Opinion

How Proportional Representation Empowers the Far-Right

Rise of extremism is helped by electoral systems that give fringe parties seats.

By Bill Tieleman 10 Nov 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman led No BC STV in two referenda that rejected the Single Transferable Vote in 2005 and 2009. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who also writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours Vancouver newspaper. Contact him at weststar@telus.net, @BillTieleman on Twitter or visit his blog.

“Radical right parties benefit from PR [proportional representation] in terms of their share of seats, which is what matters, after all, for the power, legitimacy, status, and resources that flow from elected office.” — Professor Pippa Norris, Harvard University

The far-right is rising in Europe, riding a wave of anti-immigrant Islamophobia, intolerance and disturbing — sometimes outright neo-Nazi — sentiments.

And many European countries’ proportional representation electoral systems are making it much easier for far-right politicians to win seats in parliaments, giving them legitimacy and the ability to amplify their hateful views to a much wider audience.

Supporters of proportional representation in British Columbia, where a referendum that could change electoral systems will take place in the fall of 2018, vociferously disagree, but experts and evidence show disturbing trends that cannot be ignored.

As a longtime opponent of proportional representation — I led No BC STV, the group that defeated the single transferable vote electoral system in referenda in 2005 and 2009 — I know proponents of proportional representation hate to discuss how those electoral systems opens the door to parliaments for extremists.

But with recent outbreaks of far-right actions here in B.C. — including white supremacist flyers at the University of Victoria as well as racist “white pride” posters seen this week in Burnaby and a Chilliwack school trustee attacking the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students — there should be no doubt that this province has a substantial number of potential far-right voters.

And adopting a proportional representation electoral system would potentially open the doors of the legislature to far-right politicians and their abhorrent views.

Under proportional representation, representatives can be elected in some countries like The Netherlands with less than one per cent of the popular vote, although a five-per-cent threshold is more common.

But under the current first-past-the-post — or majoritarian — electoral system, politicians are only elected in geographic ridings based on who captures the most votes, marginalizing both far-right and far-left parties and leaving them unable to win seats.

As Harvard’s Pippa Norris writes: “Majoritarian electoral systems work exactly as proponents claim by excluding extreme parties from parliament… And, as expected, radical right parties gain their greatest parliamentary rewards under PR elections.”

“Despite having roughly the same share of the vote, radical right parties were more than twice as successful in gaining seats under PR as under majoritarian elections,” Norris found in researching seats won by radical right wing parties in 39 nations.

There are many factors in the rise of far-right parties — economic, social, cultural and more — but it’s clear that proportional representation has allowed politicians with views that are far different from those of the majority easier access to parliaments and the ability to further propagate their disturbing views from positions of influence and respect.

The results of proportional representation systems boosting the far-right can be seen in several recent European elections.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has the third largest number of seats after October elections. It was once led by a former Nazi functionary and SS officer and leader Heinz-Christian Strache was arrested as a young man for participating in a banned neo-Nazi movement modelled on Hitler Youth.

The Freedom Party is anti-Islam, anti-migrant and proposed $14 billion in tax cuts funded by reductions in social programs — especially for foreigners.

And the Austrian People’s Party, which captured the most seats, is also very right wing and may include the Freedom Party in a governing coalition.

The People’s Party, led by 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, has argued that migrants rescued from boats in the Mediterranean should be returned to Africa and that Muslim kindergartens should be banned. As foreign minister, Kurz introduced a burqa ban and a law prohibiting foreign funding of mosques in Austria.

The Freedom Party won 51 seats in the Austrian National Council, just one behind the Social Democratic Party at 50 and only 11 seats back of Kurz’s People’s Party at 62 in the 183-seat parliament.

Austria uses an open list proportional representation system with nine multi-member constituencies.

The far-right rise isn’t confined to Austria. In Germany’s Sept. 24 election, the far-right, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged to win 13 per cent of the vote and 94 seats in that country’s proportional representation electoral system. Germany has a mixed member proportional system, where parties contest geographical ridings but additional seats are added from party lists to match the national popular vote each party achieves.

The AfD condemns German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose Christian Democratic Union has led Europe in assisting refugees fleeing war in Syria.

“We are being heterogenized and diluted” and “the German people... are meant to silently accept this change and ultimately the loss of our homeland,” Hilse said in a campaign speech.

And while Merkel is unlikely to include the AfD in a coalition government — which has still not been formed — it has already influenced the country’s immigration policies.

The AfD’s strong showing will “change the discourse, change the narrative and pull other parties to the right,” says London School of Economics professor Henning Meyer.

And proportional representation has given the AfD far more seats than it could possibly win under first-past-the-post.

In fact, only three of the 94 AfD members elected won geographical ridings, with the other 91 seats coming from party lists to reflect its share of the vote.

In the Netherlands, the far-right Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders gained five seats to become the second largest party in March elections, but did not make the anticipated breakthrough early polls had indicated.

Wilders is an extremist who launched his campaign by denouncing “Moroccan scum who make the streets unsafe” and was been convicted of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans in 2016.

The Party for Freedom’s election manifesto is full of racist promises.

“Millions of Dutch citizens have simply had enough of the Islamization of our country. Enough of mass immigration and asylum, terror, violence and insecurity,” the manifesto begins. “Here is our plan: instead of financing the entire world and people we don’t want here, we’ll spend the money on ordinary Dutch citizens.”

Manifesto goals include closing all mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Qur’an and Islamic headscarves in public functions and ‘de-Islamizing’ the Netherlands. It would bar asylum seekers or immigrants from Islamic countries and withdraw asylum residence permits already granted.

The far-right has also gained prominence in other European countries with proportional representation, including Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, Poland, Greece and Bulgaria.

But not the United Kingdom under first-past-the-post.

Despite a significant rise in support to 12.6 per cent for the far-right UK Independence Party [UKIP] in the 2015 elections, giving it the the third largest party total, it won only one seat of 650 in parliament. Then-leader Nigel Farage failed to win his own seat. And the party was devastated in the 2017 election, garnering just 1.8 per cent of the vote and no seats.

Proportional representation would have given UKIP 82 seats in 2015 and potentially a substantial role in government.

Far away from Europe, but still under a mixed member proportional representation electoral system, is New Zealand. That country — also with a far-right party — illustrates how proportional representation allows minor fringe parties with no ability to win geographic ridings to win a significant number of seats and hold the balance of power and decide which party forms government and with what policy concessions.

After New Zealand’s September election, the Labour Party under new leader Jacinda Ardern formed a government with the support of the Green Party and its eight-seat caucus. But it also required the support of the far-right New Zealand First Party and its nine seats to gain a majority in a coalition.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has made racist comments against immigrants and people of Asian descent, attacked the media with the fervour of Donald Trump and considered backing the right-wing National Party instead of Labour to form a government.

But Peters is now the deputy prime minister and foreign minister and the price of his support has already been made clear: the new Labour government has promised to slash immigration by tens of thousands, banned foreign ownership of property and intends to force those on social assistance to work for their benefits.

The Guardian newspaper summed up the bizarre nature of the situation when New Zealand First leader Peters told media that his party’s board of directors — all unelected and unnamed — would decide which major party would govern the country:

“Nearly three weeks after New Zealand’s general election, the country is waiting for an anonymous, unelected board of individuals belonging to a minor party to make a decision on who forms the next government,” reporter Eleanor Ainge Roy wrote.

What’s also astonishing is that New Zealand First has not in five consecutive elections since 2005 been able to win even a single geographic riding or “electorate” seat in parliament.

Of course, neither could the Green Party win any geographic ridings in those three elections — or in any election since 1999, when they won their single geographic seat to date.

There will be much debate on proportional representation leading up to B.C.’s mail-in ballot referendum in the fall of 2018.

And like it or not, 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.

[Editor’s Note: Tieleman’s weekly column ends

The Tyee has run Bill Tieleman’s column weekly every Tuesday since April 2009, as well as his extensive coverage of the Basi-Virk/BC Rail case from 2004 to 2010 and other feature articles.

That column has been a longer, mostly much longer, version of columns written for 24 Hours Vancouver, the free daily newspaper published by Postmedia. Recently Postmedia requested that Tieleman write that column exclusively for 24 Hours Vancouver, ending an agreement that allowed The Tyee to publish the longer columns.

Tieleman — who was on the original The Tyee advisory committee when the publication was created — will continue to write for The Tyee regularly.]  [Tyee]

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