Monday, August 1, 2016

Serious Governance Problems with Mixed Member Proportional Electoral System as used in Germany

I am posting this because in Canada we are considering electoral reform.   A popular system proposed is the German model which is one that I know very well and from my experience with it see a huge number of problems with it.

Germany uses a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system for its European, federal and state elections.   The system is not identical across the board but for the purposes of what I am writing here it is safe to say they are more less the same(1). (Sorry this is so long, but even at this length it only touches on a few problems in Germany with MMP)


In 2016 this MMP electoral system is bringing more and more electoral gridlock to German politics.  Germany has had five parties that generally win seats and now is looking at a sixth.  The problem is that the system can not cope with the addition of another political party that is not able to govern with any other party.  

MMP was introduced by the British and Americans in their occupation zones as a way to ensure moderate stable majority governments.   The idea with the system was that in almost all cases no one party could govern without a coalition partner.   At the same time the system was also designed to avoid the Weimar era political splintering that a pure PR list system can easily bring.

In general a party is awarded seats if it is can break 5% of the vote or manages to win a number of first past the post seats.    The goal of this clause was to ensure that you would not end up with a multitude of political parties.

By the early 1950s the electoral system ended up with two major parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, and one minor party, the FDP.   This is the situation that was the status quo of West Germany for the next generation.  In many ways it was not the electorate that decided who was government but the FDP based on who they would partner with.  IN 1982 Helmut Kohl did not become chancellor because he won an election but because the FDP left Schmidt's government and made a new coalition with the CDU/CSU.

 In the 1980s Germany saw the rise of a new party, the Greens, who broke up the cozy three party era.   The Greens tended to only manage 5% to 8% of the vote and did not disrupt the status quo as much as I think they had hoped for.   It did offer the SPD a new possible governing partner and thereby weakened the raison d'etre of the FDP and ever since they have been on the brink of not getting elected.

IN 1990 things get shaken up with the merger of East and West Germany.  This brings a fifth party into the federal parliament, the Left.  In the five new eastern states the Left ends up being a major party.   The fact the party is the follower on from the old East German communist party meant that no other party was willing to govern with them for many years.   In 2016 there are two state governments in the east that have the Left as a government member so it seems the Left can be accepted but it is not likely to ever govern with the CDU and .

The problem in the last five years has been the rise of parties that are protests against the status quo of Germany.   Since 2014 there has been the rise of the Alliance for Germany (AfD).  The AfD is a populist anti-immigrant, anti-politician political party.  

MMP rewards parties that can muster a small by clearly defined vocal group of supporters.   It works against broad based major parties.   The AfD, like the Left, has managed to tap into a narrow populist message that will get them past 5% of the vote.  

MMP lets you cast two votes, one to elect your local representative and the second one to show which party you support.   This leads to a lot of people splitting their vote between the local representative and the party they support.   The CDU/CSU and SPD tend to win the vast majority of the vote for the local representatives but a much smaller share of the party vote.   This disconnect leads to a host of political representation problems that I will not go into here suffice it to say that it makes it much harder to form a government.    You do not get this disconnect when you have a more pure party list system like in Denmark or Sweden because people only have one vote.

This year the AfD became the 2nd largest party in Saxony-Anhalt.   With the Greens, SPD, CDU, Left and AfD represented in the parliament there were not a lot of coalition options.   It took six weeks but a "Kenya" coalition was formed - CDU, SPD and Greens(2).   On no level is this a government that has a clear ideological vision but it was the only option possible.

In Baden Wuerttemberg the recent election left the Greens as the largest party but their coalition partner the SPD too small to form government with them alone.   It took close to two months for the Greens to come to an agreement with the CDU to form the first Green-CDU government.   This only happened because the AfD took 23 of 143 seats in the election.

A similar problem has happened in Rheinland-Pfalz where the AfD taking 14 of 101 seats made it very hard to create a majority coalition government.  After weeks of negotiations a traffic light coalition was formed.

Federally the government is a CDU/CSU-SPD government.   This is the so called grand coalition and is in power in three of the 16 states as well.   In Canadian terms this would be as if the Conservatives and NDP formed a coalition government.   In Canada this sounds crazy but in Germany it is common place.

The problem politically is how can the SPD, CDU and Greens argue that they have something unique to offer when they are in government with each other in so many places in Germany?   It really starts to look like it does not matter how the people vote they will end up with the same government.  Of the 17 elected governments in Germany 15 of them have at least two of the three above as a member of the government.

Not getting political change highlights another problem with MMP.   For smaller parties that get seats because they break 5% of the vote and not directly, it is not possible for the public to get rid of the politicians on the party list.  It means that as long as a party can get 5%, the party has a safe set of seats it controls.    Turn over among the smaller representatives can be much lower than it should otherwise be.

In my opinion the German MMP model leads to one of two different political outcomes

  1. A cozy status quo of alternating coalition governments decided by a minor centrist party
  2. An ungovernable group of representatives from six or more political parties where no one can offer a clear vision for government.

I do not think MMP is suitable for Canada and will not lead to the sort of government anyone is looking for.      

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(1) Some Major Differences in How MMP Works in Germany

  • The German courts struck down the 5% barrier in the European elections meaning any party that managed to get enough votes to qualify for one seat got one seat
  • In Bremen the seats are allocated on a party list system with 68 allocated in Bremen and 15 Bremerhaven - parties need to achieve 5% in either area to get seats in that area
  • In Baden Wuerttemberg the extra representatives come from the losing candidates that did the best in first past the post electoral areas.

(2) Names for German coalitions

  • Black Yellow Coalition - CDU and the FDP - very common in the past
  • Social Liberal Coalition - SPD and the FDP - very common in the past
  • Grand Coalition - CDU with the SPD - uncommon in the past now common
  • Red Green Coalition - SPD with the Greens - a moderately common coalition in the last 30 years - there was a Green Red coalition in Baden Wuerttemberg
  • Black Green Coalition - CDU with Greens - not common but has happened - there is also a Green Black coalition in Baden Wuerttemberg
  • Red-Red Coalition - SPD and the Left or vice versa - in power in one state at the moment had has existed in the east from time to time
  • Red-Red-Green Coalition - SPD, the Left and the Greens - has happened once
  • Traffic Light Coalition - SPD, FDP, and the Greens - talked about a lot but rarely has happened
  • Danish Traffic Light Coalition - SPD, Greens and the Danish minority party in Sleswig Holstein - only possible in one state and is the current government there
  • Jamaica Coalition - CDU, FDP and Greens - named for the country because of the flag colours.  it has been a government once
  • Kenya Coalition - CDU, SPD and Greens - Also called an Afghanistan coalition, named for the colours of the flags.  Currently in power in one state.
  • Rainbow Coalition - Four or more parties without the CDU/CSU - it has never happened but was in serious discussion in Bavaria in 2008 as a coalition of the SPD, Greens, FDP and Free Voters
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