Crippling Coalitions

Tony Blair's re-election in Britain last year was a landslide victory for New Labor, giving his party an unassailable majority in Britain's House of Commons. Gerhard Schröder just scraped across the finish line with an overall majority in the German Bundestag, due to the help of his unloved coalition partner, the Greens, and a few "additional seats" that the electoral system's rules provide.

Which statement is true and which is false? Strangely, each statement is both true and false. An astonishing fact about Prime Minister Blair's Labor Party is that it secured 2% less of the popular vote in 2001 than in 1997, and ended up with just over 40% of the total. Schröder's Social Democrats also lost 2% of the popular vote compared with 1998, and ended up with a little less than 40% of the total. Moreover, by winning 38.5% of a turnout of 80%, Schröder could claim the support of one-third of the electorate, whereas Blair was elected by a mere quarter (40% of a turnout of 60%).

The difference between these two center-left leaders is not their electoral success, but the electoral system under which they operate. The British first-past-the-post electoral system provided Blair with a solid majority, whereas the German system of modified proportional voting gives Schröder plus his Green partners a bare (and possibly shaky) majority.

Electoral systems are an evergreen issue of political debate, yet these two examples raise the question anew. There is much to be said--once again--for the British system. By translating relative electoral majorities into absolute parliamentary majorities, it enables winning parties to govern rather than enter into permanent negotiations with coalition partners and scramble constantly for parliamentary majorities.