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Whenever there are attempts to introduce proportional representation in North America, proponents of FPTP claim that it could contribute to the rise of far-right parties. For example, the "Vote No to Pro Rep" website states that:

Far-right extremists calling the shots in the BC Legislature? No thanks. That’s not my British Columbia – and with Proportional Representation, that will be the new normal. I’m voting NO to fringe parties causing chaos and holding the balance of power this fall.

Is this a correct statement? Have there been studies on the effect of FPTP countries/regions switching to proportional representation?

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    Do you have a particular definition of extremist in mind? Because on the (really) naive definition of "smaller political party", then it will happen almost by definition. – origimbo Nov 19 '18 at 18:06
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    There are lots and lots of legislatures all around the world which always used proportional and could be used as a comparison. But I couldn't think of any which switched from FPTP to representational, at least not without a period of extreme political chaos between them. – Philipp Nov 19 '18 at 18:07
  • @Philipp British Columbia might do that soon, if the referendum successfully passes. – JonathanReez Nov 19 '18 at 18:22
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    FPTP, in my mind would be MORE likely to bring in an extreme party. Mostly because there are many places where votes in sparsely populated areas are weighted more heavily than heavily populated areas. So the electoral college in the US is a classic example. California and Wyoming, on a population to electoral vote ratio is quite large and advantageous for Wyoming. Especially considering federal money can be taken from Californians and used to fund policies Wyoming might want. Which would lead to legitimacy issues long term. – ShinEmperor Nov 21 '18 at 13:10
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    It could be argued that some US representatives (elected by FPTP) are extremists, so FPTP doesn’t necessarily guard against them. – chirlu Nov 22 '18 at 11:08
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PR is often promoted as being more representative because it results in greater plurality, i.e. a greater variety of views and parties in government. The alternative you mention, First Past the Post, tends to result in two or three parties gaining the majority of the seats and less popular ones getting nothing.

An example of this is the 2015 General Election in the UK, where UKIP got 12.6% of the vote but only 1 seat in Parliament. With PR they would have gained many more seats.

So in answer to the question directly, PR does tend to result in more people from the fringes of the political spectrum getting elected to Parliament.

However, the suggestion that this allows fringe parties to hold the balance of power is not really true. PR does tend to require parties to cooperate with each other, but the point of that is to force them to compromise with policies that gain support from a majority of MPs. It's rare that a vote would be so close that a fringe party would hold the balance of power, and such a situation can be resolved by making the policy more acceptable to a wider range of representatives.

In other words fringe parties only hold the balance of power when fringe policies are being proposed anyway, which by definition means that they are not really fringe any more.

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Look at places like Israel or Germany, compared to the US. From this limited sample:

  • PR leads to some smaller fringe/extremist parties in parliament.
  • PR keeps large center-right or center-left parties from drifting to the fringes.
  • PR may require coalition governments which give those small fringe parties influence out of proportion to their seats.
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  • Do those examples have electoral thresholds? If only some do, does including thresholds seem to make a difference in practice? – J.G. Nov 22 '18 at 9:25
  • @J.G. according to Wikipedia, Germany has a threshold of 5% in federal elections and Israel 3.25% There's a table here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Election_threshold – Stuart F Nov 22 '18 at 14:14
  • @J.G., Germany has a higher threshold than Israel and arguably fewer extremist parties, so it might make a difference. There are few controlled, repeatable experiments in policial theory. – o.m. Nov 22 '18 at 16:40
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The idea behind proportional representation is that the composition of a parliament would - and should - be representative of the general population - at least much more than with a pure majority system. Thus, the share of extremists would be ideally the same as in the overall population. Saying that extremists would call the shots in the BC legislature seems to be a bit far-fetched. As long as they are not voted in by a significant share of the citizens, they would simply be an occasional nuisance.

First-past-the-post with its tendency to bi-polarisation is no panacea against political extremism. Extremist and other minority opinions still exist. People, whose major concerns are neglected, feel that they are not represented in parliament. This may lead to resentment and conflicts that are fought on the street - outside of parliament - or to the sudden irruption of any non-establishment party on the political scene due to a large share of protest voters.

Electoral thresholds are perceived as a means to have a system that is largely proportional and still blocks access to extremist parties. The level of the threshold depends a lot on the country. Some values:

  • Denmark: 2 %
  • Italy: 3 %
  • Germany: 5 %
  • Turkey: 10 %

These values are not random. The Turkish 10 % level has certainly been chosen with respect to the potential scores of communist or separatist parties. Likewise in other countries.

Still, suppression of extremist groups is IMHO a secondary reason for a threshold. A too large number of parties is an obstacle to parliamentary work by itself.

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There are many ways to do proportional representation, and the choices affect the chances of fringe party candidates.

A way I'm most familiar with is Regional PR. If you split the nation into smaller but sizable geographical areas of roughly the same population, you can have each region select, say 15-25 representatives. This means that a fringe party must, regionally, be supported by 4 to 6 per cent of the voters to win a single seat. Electing MPs regionally is done nearly everywhere, I think. Basically to guarantee that each part of the nation has a voice. An alternative, or an additional constraint, may be that a party must have a certain level of support nationwide. Do keep in mind that the use districts naturally leads to a certain kind of minimum overall support requirement in that getting 2 per cent of the vote in all the districts (in my example) won't earn the party any seats.

Such a system may still favor largish parties, because parties with, say, less than 10 per cent popular support often would win a total that would proportionally give them 1.5 or 1.6 seats, which (according to whichever algorithm is chosen) may lead to only a single MP. In that sense may be one third of the votes to that party were "wasted", as less would have sufficed to get that one seat. On the other hand, for a larger party that would percentagewise win 6.6 seats may actually get 7 (under d'Hondt) and anyway at least 6 seats, so will "waste" a smaller fraction of its votes. As I said, details like this depend on the choice of system, and some other systems don't have such bias. I think of this as a feature rather than a bug of d'Hondt, but opinions differ :-)

PR may still lead to their being two parties, or at least two loosely defined blocks, but it leaves room for some interesting coalitions. Human beings having tendencies to argue with each other, there is a need and also room to for several major parties. PR does seem to lead a certain kind of gravitation towards the political center when no single party has a chance to gain a majority by itself. This means that at least some party leaders must be in speaking terms with each other (necessary to rule together). I can say that in my native Finland the campaigns are usually less noisy than, say in the US. Consider the scenario of 3 major parties, some two of which are needed to form a majority coalition. If one of them indulges in excessively dirty campaign tactics, alienating their rivals, then guess who will be the odd one out in post election talks forming the coalition.

Most of the time the fringe parties remain in the sidelines. The voting power of a handful of MPs can gain only so much. But, PR may lead to a "fringe" party getting a disproportionate amount of power, if special circumstances apply. An example that springs to mind is the current parliament in Sweden. For a longest time the elections in Sweden were about whether the left or the right block would have the majority. Then a populist party grew large enough to deny either block a simple majority. Nobody wants to play with them, so this has resulted in an impassé. Or, perhaps more accurately, together with the Swedish politicians being unable to trust parties from the opposite block, this resulted in a shaky situation of a minority government needing to bargain for its continued existence every now and then.

Anyway, PR, is not without problems. Listing a few:

  • When all the governments are coalitions, who is accountable? The parties within a coalition have the option to blame their coalition partners for things that didn't go too well. Again, we can argue whether this is a bug or a feature :-)
  • With districts necessarily larger, some smaller nooks may be left without an MP. Or, there is no such thing as "my MP/congressman" – a mythical representative at least Americans often refer to.
  • Some of the implementations of PR involve parties listing their candidates in preferential order (if party A wins 6 seats from district X, the following 6 persons, often long time party mainstays, will be elected). In other implementations voters vote for individual candidates within a party, and if party A again wins 6 seats in district A, then those six candidates within a party who got the most votes will get the nod. Pros and cons here also.
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There are two mechanisms PR systems use to suppress extremist parties.

  1. Electoral threshold: Most countries that use PR systems have an artificial threshold to stop small parties from gaining seats. That threshold usually ranges between 5% to 2% of the total votes cast nationwide. If a party falls below that threshold, they are denied seats.
  2. Party fragmentation: It is virtually impossible for any party to win an outright majority (50% + 1 seats) in Parliament. That means even if the extremist party becomes the largest party in Parliament, they will have to compromise with other parties to form a government. In essence, the parties themselves act as a check on each other.

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