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Note: this isn't a dig at UK govt or promoting other systems. Not even all that much at Truss - I'll add another PM from a different ideological lean if representative of issue.

Just a question about this particular effect in parliamentary systems.


Let's take two cases, where a new leader was chosen to replace a party's ousted leader:

Liz Truss is appointed PM after 160000 registered Conservatives vote. Of those she got 57% of the votes cast: barely 81k people to get the leader of a country of 67m after taking over from an already unpopular Boris Johnson, with essentially a promise to double down on hardline Conservative policies.

Danielle Smith, in Alberta, Canada gets 40k votes in a province of 4.5m people. She took over from PM Jason Kenney who was widely panned for covid mishandling but, to many people, Smith very much looks like she would have done significantly worse. In a province with a large Ukrainian diaspora, she's on the record stating Putin should get bits of Ukraine.

Smith won by motivating a base of disgruntled Albertans who thought pandemic restrictions unnecessary, cheered on angry truckers' blockades, and believe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is out to destroy the province's energy industry.

It was a campaign of anger, grievance, conspiracies and retribution — and her supporters loved it.

She promised to fire the board of Alberta Health Services, get rid of socialist public servants and, most notably, introduce an Alberta Sovereignty Act that she says would allow Alberta to ignore federal laws and court decisions deemed to be un-Albertan.

Danielle Smith is new UCP leader — and Alberta's next premier (new window) The party says 82,000 mail-in and in-person votes were cast. About 124,000 members were eligible to vote.

Smith didn't win a landslide: just 42,423 votes. In second place, Travis Toews with 36,480. But it was more than enough.

It's hard to see any election in which these people would be chosen by the larger electorate, rather than a small majority of registered voters from their party. This seems problematic, democracy-wise. For better or worse, Boris Johnson and Jason Kenney were given the nod by electors at large.

Now, I know that people will say, rightly: people didn't elect Boris Johnson, much as Johnson liked to claim a personal mandate.

But that is ignoring that people do in fact vote based on how their perceive a party's leader at election time, because a party's leader has a large say in that party's platform. UK voters rejected Corbyn and Labour's ejecting him afterwards as a result is an implicit recognition of this fact.

Is this occasional tension between a replacement leader's unpopularity and a parliamentary system innate, built-in and unavoidable? Can different procedures and electoral systems avoid it, while remaining parliamentary in nature?

Do secret ballots during votes of confidence modify this? Or is this phenomenon linked to parliaments which only have a limited number of parties? I expect things would look different in Israel for example.

p.s. with my province's premier, John Horgan, leaving for health reasons, BC is faced with the same situation, giving me extra "skin in the game" to be asking about this. Fortunately, BC's provincial NDPs are a reasonable enough lot, making it unlikely we'll have a dysfunctional successor (David Eby has been all but chosen).

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  • This appears to be a candidate for a [leadership-election] tag. See Should there be a separate tag for leadership elections or should they be merged with the primaries tag? on Politics Meta.
    – Rick Smith
    Oct 18, 2022 at 17:26
  • I don't really want to bring in anything primaries related. But I agree I wasn't happy with tagging options. I did look for an electoral-systems tag but couldn't find one. The whole point of this question is asking how to avoid a very small committed minority to decide for the much larger electorate at large. Oct 18, 2022 at 17:28
  • apologies for the edit rollback but yes, there were 2 strands of Alberta voters reaction to Kenney's covid handling: one side thought he was waaay too slow to bring in restrictions. the other side thought he brought in too many restrictions. Smith is on the 2nd side, keeping in mind Alberta had significantly worse outcomes than some other provinces. cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/… Oct 18, 2022 at 18:28
  • It's possible in a presidential election to not have any very popular candidates - look at the 2022 French presidential election, where the widely disliked Macron (27.9% of first-round votes) beat the even more detested Le Pen. Any system where there are very significant barriers to standing for office (e.g. needing approval of a major party or a large amount of money) could result in an unpopular candidate winning simply because the field of candidates is so small. Whether it's occasionally unavoidable is a bit too vague to answer.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 18, 2022 at 22:47
  • @StuartF I am not trying to talk one system down or talk up another. French presidential elections, with their 2 round system, do have the possibility of sending 2 horrible choices off to second round, based on very small differences. LePen is pretty much guaranteed to make it round 2 these days and it would not be a stretch to see her paired with a Melenchon equivalent. That, having to choose extreme left vs extreme right would be a much worse outcome than the cases cited in this Q. But that's also a different Q. No need to whatabout a Q because another system has, different, flaws. Oct 18, 2022 at 23:09

5 Answers 5

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By definition, yes.

In an actual parliamentary system, the leader never has a popular mandate. It is always a parliamentary mandate. A leader needs the confidence of the majority of parliament. Leaders can change without a fresh popular election if the new leader can get the support of a majority in the existing parliament.

If one party has a majority, it is a good assumption that a change in the majority party leadership implies a change in the government leadership as well. Unless a no-confidence vote says otherwise.

Parties might run with a "designated PM candidate," but it is always subject to the decision of a parliamentary majority. This becomes more obvious in a more proportional system, where coalitions may be necessary, but in the end it should be understood by everybody that a parliamentary majority may differ from a plurality of the votes. Or even a majority.

Spin doctors and news media might try to personalize the parliamentary election, but that is an oversimplification.

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  • 1
    I completely agree; and though this aspect is a feature of the system, not a bug, I imagine we can all understand why replacing the PM without a general election may feel undemocratic, even though it is entirely within the rules. Oct 19, 2022 at 8:33
  • I'm not sure that this answers the question, since the OP asks about cases where a PM was selected by a majority of party members, not by a majority of MPs. (For example, the UK has only 650 MPs, but per the OP, more than 81k people voted for Liz Truss.) If there is some sense in which this selection by party members creates a parliamentary mandate, then I think this answer needs to be expanded to elaborate on the connection. (And the "By definition, yes" part requires massive elaboration to justify how the latter demands the former.)
    – ruakh
    Oct 21, 2022 at 2:14
  • (Full disclosure, regarding my previous comment: I actually think this answer is wrong. In Israel, for example, the prime minister is selected by the parliament, but so far as I know there's no mechanism like the OP describes whereby a new prime minister can be selected by party members. But perhaps I'm missing something, and the answer can be salvaged.)
    – ruakh
    Oct 21, 2022 at 2:17
  • @ruakh, technically the UK PM is selected by the king. It is understood that the king selects somebody who will have the confidence of the parliament, which customarily means the leader of the majority party is asked. So selecting a new leader indirectly suggests a potential PM to the king. But then the UK is sort of a constitutional monarchy. A pure parliamentary system would use the parliamentary majority instead. (Does that make my point clearer to you, and do you think I should edit this in?)
    – o.m.
    Oct 21, 2022 at 4:52
  • @o.m.: (1) Why would the king prefer the person selected by the majority party's members rather than a person selected by parliamentary majority? (2) One of the OP's examples is from the Canadian province of Alberta. Does the king select their PM, too? . . . More broadly, I think you should take a minute to reread the entire question and then reread your answer, and decide for yourself whether you still really feel that your answer does the question justice. If (as I suspect) you don't, then at that point you can decide for yourself what's missing.
    – ruakh
    Oct 21, 2022 at 7:00
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Not necessarily. I would say this problem is most prevalent in Westminster system.

There are many versions of parliamentary systems in the world. All of them require the executive to derive mandate from legislature, but the dynamic varies widely depending on how the system is configured.

Westminster system is unique in the sense that it combines parliamentary system with two-party system. This means that the leader of the winning party usually becomes the leader of executive, making it confusing as to whether the mandate was given to the party leader or the legislature.

Outside of Westminster system, however, this question becomes less important. In other European countries, they prefer to use proportional representation which creates multi-party systems where no party ever wins outright majority. This means that the balance of power resides in the negotiation process in legislature, and whoever becomes PM would be held on a tight leash and can't just act by their personal whim.

In these countries, there is a clear understanding that the party mandate is distinct from any politician's personal mandate. So there is an expectation that leadership change does not necessarily lead to policy change (unless something drastic happens in legislature).

For example: In Finland, the current PM (Sanna Marin of Social Democratic Party) took over after their leader resigned due to mismanagement. She becomes the PM because her party remains the largest party in parliament, and upon assuming office she basically re-appoints all the ministers with minimal adjustment. In practice, she has to do it or risk coalition collapse, meaning that her personal popularity is kind of irrelevant because she is constrained by parliamentary numeric.

TLDR: Westminster system merges party mandate with personal mandate. Proportional representation decouples them, and clearly makes party mandate more powerful than the personal one. Not all parliamentary systems exhibit undesirable features of Westminster system.

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    I'd argue that it's not the Westminster system that leads to the outcome described, but First Past the Post. If, say, the UK switched to some form of PR, then we might expect a system closer to other PR-based parliamentary states. Oct 19, 2022 at 8:30
  • 1
    @SteveMelnikoff Isn't FPTP an integral feature of Westminister system? If UK were to change to PR, they probably need a new name for that. Oct 19, 2022 at 8:40
  • 7
    No; see the list of features on Wikipedia, which does not mandate a particular voting system. Indeed, the list of countries which use some form of the Westminster system includes some that employ PR (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Israel). Oct 19, 2022 at 8:44
  • New Zealand has a fairly Westminster aligned system with MMP. There've been relatively few (1/2) changes of PM outside an election since then.
    – Rich
    Oct 19, 2022 at 20:19
  • 1
    @nigel222: Alternative vote (AV), which was the subject of the referendum, is not a form of PR. It's a slightly different way of choosing an MP for your constituency which aims to reduce tactical voting. Oct 20, 2022 at 10:32
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This is a well-known flaw in parliamentary party systems.

A new leader for a government can be elected by a very small number of people, who usually represent only one part of the electorate. There is potential there to choose a leader who is highly disapproved of by the majority of the electorate. This has been true since party leaders started being elected by party members, and even before when party leaders were elected by party MPs (Members of Parliament), which meant a smaller number of electors (though at least they were electors who were themselves elected). It isn't necessary that it happens, but it is a risk.

However while an extremely unpopular leader can be elected in this way, their ability to wield power is limited by a number of factors. The main one is that parliamentary leaders require the support of the their elected party members to continue to govern. Even if a leader is elected by 51% of the party ordinary members, if a significant number of the party's MPs will not support the leader then their reign is going to be very short lived. This is especially true if they attempt to execute extremely unpopular policies.

We see this taking effect with Liz Truss. The policies she proposed were extremely unpopular with the majority of the British electorate (or were going to prove extremely unpopular once the economic effects became apparent), even if the Conservative party members specifically elected her to carry out those policies. It is very likely that her MPs told her this behind the scenes and may have threatened not to support her if she continued, and the subsequent retractions were made to forestall exactly the kind of MP rebellion that took down her predecessor.

This effect is made more powerful because MPs usually want to be re-elected, and any radical departure from the policies supported by a majority of the electorate are going to make it hard for an MP to get re-elected.

There is a related effect at play in the Canadian Conservative Party, where a large number of party members support quite radical right-wing policies that would be opposed by most of the Canadian electorate. Recent leaders have won the leadership by espousing right-wing policies during the leadership campaign, but in order to stand a chance in a general election have had to not campaign on many of those policies. This results in them being un-elected by their party after the election (if they lose).

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  • 1
    How much of a flaw it is depends on how often it happens in my opinion. In Ireland for example this sort of thing seems to have happened only three times in the last 50 years. You could also make an argument that the possibility of the leader being replaced factors in when people vote (effectively) for a leader with personal attributes meaning they are likely to have to resign. You can vote for someone who you know is corrupt or a creeper or a pathological liar but you should know they may be forced to resign when something you knew they were doing is actually proved.
    – Eric Nolan
    Oct 19, 2022 at 9:35
  • 3
    You assume that the head of government is selected by the biggest party. That is true for the UK but there are countries where the head of government is elected by parliament. In these countries, they would need the support of a majority of elected MPs from all parties which would increase their legitimacy.
    – xyldke
    Oct 19, 2022 at 16:07
  • 2
    In every legislature I'm aware of the leader of the largest party is the one normally chosen as Prime Minister, or in the case of a coalition a leader by agreement. Do you have an example of a place where this is done differently? Oct 19, 2022 at 18:08
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    @DJClayworth In Italy the leader is almost always chosen by a post-electoral coalition - it basically never happens that a party gets enough votes to just elect the prime minister (IIRC it happened exactly once, with Alcide de Gaspari). In particular if the coalition changes during the same parlament, a former opposition politiician can easily become prime minister without new elections. Oct 20, 2022 at 9:15
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    @DJClayworth Germany is the one I'm most familiar with. CDU/CSU are the strongest party but the current chancellor comes from the SPD. More importantly, Olaf Scholz is not leader of the SPD (those being Saskia Esken and Lars Klingbeil, who are not part of the government at all). For the last years of her chancellorship, Angela Merkel was not leader of the CDU either. I think the latter is especially important, because while the new CDU leaders have all faced internal opposition, Merkel's chancellorship remained unaffected.
    – xyldke
    Oct 20, 2022 at 11:37
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No, not necessarily.

Most obviously, parliamentary systems don't necessarily have parties.

Wikipedia's entry for non-partisan democracy provides some examples -- to pick just a couple:

  • 1853 to 1890, in the self-governing colony of New Zealand, Members of Parliament were not organised into any formal political parties.
  • The Canadian territories of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have nonpartisan legislatures.

I hope it's obvious enough on its face that this sort of scenario is avoided entirely by not having political parties in the first place.

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  • Ah, really good point. Not fully convinced this is not an edge case - the US system was initially conceived without political parties, for example, but still a very good point. However... how do these systems choose individual leaders? Or is it a case of leadership via committee? Also, FWIW, those high-north Canadian territories have a huge proportion of Canadian indigenous people, who themselves tend to different leadership systems. Oct 19, 2022 at 0:18
  • 2
    The governor of NZ was able to block elections and elections didn't always line up with changing popularity. Governor Bowen apparently used that to to block Stafford from gaining larger majorities. The second time he did so Waterhouse was set up as a figurehead premier, though it doesn't seem like he was popular: he resigned five months later with competing reasons given. I am not familiar with early NZ parliamentary history but maybe someone else is and can say if he was or wasn't. Premiers certainly didn't keep power with limited support and NZ governments came and went quickly.
    – gormadoc
    Oct 19, 2022 at 3:20
  • @gormadoc So, NZ, during that period, was not a shining example of things working well in the sense of steady governance with wide-electorate oversight? Oct 20, 2022 at 16:34
  • I'd argue for a non-partisan legislature, when this legislature elects a leader, that person has even less legitimation than someone elected by a party membership. Oct 20, 2022 at 22:57
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica It doesn't seem like it. They had six Ministries (governments) in their third parliament, which lasted for four years, which was repeated again in the fifth parliament.
    – gormadoc
    Oct 21, 2022 at 2:46
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The parliament itself should be the limiting factor

There is a flaw in your question, you concentrate most of the attention on the leader and then you just say the she will double down on hardline Conservative policies rather than noting that she "is" (by now it is a "was") going to radically change the electoral program that was presented during the general elections. Boris Johnson promises actually were not very detailed, but he never talked about spending cuts, quite the opposite.

Electing the leader is not enough, any democratic parliament has the ability to file a no confidence vote. In theory all the elected members have the duty to keep the party and the leader within the lines of the electoral program. So, I don't know about Canada, but in the UK what we are seeing is a way to bring on a higher scale the classical case of the politician reneging the electoral promises after the election. In hindsight this could be disputed since Liz Truss already announced her resignation, but her fellow MPs never complained openly about such a change away from the electoral platform, so we can say that entire party decided to ditch it.

Unfortunately in democracy there is no other mechanism to keep the politicians from reneging the electoral promises other than the possibility to vote them out at the following elections.

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