Majoritarian vs. proportional systems

In Slovenia, the system of electing deputies to the National Assembly has been the subject of fierce debate and opposing views since the country’s independence in 1991; the original sin, however, was the referendum in December 1996 on the electoral system for the National Assembly (with a 37.9% turnout) that led to the deterioration of the debate and a left-right split on the issue. The referendum asked citizens to choose between three proposed electoral systems. The first proposal was the original one and the trigger for the other two. It was put forward by the largest opposition party, the right-wing Social Democratic Party, and backed by 43,710 voter signatures. The well-argued proposal advocated a majoritarian electoral system. The second proposal, for a proportional system, was submitted by the ruling centre-left coalition, while the third, filed by the National Council, the upper house of the Slovene Parliament, envisioned a combination of the two systems. The view at the time was that the outcome of the referendum failed to produce a clear winner, as none of the three proposals won over 50% of the votes cast in the referendum; however, a clear plurality (44.5%) voted for the majoritarian system. The outcome of the referendum was contentious largely because of the high proportion of spoilt voting papers (9.7%) and votes against all three proposals (4.1%). Counting only the votes cast in favour of one of the three proposed systems, the majoritarian proposal would have got 51.7% of the votes. After a surprising two years, the Constitutional Court ruled that the majoritarian electoral system proposal had won, which meant that the National Assembly had to enact legislation accordingly; this, however, never happened, as the National Assembly turned the proportional system into law by amending the Slovene Constitution before the 2000 election.

What, then, are the key strengths of the two systems? The majoritarian electoral system is doubtlessly easier for the average voter to understand.

Under this system, voters can usually choose between candidates, i. e. specific individuals (whose full names are on the ballot), knowing precisely who they are casting their votes for. The majoritarian voting system introduces greater stability into the entire political system as one single political party usually commands an absolute majority in the parliament, rendering the need to seek out coalition partners obsolete. This ensures stable government or political stability. Furthermore, deputies represent their constituencies, ensuring greater accountability to voters.

The great shortcoming of the majoritarian electoral system is that it does not reflect the power relations between the parties as it favours the party that wins the majority of votes in a constituency, with little to no representation for other (minority) votes.

Conversely, that is the chief advantage of the proportional electoral system, which apportions seats in accordance with each party’s performance at the election, ensuring that political minorities are also represented. According to many experts, this advantage makes the representative body more responsive and inclusive of a wider spectrum of interests and citizen needs. On the other hand, the proportional electoral system has a number of weaknesses. Some of the key issues include: the complicated conversion of votes into seats; unstable coalition governments that weaken the position of the parliament and the entire political system; the fragmentation of responsibility among several deputies elected in a constituency (with each of them carrying only a fraction of responsibility to the voters); for voters, its greatest shortcoming is the inability to vote for individual candidates (the voter can only vote for a group of candidates or a political party); furthermore, this system facilitates the formation and survival of extremist parties (both right and left).

To the voter, the majoritarian electoral system seems the less complicated, more transparent and easier to understand; a system that allows a government to be formed quickly and smoothly without the need to build coalitions, which are often composed of parties on different sides of the political spectrum and as such tend to be unstable. If a majoritarian electoral system were to be applied to the Slovene political landscape, it would no doubt heavily reduce the number of parties holding seats in the parliament, with two strong parties or blocs coming out on top that would form all subsequent – more stable and likely more efficient – governments. On the other hand, voters supporting a third party would be greatly under-represented as it would be unlikely, if not outright impossible, for other political parties to enter parliament. Another issue with the introduction of the majoritarian political system, I believe, has to do with the supervisory role afforded to parliament along with legislative and electoral powers, in particular in terms of exercising oversight of the government; it is difficult to imagine that the parliamentary majority would be particularly engaged in fulfilling this role when it commanded an absolute majority. Another issue could be the relationship of the parliamentary majority and “its” government with the country’s President, who might belong to a different party and might find it significantly more difficult to exercise some of the office’s executive powers (such as the nomination of Constitutional Court Justices), etc.

How realistic is the notion of changing the electoral system? In my opinion, and one that is shared by most other experts, the chances are poor, as to do so Article 80 of the Slovene Constitution would need to be amended. Amending the Constitution, however, is a lengthy process that requires an absolute two-thirds majority to pass. It seems clear that the implementation of a majoritarian electoral system would be advantageous for the Slovene political system in a number of ways (as well as detrimental in others); however, in my opinion the proposal is not (yet) formulated well enough to be enacted immediately, nor have its (political) implications been sufficiently thought through.

 

Author: Miro Haček, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana.

 

Translated by: Urša Klinc.

 

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