Reacting to last week's letters on extremism and proportional representation in Europe, Mel Huang responds.
Proportional representation (PR) is a two-way street, as well as a double-edged sword. In some systems, it creates more stability; in others, it would cause massive chaos. However, I feel switching systems in any shape or form must be thought of with utmost prudence and consideration, since tinkering with the most basic philosophy of parliamentary democracy is a tough thing if done improperly or rashly.
Let's use two examples: Germany and Lithuania. While Germany is a more established democratic system, Lithuania is a young democracy from Central and Eastern Europe.
Clearly, if PR is done away with in Germany, the rise of extremist elements would be expected. Right now, due to the size of Germany and the five per cent rule, the extremist groups - usually established in a localised area - have not managed to get into the lower house of the Bundestag. However, if PR is eliminated in Germany and instead constituencies are established in a first-past-the-post system, some areas - especially the East - will indeed elect parties with neo-Nazi followings.
Germany's PR system has proven to be very stable. In the years of the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD), there has rarely been one-party rule. The Free Democrats (FDP) has played the role of kingmaker over the years, until recently, as die Grünen managed to become the coalition partner of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Though instead of seats being divided among the old Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU), SPD and FDP set, the current breakdown is still remarkably stable.
Looking at Lithuania, it currently has a mixed system. Of the 141 seats in the Seimas, 70 are by PR and 71 in individual constituencies. The PR set, in effect, has been a way to give the biggest parties the ability to hold the most seats. In the two electoral cycles since the restoration of the Seimas, there has been overwhelming success by one polar side or the other - taking full advantage of the 70 PR seats.
However, among the 71 constituencies, there are also elected representatives of parties that are either radical, localised or non-influential. There is little doubt that people leaning towards radicalism - those I mentioned in my column several weeks ago - would find that prospect most appealing. In Lithuania, if PR is abandoned, it would create more instability.
Looking at much of Central and Eastern Europe, a total PR system or mixed PR system has been more of an advantage than a disadvantage. Party politics are still developing, and the parties do not have the long term stability and tradition of their counterparts in the West. Again, using Lithuania as an example, the five parties that got PR seats in the last general election have seen splits and spin-off parties formed. Abandoning PR in these countries could also give rise to more regionally based parties and movements basically created as a political vehicle for one individual. Political culture, like stability, has to be built up. Constant changing of electoral systems and amending of constitutions only erodes a state's sense of permanence - the bedrock of stability. Doing away with PR is not a panacea for newly re-established democracies nor functional PR countries.
Read Ian Hall and Magali Perrault's article, "The Re-Austrianiastion of Central Europe"
Read Frank Glodek's letter, "Extremism and Proportional Reprensentation"
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