Election Jugglery

Mauritius Times – 60 Yrs Ago

why proportional representation must be resisted to the last

The constitutional proposals cynically propose proportional representation for Mauritius so as to weaken Labour representation in the Legislative Council. In other countries, the governments have at some time or other tried to juggle with the electoral laws so as to weaken the parliamentary representation of some party or parties of which it disapproved. And remarkably, such attempts have signally failed. Let us look at some.

For the general election of 1951 the French government changed the electoral law under which the elections of 1945 and 1946 had been held. In these years, the elections were held under a proportional system; but the system adopted for 1951 was an utterly unproportional one. In was designed to reduce to as low a level as possible the representation in the Assembly of the Communist and Gaullist parties. In the constituencies, parties were to be allowed to form electoral alliances with a view to getting a clear majority of votes. In such a case the alliance would take all the seats. In the Paris area, however, the application of this rule would have led to the Communists getting all the seats in a number of constituencies where they consistently poll very heavily, so in the departments of Seine and Seine-et-Oise the old system of proportional representation was retained.

All this election jugglery, which was severely criticized in English newspapers of the right as well as of the left, should have led to the Communists being under-represented (in proportion to votes) in the Assembly. This is in fact what did happen. The Communists polled more votes than any other single party but had only 94 seats — 50 fewer than they should have had in proportion to votes. They polled over 5 million votes, 2¼ million more than the Socialists; but had only the same number of seats.

The election law was sheer chicanery designed like the Mauritius constitutional proposals to confer sectional advantage on an unscrupulous government machine. Yet it produced no stable government. In the first two years of the Assembly elected under the 1951 law, France had no less than five different government, and spent 18 weeks altogether forming them.

Italy introduced an electoral jugglery law in 1953. Since the war there had been a Christian Democratic government headed by Signor de Gasperi, but it feared the extreme left and right parties. So it brought in an electoral law for the 1953 general elections, which had to be forced through the Chamber of Deputies against violent and protracted opposition. Any party polling over half the entire votes cast over the whole of Italy was to be awarded two-thirds of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Naturally the Christian Democrats expected that they would get over half the votes, but such was the opposition engendered by their electoral jugglery that in the event the Government coalition parties polled less than half the votes cast!

Truly they were hoist with their own petard; the electors dearly resented the government’s attempt to manipulate the electoral law to its own advantage, and showed its resentment in no uncertain terms. None the less, the Government coalition had a majority of seats in the Chamber on a minority of votes. As in France in 1951, the departure from electoral justice in Italy in 1953 made stable government very difficult to maintain.

Greece also tried electoral manipulation in 1951, but as in France and Italy, events frustrated intention. Stability was made more difficult after the elections under the juggled law.

So manipulation with the electoral law, to try and confer election advantage on some or other party or group of parties, does not always have the desired or expected effect. On the other hand, manipulation of the electoral law to bring in proportional representation will have the desired effect, since P.R. achieves what it sets out to do — to give representation to the small groups in proportion to the number of votes they get.

In Ireland in 1948, after the general election, conducted on the  basis of P.R., the distribution of seats was as follows: Finanna Fail 68, Fine Gael 31, Labour 14, National Labour 5, Clann na Poblachta 10, Farmers Party 5 and Independents 14. Thus in a House of commons (Dail) of 147, no party had a clear majority and the Government had to be by Coalition.

In 1951 there was another general election, and the distribution of seats was: Fianna Fail 69, Fine Gael 40, Labour 16, Clann na Poblachta 2, Farmers Party 6, and Independents 14. Once again there had to be a coalition government since no party had a majority. But in the 1948 Dail, it was the Fine Gael party (with 31 seats) which formed the government with support from the oddments; Mr Costello was Prime Minister. In 1951, Fianna Fail (69 seats) formed the Government with support from the small parties, and Mr de Valera took over the Premiership.

So do we see the fantastic result of proportional representation! 1948, the Prime Minister comes from a party with only 31 seats out of 147. Three years later his party wins nine more seats but can’t form a government, so the largest party does so. Yet when it forms the 1951 government, Fianna Fail had only one more seat than in 1948 when it was in opposition!

The party distribution of seats in the 1951 Dail very closely approximates to the distribution as it ought to be, in proportion to votes received as first preferences. In proportion to first preferences in 1951, Fianna Fail should have had 68 seats; it had 69, Fine Gael should have had 38; it had 40, Labour and Clann na Problachta had fewer seats than they should have had; the Farmers had more. The number of independents elected was the correct theoretical number.

So experience in Ireland shows — and indeed proves — that proportional representation does: (i) give representation to minority and splinter groups in proportion to the number of votes cast; and (ii) make it impossible to get a government commanding a majority of votes and a majority of seats without dependence on some other party or parties. And (iii) leads to ineffective government.

Which is of course why proportional representation must be resisted to the last.


* Published in print edition on 9 February 2018

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