First Past the Post – Disadvantages
Plurality-majority systems, with First Past the Post (FPTP) being the chief culprit, have been criticized for the reasons outlined below.
Excluding Minority Parties from Fair Representation
Here we take the word “fair” to mean that a party which wins approximately ten percent of the votes should win approximately ten percent of the parliamentary seats. In the 1983 British general election, the Liberal-Social Democratic Party Alliance won twenty-five percent of the votes, but only three percent of the seats. In the 1981 New Zealand election the Social Credit Party won twenty-one percent of the vote, but only two percent of the seats. In the 1989 Botswana general election the Botswana National Front won twenty-seven percent of the votes, but only nine percent of the seats. This pattern is repeated time and time again under FPTP (see UK: Electoral System Experimentation in Cradle of FPTP and New Zealand: A Westminster Democracy Switches to PR).
Excluding Minorities from Fair Representation
As a rule, under FPTP, parties put up the most broadly acceptable candidate in a particular district so as to avoid alienating the majority of electors. Thus it is rare, for example, for a black candidate to be given a major party’s nomination in a majority white district in Britain or the USA. There is strong evidence that ethnic and racial minorities across the world are far less likely to be represented in parliaments elected by FPTP. In consequence, if voting behaviour does dovetail with ethnic divisions, then the exclusion from parliamentary representation of ethnic minority group members can be destabilizing for the political system as a whole (see US: Ethnic Minorities and Single-Member Districts).
Excluding Women from Parliament
The “most broadly acceptable candidate” syndrome also affects the ability of women to be elected to parliamentary office, because they are often less likely to be selected as candidates by male-dominated party structures. Evidence across the world suggests that women are less likely to be elected to parliament under plurality-majority systems than under PR ones. The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s annual study of “Women in Parliament” in 1995 found that on average women made up eleven percent of the parliamentarians in established democracies using FPTP, but the figure almost doubled to twenty percent in those countries using some form of Proportional Representation. This pattern has been mirrored in new democracies, especially in Africa.
Encouraging the Development of Ethnic Parties
In some situations, FPTP can encourage parties to base their campaigns and policy platforms on hostile conceptions of clan, ethnicity, race, or regionalism. In the Malawi multi-party elections of 1994, a history of colonial rule, missionary activity, and Hastings Banda’s “Chewa-ization” of national culture combined to plant the seeds of regional conflict which both dovetailed with, and cut across, pre-conceived ethnic boundaries. The South voted for the United Democratic Front of Bakili Muluzi, the Centre for the Malawi Congress Party of Hastings Banda, and the North for the Alliance for Democracy led by Chakufwa Chihana. There was no incentive for parties to make appeals outside their home region and cultural-political base.
Exaggerating “Regional Fiefdoms”
This is where one party wins all the seats in a province or district. In some situations, FPTP tends to create regions where one party, through winning a majority of votes in the region, wins all, or nearly all, of the parliamentary seats. This both excludes regional minorities from representation and reinforces the perception the politics is a battleground defined by who you are and where you live, rather than what you believe in. This has long been put forward as an argument against FPTP in Canada (see The Canadian Electoral System: A Case Study).
Leaving a Large Number of “Wasted Votes”
Votes which do not go towards the election of any candidate are often referred to as ‘wasted votes.’ Related to “regional fiefdoms” above is the prevalence of wasted votes, when minority party supporters begin to feel that they have no realistic hope of ever electing a candidate of their choice. This can be a particular danger in nascent democracies, where alienation from the political system increases the likelihood that extremists will be able to mobilize anti-system movements.
Being Unresponsive to Changes in Public Opinion
A pattern of geographically-concentrated electoral support in a country means that one party can maintain exclusive executive control in the face of a substantial drop in popular support. In some democracies under FPTP, a fall from sixty percent to forty percent of a party’s popular vote nationally, may represent a fall from eighty percent to sixty percent in the number of seats held, which does not affect its overall dominant position. Unless seats are highly competitive, the system can be insensitive to swings in public opinion.
Open to the Manipulation of Electoral Boundaries
Any system with single-member districts is susceptible to boundary manipulation, such as unfair gerrymandering or malapportionment of district boundaries (see Boundary Delimitation). This was particularly apparent in the Kenyan elections of 1993 when huge disparities between the sizes of electoral districts – the largest had 23 times the number of voters as the smallest – contributed to the ruling Kenyan African National Union party’s winning a large parliamentary majority with only thirty percent of the popular vote.
List PR – Disadvantages
The majority of the criticisms of Proportional Representation (PR) are based around two broad themes:
the tendency of PR systems to give rise to coalition governments with their attendant disadvantages; and the failure of some PR systems to provide a strong geographical linkage between an MP and the MP’s electorate
The most cited arguments against using PR are that it leads to:
1) Coalition governments, which in turn lead to legislative gridlock and the subsequent inability to carry out coherent policies at a time of most pressing need. There are particularly high risks during an immediate post-transition period, when new governments have huge expectations resting upon their shoulders. Quick and coherent decision-making can be impeded by coalition cabinets and governments of national unity which are split by factions.
2) A destabilising fragmentation of the party system. PR reflects and facilitates a fragmentation of the party system. It is possible that such polarized pluralism can allow tiny minority parties to hold larger parties to ransom in coalition negotiations. In this respect, the inclusiveness of PR is cited as a drawback of the system. In Israel, for example, extremist religious parties are often crucial to government formation, while Italy has endured fifty years of unstable shifting coalition governments (see Electoral Reform in Israel).
3) A platform for extremist parties. In a related argument, PR systems are often criticized for giving a parliamentary stage to extremist parties of the left or the right. It has been argued that the collapse of Weimar Germany was in part due to the way in which the PR electoral system gave a toe-hold to extremist groups.
4) Governing coalitions which have insufficient common ground, in terms of either their policies or their supporter base. These “coalitions of convenience” are sometimes contrasted with stronger “coalitions of commitment” produced by other systems (e.g. the Alternative Vote), in which parties tend to be reciprocally dependent on the votes of supporters of other parties for their election.
5) The inability to throw a party out of power. Under a PR system, it may be very difficult to remove a reasonably-sized party from power. When governments are usually coalitions, it is true that some political parties are ever-present in government, despite weak electoral performances from time to time. In the Netherlands, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) remained the leading partner in government for seventeen years despite a declining vote share (see The Netherlands).
6) A weakening of the link between MPs and their constituents. When simple List PR is used, and seats are allocated in one huge national constituency as in Namibia (see Namibia – National List PR in Southern Africa) or Israel (see Electoral Reform in Israel), the system is often criticized for destroying the link between voters and their member of parliament. Voters have no ability to determine the identity of the persons who will represent them, and no identifiable representative for their town, district, or village; nor do they have the ability to easily reject an individual if they feel they has behaved poorly in office. This factor has been particularly criticized in relation to some rural-based developing countries, where voters’ identification with their region of residence is sometimes considerably stronger than their identification with any political party.
Funnily, though India does not have a PR System, we seem to have ended up with many of the disadvantages that can be attributed to it. On one hand we are facing the problems normally associated with FPTP, and yet, we also seem to be facing many of the problems usually associated only with PR!!!
How cool is that!