End of Single Party Majority Governments?

Senthil Ratnasabapathy

Many, many years ago, I met a young and aspiring British journalist and ended up in a conversation about the pros and cons of the proportional representation (PR) system vs. the so-called first-past-the post system.

He said the Britons would be against the PR system because of the instability it could bring to governing. He meant the PR system that was practised by all European countries and where, particularly in Italy, no one party gains the majority, and major parties are forced to cobble up coalitions which then disintegrate away as soon as possible.

The first-past-the-post system, on the other hand, brought stability despite its weakness, was his argument. Certainly, there were ample examples for this: the UK, Canada and even India, the world’s largest democracy where except for a brief period of time the Indian Congress was firmly in the saddle.

But things have changed.

For example, Canada has not had a majority government for years, and even now, it is uncertain whether the next elections will return the ruling Conservatives or the opposition Liberals to power with more than fifty percent of the seats in the parliament.

And now England.

While the politicians from the three major parties conduct secret and not so secret negotiations about the next government, one crucial question arises: are the days of the majority governments over in these nations? If so, then why still cling to the first past the post system?

For one thing, in the western world only the UK and Canada seem to be stuck with this system. Of course, the world’s largest democracy India still has it, but even there a majority government has become a dream, both at the federal and state levels.

And like in Canada, in England too it is the smallest of the three major parties that wants the PR system, and the reasons are clear.

In Canada, if one were to use the simple PR system to assign seats based on the percentage of votes secured by each of the party, the current parliament will see some major changes: the ruling Conservatives 114 (currently 144), the Liberals 80 (77), the French Bloc Quebecois 30 (48), New Democratic Party 55 (37), The Green Party 22 (0) and the rest would be split.

Clearly, this shows the smaller parties stand to gain by the PR system.

Still, perhaps it is time PR system is adopted as it reflects more the will of the people.

And if one does worry about the instability minority or coalition governments bring, then the issue to ponder is not about the PR system’s pros and cons, but rather about the possibility that the times of majority governments are gone.

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