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Elections Without Winners

When football matches – at least those that must produce a winner – end in a draw, a penalty shoot-out must resolve the matter, as this World Cup has demonstrated so dramatically. The shoot-out’s individual competition for heroism or misery is really alien to such a team game as football, but it is accepted as a necessary way to resolve the stalemate. But when it comes to elections – which ideally should always produce a winner – there is no such device.

Yet quite a few recent elections have ended in at least a near-stalemate. Mexico’s presidential election is only the latest example. Several weeks ago, the general election in the Czech Republic yielded a total impasse, with the left and right each gaining 100 lower-house seats and no resolution in sight. In Italy, a curious rule that provides for the grouping which has a handful of votes more than the other to get a bonus of several dozen seats in the lower house. Romano Prodi’s government must operate on a razor’s edge in the Senate.

There are other recent examples, including, perhaps most notoriously, the 2000 presidential election in the United States. Why are we suddenly experiencing so many close results in democratic elections? How should we best deal with them? And what do they do to the legitimacy of the governments that result from them?

The first question is the hardest to answer. To the committed observer, it does not appear that democratic countries’ electorates are so evenly divided along class or similar lines as to cause political stalemate. On the contrary, electorates everywhere seem more volatile than anything else, with voters prepared to change their preferences from one poll to the next. Often, they want change – just that.