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Don’t Count on Institutions to Save Us

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Faced with an uphill struggle for re-election in 2006, Silvio Berlusconi, the long-time Italian leader whose flamboyance was only outdone by his ruthlessness, resorted to one of his dirty tricks. To assure himself of a majority, he pushed through a controversial reform of the electoral law a few months before Italians headed to the polls.

In future, the electoral coalition with the largest number of votes was to get a huge bonus in the lower house. Meanwhile, in the upper house, there would be six additional senators, to be elected by Italian citizens living abroad. The opposition was furious. “In what democratic country,” Piero Fassino, one of Berlusconi’s main opponents as the leader of the Democrats of the Left asked, “does the ruling majority redesign the electoral law on the eve of voting?”

But, as it happens, it was Fassino who drew the most benefit from Berlusconi’s heavy-handed reform. Unexpectedly, his party eked out a narrow lead in the popular vote; thanks to the recent reform, this translated into a comfortable majority in the Camera dei Deputati. It also won four out of the six Senate seats elected by overseas Italians; this gave the center-left just enough seats in the Senato to cobble together a ruling coalition.

Berlusconi’s law, pushed through with the blatant purpose of saving the incumbent, served to oust him from power instead. The bitter lesson which Berlusconi had to learn in 2006 applies elsewhere as well: the effects of institutions on electoral outcomes is surprisingly hard to predict. It is a lesson that embattled European politicians who trust that the resilience of their institutions will save them from the rise of far-right populists—like French President François Hollande, whose party lost a huge percentage of the vote to Marine Le Pen’s Front National in recent local elections—should heed closely.

Political scientists sometimes like to say that democracies are truly stable, or “consolidated,” where they have become “the only game in town”—meaning, among other things, that mainstream political actors abstain from fiddling with the rules. But the reality of democracies is a little messier than that.

In fact, like Berlusconi, even politicians in the most consolidated of democracies regularly engage in institutional gamesmanship. In the United States, they gerrymander, disenfranchise felons, change rules about campaign finance, or pass voter ID laws. In other countries, from Brazil to Sweden, they lower the voting age, or allow non-citizens to vote, or increase the number of votes a party has to obtain in order to enter parliament, or introduce the postal ballot, or abolish the postal ballot again.

In all of these cases, at least part of the point of institutional reform is to skew the playing field in favor of the government. And yet, the outcome often turns out to be a massive own goal, setting the opposition up for an easy victory.

It’s been nearly a decade since Berlusconi’s follies and the efforts in the U.S. to finagle voting outcomes is nothing new. So why is all of this on my mind now?

It’s because, in light of recent events, a key assumption that observers of European politics have long held—that systems of proportional representation are much more susceptible to the rise of right-wing populists than majoritarian systems—is quickly turning out to be dangerously wrong.

To get elected in a majoritarian system like the United States, a candidate needs to win a plurality of the votes cast in his or her district. This gives voters a strong incentive to engage in tactical voting. Because they don’t want their vote to be wasted, a lot of them will decide to back a candidate who has a realistic chance of winning (like, say, Al Gore in 2000) even though they might prefer the views of another candidate (like, say, Ralph Nader). As a result, smaller or more radical parties find it difficult to make significant inroads.

In a proportional system like Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark, it is much easier for new parties to storm the stage. Though many countries require a party to clear a minimum threshold of the popular vote to enter parliament—usually, somewhere between 3% and 5%—the barrier to entry is much lower. If they have strong support among a small number of citizens, radicals can quickly establish themselves as a firm part of the political landscape.

For much of the 1990s and 2000s, the facts seemed to bear out this prediction. In countries with proportional systems, right-wing populists quickly gained considerable influence. Meanwhile, in countries with majoritarian or quasi-majoritarian systems, like Britain, France, Spain, or Greece, they hardly made any progress at the national level.

Over the last couple of years, however, this picture has rapidly reversed. Populists have started to stagnate in numerous countries with proportional representation. In some majoritarian or quasi-majoritarian countries, by contrast, they are suddenly within striking distance of taking over the government.

That is precisely what has happened in Greece, where Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party has risen from insignificance to the halls of power in a paltry half-decade. It is also what is happening in Spain, where Podemos, a party that did not even exist two years ago, has a real chance of forming the next government.

Though most observers have missed this important story, the reasons for it are, in hindsight, obvious. Majoritarian systems are stable so long as extremists appeal only to a minority of voters, and most people have a clear preference between the two mainstream parties. But in places like Greece and Spain (and even Britain), skyrocketing mistrust for establishment parties has made a lot of voters with radical views less willing to hold their nose and vote for the “lesser evil.” What’s more, as populists increase their share of the vote, other voters are becoming less fearful of wasting their vote by supporting them.

The advantage of majoritarian systems is that it impedes the initial rise of political newcomers. The long-overlooked disadvantage is that small swings in the popular vote can translate into large swings in parliamentary representation. A radical party that is supported by 20% of the population might fail to win a single seat in parliament. A radical party that is supported by 30% has a decent chance of forming a government.

Perhaps the most worrying example of this overlooked dynamic is France. For decades, the Front National drew a little under 20% of votes in local and national elections, which translated into virtually no seats at all. But now that its support has increased to 25%, it is rapidly gaining seats. In the first round of municipal elections, held over the last two weeks, it managed to beat the party of President Hollande to second place.

A few years ago, it would have seemed unimaginable for Marine Le Pen to be elected President of France. Though that outcome remains unlikely, it is now clear that she will be a serious contender in the Presidential elections to be held in 2017.

As populists increase their influence in countries with majoritarian systems, the conventional wisdom may change, suggesting instead that proportional systems are a better bulwark against extremists. After all, their champions might say, these systems give populists a small modicum of influence much more quickly, yet stop them from gaining a majority for much longer.

But, even if that were true, the real lesson lies elsewhere. As Berlusconi discovered to his chagrin, there is no one set of institutions that will reliably deliver the desired results.

In a democracy, the people’s will can effectively be held at bay for years or even decades. But there is only so much anger that institutions can contain. If the European populists who have been so successful in the past few years continue their frightening ascent, neither a shrewdly-designed electoral system nor even a powerful Supreme Court will be able to keep them in check. To save itself, the old political class will have to deliver tangible political and economic results—not take refuge in a set of rules that will magically keep its challengers at bay.


Yascha Mounk is a fellow in New America's Political Reform program.