Reacting to previous letters on extremism and proportional representation in Europe, Frank Glodek responds.
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1. The dangers of proportional representation in a prolonged crisis
It seems to me that proportional representation is a "sunshine system" - the last thing you'd want if faced with a very severe and prolonged crisis in which voters always desert the centrist parties and move to the fringes. Consider the Great Depression, where centrist parties wound up having to go to the extreme right or left to get a parliamentary majority so as to form a government. That gave the worst fringe parties, representing clear minority views, disproportionate ability to make demands. Right-ward alliances in Germany thus led to Adolph Hitler and WWII. Leftward alliances elsewhere created weak popular front systems made up of parties that hated one another. Not only did the latter fail to solve the domestic problems that created them, they became easy game for aggressive outsiders.
In the 1930s, the United States faced the same severe economic crisis as Europeans. It had just as many would-be demagogues, especially on the right. Its people were potentially no more sensible or radical, tolerant or intolerant than other citizens of Western democracies. What saved Americans was their plurality system, not any mythical cultural advantages. Can anyone disagree that it was the relative stability and effectiveness of its government that stood out in contrast to all others?
Furthermore, I doubt that the segregation problem in the South could have ever been defeated in the mid-Sixties if Americans had had a proportional representation system. The South would have had its own strong regional party, making a good basis for succession and a second bloody Civil War.
2. Proportional representation doesn't protect ethnic minorities: it encourages a sense of isolation and victimization and produces counterthreats.
You mention the Kurds as an example of how proportional representation "protects minorities." The question we should ask is this: would there be any threat to guard against if Turkey had a plurality system instead?
To keep their multi-ethnic state intact, the Turks have long sought to treat ethnic minorities fairly. The origin of the Armenian and Kurdish independence movements, long before there was any bloodshed on Turkey's part, stemmed not from any injustice or discriminatory treatment but partly from the same kind of romantic nationalism that produces Basque terrorism within a Spanish democracy and also from outside influence - calculated Russian strategies for weakening Turkey. Just as the Czar encouraged extremism in Austria-Hungary up to 1914 as a means of achieving ambitions in Eastern Europe, so did Nicholas II among Armenians and the later KGB among Kurds.
In Turkey's case, the country has relied on the military to subdue two kinds of threats which have plagued it recently: Kurdish separatism and Islamic parties. So long as it has a proportional representation system, I see no other way for Turkey to protect itself, even if such unacceptable means keeps it out of the EU. Yet it is in our interest and that of the Turks as well that Turkey draw closer to Europe. Turkey is a perfect example of a state in which a plurality system would make sense because it would remove much of the threats requiring army intervention.
My thesis has been that proportional representation by encouraging such ethnic parties encourages further polarization. It never stops with one party. The moment one group forms ethnic based parties, that party will radicalize and distort, seeing all issues through the prism of ethnicity as each potential party chairman tries to outdo one anther in demogoguery. Once you get one such ethnic party, you will get others from sheer self-protection. Many people in all three ethnic groups in Bosnia recently reported that they felt "forced" to vote for ethnic parties whose views they didn't wholly approve simply to protect themselves from the others who were doing the same, often for the same reason.
3. Proportional representation leads to many "throwaway" votes.
It has been said that in the US you "throw away a vote" when you vote for a third party. It seems to me that anyone who votes for the dozens of parties which fail to make the five percent minimum in a proportional representation system has done exactly that. Milosevic survives partly because he can play 150 parties off against one another. Vuk Draskovic, a nationalist who scores over 60 percent negative in popular polls, remains and will remain a "major" player, so long as he can hold on to his core 15 percent of the votes. In a plurality system, he'd be forced to move to moderate his views to capture a bigger constitutency or he'd become a footnote to history.
4. A plurality system offers the best hopes for a successful European Union
If Europe hopes to duplicate or exceed American successes, rather than lag behind, it should consider a plurality election system. A proportional representation system will guarantgee structural fracture lines, and it will provide obvious opportunies for even the densest of hostile powers to exploit.
5. A plurality system offers advantages that extend beyond Europe.
Finally, there is a more Utopian advantage to a plurality system. By reducing political incompatibilities between Europe and the United States, it might allow unification to extend westward as well as eastward someday. The potential benefits to citizens by way of economic and politcal stability are staggering.
Read previous postings to this debate, PR and extremism
Read Ian Hall and Magali Perrault's article, "The Re-Austrianisation of Central Europe"
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