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Does electoral reform keep extremists out?

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Image: Alisdaire Hickson/Flickr

The Yukon Government is forming a non-partisan commission to study electoral reform in the Yukon. In response to that welcome initiative, I am writing a series of articles examining an array of existing electoral systems worldwide. Read the rest of that series here

In previous articles, I used a list of seven criteria for an effective and fair electoral system. The criteria challenged most by readers was number five: keep extremists out.

Extreme movements, of a nature not seen since the prelude to World War II, are on the rise everywhere. We refer to them as "populist". But that isn't quite right. According to Wikipedia, "Populism is a range of political approaches that deliberately appeal to 'the people,' often juxtaposing this group against a so-called 'elite'." The new right-wing populism claims to speak for the people, but if what has happened in the U.S. is any indication, they speak for considerably less than half the people. I'm going to call it "ultra-right" for purposes of clarity.

The ultra-right has many elements of fascism. They are ultra-nationalistic, isolationist, and in favour of authoritarian leadership. They have a ruthless disregard for human rights, for the environment, for the judiciary, for press freedom, and for knowledge-based policies and institutions. Prejudice provided the emotional fuel to establish fascist regimes in Europe during the 1930s, as it does for ultra-right movements today. 

Like fascism, the ultra-right movement is ultimately anti-democratic. Hitler was elected. Everyone should worry about this.

Do electoral systems have any impact on the success of ultra-right movements?

Brazil's newly elected President, Jair Bolsonaro, has threatened to eliminate women's rights, the rights of Indigenous peoples, and freedom of the press. During his election campaign, Bolsonaro vowed to imprison or exile his political opponents. He has opened up the Amazon for unbridled plunder. The other day he announced he would abolish Brazil's human rights ministry and replace it with a ministry of family values. There are rumours he plans to shut down Brazil's Congress.

How was Bolsonaro elected? Brazil uses a two-round system of electing presidents. In the first round, all but the top two candidates are eliminated. A second election is held to choose a leader. This system is used by France where in 2016, voters were left with the choice between a fascist and an inexperienced progressive. Like a first-past-the-post system, the two-round system does not fairly reflect the will of most voters.

Fortunately for Brazilians, their Congress, containing both upper and lower houses, is elected using proportional representation (PR). Bolsonaro's party, Partido Social Liberal, holds only five per cent of Brazil's Senate and ten per cent of the Chamber of Deputies.

Sweden uses a version of PR that allow voters to choose candidates or parties. Parties failing to win four percent of votes may not sit in the Riksdag. The left of centre Social Democrat party won 31.1 per cent of the vote and the centrist Moderate party won 23.33 per cent of the vote in the last election. Neither parties have been able to form a coalition government and Sweden currently has a hung parliament.

Sweden's ultra-right party, the Swedish Democrats, is on the rise. In the last election they won 17.53 per cent of the vote. Still, the Swedish Democrats did not do as well as expected. Nevertheless, people worry that the Swedish Democrats could become kingmaker.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is the head of a coalition formed by the far-right Five Star Movement, (just over 32 per cent popular vote) and the Lega Norde, (17.6 per cent). Italians elect one-third of their chamber using first-past-the-post and the rest using a party-list version of PR.

Switzerland uses an open-list system of PR where voters can choose their candidates. A far right-wing anti-immigration party, the Swiss People's Party, SVP, won the most votes in the Swiss election of 2015. But because of how the Swiss government works, SVP only holds two of the eight cabinet seats. The remainder are shared by liberal and centrist party members.

Self-proclaimed murderer, President Duterte of the Philippines was elected using first-past-the-post. He won with 39.1 per cent of the popular vote.

The Netherlands, which uses a complex version of single transferable voting, another form of PR, squeaked by in the last election with a four-party coalition that blocked the extremist Party for Freedom and its hate-mongering leader, Geert Wilders.

New Zealand uses mixed member proportional representation and recently elected a moderate government.

How is Canada doing?

South of the border, another extremist blow-hard rules the roost. Intolerance and hate crimes are on the rise.

Being Canadian, we pretend our prejudices are credible and rational, calling them "compassionate immigration policy", "family values" and "secularism".

Both New Brunswick and Ontario have just elected governments dedicated to denying Francophone rights. Quebec's new government, Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) has cut immigration and instituted discriminatory laws against observant Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims wearing symbols of their faith. (Crucifixes are not a problem for this secular society.)

In a recent Environics poll, Albertans expressed greater intolerance to immigrants than other Canadians. It isn't surprising, therefore, that MP Michelle Rempel, Calgary-Nose Hill, is spearheading the Conservative Party attack on immigration as they ramp up for the 2019 election.

The same poll indicated that, overall, only 35 per cent of Canadians were against or suspicious of immigrants. But, under our first-past-the-post system, a political party needs only 35 per cent support to form a majority government.

No country is immune from the plague of ultra-right movements. But countries with fairer electoral systems do have some resistance. First-past-the-post offers no resistance at all.

Image: Alisdaire Hickson/Flickr

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