Alex Coiov, XII A
Imagine a nation that has only three political parties. In the last legislative election, one party won 25% of the votes, the second one 35%, and the third one a remainder of 40%. Who should be next to govern the country in question? The third party because it has a plurality of 40% of the votes, albeit not a majority? Should each party receive a number of seats proportional to the percentage of votes they obtained in the election, hence the need for a two-party coalition that would collectively have a majority? Or, if we are talking about executive (presidential) elections instead of the legislative ones, should the presidential frontrunner of the first party with 25% be entirely dismissed, with the other two contenders going into a run-off election to ultimately decide who holds a genuine majority?
Based on the ensuing, seemingly trivial answer, entire countries could be shaped, and sundry human lives forever changed. Each of the three aforementioned questions entails just one particular type of electoral system from the vast ocean of electoral frameworks intrinsic to our multifaceted world: first-past-the-post, proportional, and run-off. Accordingly, this article will meticulously delve into each one, thus emphasising both the downsides and the upsides inherent in each structure.
The first-past-the-post model is present in the federal elections for the United States Congress (both chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives) and the national elections for the British House of Commons (lower chamber of the British Parliament), with small exceptions. Essentially, both countries are split into districts (that must follow certain rules like a particular number of people per district for all districts or rules pertaining to the district’s shape), and each district can have only one representative: the one holding the plurality of votes (meaning most votes, not necessarily an outright majority).
This system ultimately culminates in a stable two-party system, especially in the US (with the Democrats and Republicans in America, respectively the Conservatives and Labour in the UK, alongside smaller British parties), thus leading to a winner-takes-all scenario in each district. The explanation for the natural two-party outcome is that each district can have only one winner, so the previously mentioned “third party” with 40% of the vote would always have a plurality, thereby always winning. Consequently, the two smaller parties would be compelled to realign their values and merge together or remain on the losers’ side since each district can only have one representative. With the vote split in three, the one party winning 40% countrywide (a plurality of votes) would win most districts. This can only change if another equally powerful party appears through fusion, hence the emergence of a two-party system.
While this system tends to produce steadfast outcomes – voters know what they are voting for since there are only two options and only one winner, with no need for coalition forming and political bargaining – the conspicuous downside is that political diversity is sacrificed in favour of stability and decisiveness. The clarity offered by a two-party system can unequivocally simplify choices for voters, but it comes at the expense of representing the full spectrum of political opinions within a society.
The second electoral system of proportional representation is what we have here in the Romanian Parliament and throughout most of the European Union. Each political party gains seats according to the number of votes it managed to acquire (there is nevertheless a 5% vote threshold to join the Romanian Parliament as a party), with subsequent coalitions necessary if no one party wins an outright majority.
Accordingly, this framework fosters a more proportional representation of the electorate in the legislative body, reflecting the diversity of political opinions within the population. Besides, since coalitions are almost always requisite, this system encourages political cooperation and compromise because no coalition can endure if its members are haphazard and unwilling to find common ground on key policy issues. However, this can very well constitute a disadvantage since voters do not know what they are voting for. Whereas the American Republicans endorse specific policies and ideologies (well-known by the voters), the centre-right Romanian National Liberals (PNL) can promise certain policies during their campaign but be forced to give them up once in a coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (PSD). Thereby, proportional representation implies some uncertainty, as voters do not know how the parliamentary dynamics will unfold and how the coalitions will ultimately look once the votes are counted.
Ultimately, the run-off model, preponderantly utilised in presidential elections (such as France's), is designed to ensure that the winning candidate has majority support. In the first round, numerous candidates can participate, and if there is no winner with an absolute majority, the elections continue with a second round that would subsequently include only two contenders (the two who won the most votes in the first round).
Therefore, the first round lets sundry candidates vie for the presidency, ensuring ideological diversity. Furthermore, the second round decisively narrows down the race, allowing voters to make their final choice between the top two candidates who had won the most votes. Whilst this electoral system is more permissive than its first-past-the-post counterpart, allowing for a greater representation of political ideologies, it serves the fundamental purpose of reconciling ideological diversity with the imperative need for a clear and majority-supported winner. Accordingly, the run-off model mixes the plurality and sluggishness of the proportional system with the straightforwardness and rigidity of the FPTP standard on an executive-election level, thus providing an alternative to the two.
Albeit the executive or legislative elections, the numbers are not the only metrics that count. Indeed, identical vote percentages can culminate in utterly different outcomes – 40% can be the winning number or, indeed, lose to a bigger coalition. Ultimately, democracy per se is a perfectible system. And while each electoral framework indubitably has its upsides and downsides, it is the responsibility of citizenry and policymakers alike to critically assess these systems and determine which one best aligns with the values of the populace.