On Saturday 10th March 2012, Slovakia joined the small but growing club of European countries that elected a majority government despite using a proportional representation system. The centre-left Smer party, led by Robert Fico, won 86 out of 150 seats with 44.9% of the vote. Although it was predicted that Smer would win the election, even Fico himself was surprised by the scale of the result.
Since the eurozone crisis started to bite, strong anti-incumbency sentiments have regularly produced extreme results. In Hungary, Fidesz won more than a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010 with 68% of the popular vote. In Scotland, a proportional electoral system unexpectedly produced a majority government in 2011, when the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won 69 out of 129 seats with 45% of the vote.
These recent cases show that proportional representation does not necessarily lead to minority or coalition governments. The strong bias in favour of this outcome can be over-ridden if one single party becomes the repository of protest votes. In Slovakia and Hungary, the incumbent coalition governments were badly damaged by the eurozone crisis and corruption scandals. In Scotland, the SNP had led a minority government for the previous four years, but two other major parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) were punished electorally for decisions taken in London. In each of these countries, large numbers of voters opted for the party perceived to be ‘untainted’.
Majoritarian governments have also produced unexpected results in recent years. Minority or coalition governments were formed in the UK and Australia. In both cases, a third party (the Liberal Democrats in the UK at the Greens in Australia) picked up significant support. Although these third party votes did not translate proportionally into parliamentary representation, they were sufficient to deny either of the main parties an outright majority.
In these difficult economic times, voters like to kick incumbents hard, leading to extreme results. Whether or not electoral systems behave as political scientist think they ‘should’ depends largely on the dynamics of protest voting.
Alison Smith is a DPhil Student at Oxford University.
Follow Alison Smith on twitter @alifionasmith