Why not try democracy?

Yesterday I compared the far right’s victory in Italy with that of Donald Trump in the US. Both supporters and opponents of Trump frequently talk as if the 2016 election was a democratic choice, a deliberate decision by the electorate, and the same language is already widespread in relation to Italy. But it just isn’t true.

Trump lost the 2016 election by almost 2.87 million votes. His win was solely an artifact of a bad electoral system. And although the systems are quite different, the same can be said of Italy. Italian voters did not collectively choose to put the right in power: the electoral system produced a right-wing government against their wishes.

This should not be a controversial conclusion. The data is not at all hard to find; look, for example, at the Guardian’s report on the election result. The very first graphic shows colored bars giving the party breakdown for both houses, in both votes and seats – it’s obvious that the two are quite different. The blue section for the right extends well past the 50% mark for seats, but falls well short for votes.

Here are the complete results, which I’ve compiled from the interior ministry’s official figures:

Party/coalitionShare of voteProp. seatsActual seatsActual % seats
All others7.5%051.3%

“Share of vote” is the percentage each party or coalition actually received for the lower house (figures for the Senate are much the same, with half the number of seats). “Prop. seats” tells you the seats they would have won if allocated proportionally; “Actual seats” is what they did win. And “Actual %” is the share that represents of the total: the gap between it and their share of the vote is the measure of the distortion.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll have seen tables like this before, but this one is particularly straightforward. There’s no issue about thresholds – no other party got more than 1.8%, so any realistic threshold would have excluded them, and even if there was no threshold at all the extra parties wouldn’t have changed the basic picture – and it makes almost no difference what rule you use for proportional allocation (I’ve used Sainte-Laguë, as in Germany, but D’Hondt, the other popular method, gives an identical result except that the right wins the last seat instead of the Five-Stars).

And the conclusion is stark. The right-wing coalition that was returned with a comfortable majority was supported by only 43.1% of the voters. It was easily outvoted by the parties opposed to it – left, populists and centre – which had fractionally under half the vote between them, a gap of about 1.83 million votes. If democracy means anything, they should have won a majority and had the chance to try to form a government (which might, of course, have failed, but that’s another story).

Yet in the extensive media coverage of Sunday’s result, this vital fact rarely appears. David Killen, for example, has a very fine report at the New European, well worth your time (it’s reprinted in today’s Crikey). But only in the 13th paragraph does he mention that “[Meloni’s] right wing alliance received somewhat less than half the votes cast.” Many others do not even reveal that much.

Instead, it’s generally implied that Italy has made a democratic choice of a government headed by the far right, and this is a dangerous conclusion regardless of which side of the political fence you are on. It convinces its supporters that the public is behind them and they have a mandate for their policies; it leads its opponents to despair of democracy and to distrust the influence of the masses. As I said on Trump’s election, “Before we criticise democracy, let’s at least give it a fair try.”

Italy’s failing is fairly typical. About five-eighths of the seats are elected by proportional representation – the right won only a minority of those – but the rest are first-past-the-post in single-member districts. Obviously, a coalition whose opposition is divided three ways is going to clean up on the single-member districts, and that’s exactly what happened: it won 121 of them, while the left managed only twelve, the Five-Stars ten and the centre none at all.

Yet if you look at those districts, there are dozens in which the right’s vote is below 50%, often below 40%. A co-ordinated or combined opposition could have beaten it, and it’s easy to blame the other parties for not overcoming their differences. But if the system really reflected voter preferences, they wouldn’t have had to.

As I’ve said many times, this stuff is not rocket science. Plenty of countries manage to operate democratic electoral systems; Sweden, which voted just a fortnight ago, is one example.* But others cling to systems that frustrate their voters’ intentions, either systematically or just capriciously.

And we wonder why the public is losing faith in democracy. Perhaps they’d think better of it if they actually had some. And perhaps the media could let them in on the secret.


* Even so, Sweden is headed for a government in which the far right will play a significant role. But that government will have a wafer-thin majority, reflecting its actual level of voter support, not the artificial majority that Meloni has won.


4 thoughts on “Why not try democracy?

  1. I’ve said more than once–and I don’t mean only in relation to voting systems, but much more broadly–that the general remedy for the problems of democracy is more democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

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