferred outcome for economic agents too (for instance, if the government in question favors a business-friendly policy regime), but the government can not guarantee that future governments will not reverse course should the opposition win. In this case, even if economic agents respond by investing in the country, they will remain wary of future policy change, and therefore forgo more irreversible investments .

Using crossnational time-series data from over 100 developing countries, that even after controlling for plausible alternative political factors and for theoretically-relevant economic factors, coalition governments in parliamentary democracies have higher growth rates than other forms of government, and such governments experience lower growth-rate volatility.

Nooruddin also found that business judged countries run by coalitions to be more stable:
a
In a World Bank survey of firms across the world, I find that firms located in countries governed by parliamentary coalitions are less likely to perceive policy uncertainty to be a major obstacle to their businesses, and more likely to consider opening a new establishment in the near future. Similarly, such countries generate higher rates of private saving and induce lower levels of capital flight.

 

Fund For Peace (2018). Fragile States Index, Global Data. http://fundforpeace.org/fsi/data/

Pilon, Dennis (2007). The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System. Edmund Publishing.

Knutsen, Carl (2011). “Which Democracies Prosper? Electoral Rules, Forms of Government, and Economic Growth.” Electoral Studies 30: 83-90.

Lijphart, Arend (2012). Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in 36 Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale Press.

Nooruddin, Irfun (2011). Coalition Politics and Economic Development. Credibility and the Strength of Weak Governments. Cambridge University Press.

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