Two recent elections in proportional representation electoral systems illustrate a major difference between those and single-member plurality or majority systems.
New Zealand spent a month without knowing who would form the government. Candidates of the National Party won 41 of the 71 electorate seats and Labour won 29. New Zealand First won none. However, compensatory seats are awarded to parties who don’t do well in getting their candidates elected in constituencies, so the final seat count was National 56, Labour 46, NZ First 9, Green 8, ACT 1. A month after the election, it was the leader of the anti-immigration NZ First party, who had just lost his own electorate seat and 25% of his party’s total seats, that decided that the Labour leader should be Prime Minister instead of the National leader.
In Germany, nearly two months after the election, no decision has yet been made on who will form the government. Angela Merkel’s CDU party won 185 of the 299 electorate seats, their nearest rival 59 seats, but again compensatory seats went to 5 other parties, making it impossible to form a government of less than 3 or 4 parties.
In FPTP, and even more so with preferential or two-round voting, when there is a difficult choice to be made like who should form the government, it is voters who make the required compromises. Either through strategic voting in FPTP or explicit second or third choices in preferential and two-round, voters use their second choices to ensure that the government is among their top choices even if it’s not their first, and mostly to keep someone out of government.
In proportional systems, it is not voters who make the decision of who governs, but certain party leaders. Based on mathematical flukes that were not the conscious decision of the electorate, the decision will be made by the leader of one or more small parties. The amount of support that these parties require to be empowered to make that decision is quite small. Taking away that power from a small party is difficult. Even if nearly 95% of the population agrees that this party leader should not be the one making that decision, that is typically not enough to take away their king-making power.
The theory of those systems is that political leaders are better than voters at the pragmatic negotiations to make that decision. From the point of view of those who have a great deal of confidence in their first choice party, that makes some sense. But in practical terms, voters routinely make those pragmatic decisions to support someone else for the greater good. When was the last time you saw a politician do that, compromise for the greater good? Do leaders of small parties make the same compromises and decisions that voters would have? Evidence shows that they don’t. When asked who they most approved of, the government or the opposition, voters in FPTP and preferential systems chose the government and those in proportional systems chose the opposition. On average, proportional systems put the “wrong” side into government, and those governments are more likely to include a party that the majority disapproves of.
It is the opinion of 123 Canada that it is voters, not leaders of small parties, who should decide who is the government. Allowing voters to express their second choices is an excellent way to do this. Rather than giving power to leaders of small parties, it gives power to their supporters, the individual voters, by asking them, not the politicians, “if not your first choice then who?”