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Perhaps the most common objection lodged against proportional representation is that it gives disproportionate power to small parties.
A party may win a small number of seats, but hold the balance of power and the government must maintain the support of this small party supported by a small percentage of voters because at any confidence vote, that party could turn against the government.
As a consequence, the government must make major concessions to this small party far in excess for the level of support that party receives. This is especially concerning if that party is a fringe or extreme party.
But we must remember, all political parties are coalitions. They are made up of a diverse set of factions that work together for common political ends—look at how Andrew Scheer became the leader of the Conservative Party with the support of the dairy farmer faction.
Coalitions governments are not something new that would develop if we adopted proportional representation. We already have coalition governments. We simply form coalitions before elections, whereas in a proportional system, the coalitions form after elections. Parties already make concessions to these various factions in return for their electoral support.
We already have the problem where small special interest groups can get particular politics implement over and against the interest of the population as a whole. In fact, this situation is worse under first past the post than it would be under proportional representation.
The coalitions under proportional representation are more transparent than than the coalitions in first past the post. We do not know precisely what factions make the current parties in parliament. We do not know the relative strength of those factions. We do not know which MPs belongs to which factions. We do not know what concessions have been made in backroom deals to keep all of the factions within the party.
In contrast, the coalitions in proportional systems are out in the open. We know the factions, their relative strengths, which MPs belong to which factions etc. We know the nature of the agreements reached by the parties to form the government.
A consequence of this transparency is that parties are held accountable for their agreements under a proportional system in a way that they are not under first past the post. A party that makes concessions deemed unacceptable to their supporters or makes deals with extreme or fringe parties will suffer for it at the polls.
Indeed, in countries which have seen the rise of parties deemed extreme, the more mainstream parties have consistently refused to include them in government.
Furthermore, the scenario where a small political party is able to demand concessions requires several things to happen.
Supporters have to spend considerable effort building and promoting the party. Many people have to decide to vote for that party over more established alternatives. The small party must end up holding the balance of power. The large party must decide that accepting unreasonable demands of the small party is better than making a deal with the other major party. It is possible, but none of these steps are trivial to accomplish.
In contrast, under first past the post, all that is necessary is for a faction to control the votes in key swing ridings that a party wishes to win. By its nature, under first past the post, many seats are safe, the winner is for most intents and purposes known long before the election. There is no incentive for any party to get additional supporters there.
Instead, the focus of parties is to win votes in swing ridings. An effective strategy for winning those votes is to identify special interest groups in those riding to which political concessions can be made in order to win their votes.
First past the post is more prone to control by special interest groups because small groups of people can swing key ridings. As mentioned previously, Scheer won the Conservative Party leadership race thanks to the decisive votes of dairy farmers in Quebec. This could not happen in a proportional system because small number of votes cannot swing ridings.
The logic put forward to defend first past the post, is that parties have to compete for the centrist voter and are thus incentivized to offer a centrist, broadly acceptable platform. Even if this worked, it would not apply to Canada as the logic only works in a two party system. However, the logic does not apply because first past the post encourages the courting of special interest votes to swing elections in a parties favor.
Dr. Winston Ewert is a software engineer from Vancouver, BC. You can watch his series of videos on Proportional Representation on YouTube.