Germany has one of the best electoral systems in the world. If I were writing a constitution, I think only New Zealand could serve as a better model. I’ve briefly discussed the advantages of mixed member proportional representation (MMPR) before, but here are some of the main benefits:
- The question of which person you want to represent your local area and the question of which party you want to govern the country are separated.
- Each voter has equal influence over the ultimate distribution of seats – unlike systems which give rise to '’swing states’ or ‘marginal constituencies’, where voters have more power
- There is less incentive for tactical voting, as proportional representation ensures that votes for smaller parties are not ‘wasted’
I think these three features – less ambiguity over what people are voting for, equalising the influence of each voter, and ensuring that voters’ genuine preferences are considered – mean that MMPR is more democratic than other systems.
However, recent events in Germany show that it can still fall short of these lofty democratic principles. In the January 20th Lower Saxony election, it has been suggested that a number of CDU supporters voted for the FDP. Why would they do this? Because the FDP is more likely to cooperate with the CDU than other parties, and it was in danger of falling short of the 5% share of the vote necessary to win any seats in parliament. It has been suggested that the general election later this year might witness a similar phenomenon.
The election was analysed mostly in terms of its implications for the fortunes of the CDU, but more troubling are its implications for democracy as a whole. CDU supporters voting FDP violates principle 3) above, that democracy should aggregate authentic, and not falsely stated preferences. Less obviously, it also violates 2) – that each vote should have equal bearing on ultimate electoral result. The CDU supporters misrepresented their preference because they believed that voting FDP would give them more influence on the distribution of seats. Voting FDP gave them more power because they had the chance not only to be the marginal voter who decided the destination of a single seat, as all other voters did, but additionally gave them the chance of being the marginal voter whose vote carried their party over the threshold, and decided a hatful of extra seats.
The flipside of the extra influence wielded by voters whose party is close to the parliamentary threshold is the disenfranchisement of those whose favoured party fails to meet the threshold – their votes effectively count for less than the rest of the electorate, raising the spectre of the ‘wasted vote’, another phenomenon MMPR is supposed to avoid.
These problems are minor niggles compared to the inequity of voting systems like the US or the UK, but the undignified scenes in Lower Saxony let the German system down. If Germany is to live up to the high democratic standards it has set itself, it would do well to lower the threshold for entry to parliament (at 5% it is amongst the highest in the world), or better yet, abolish it entirely.