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Category: electoral law

If Cash for Cameron is a problem, is state funding the solution?

Revelations that David Cameron courted donors over dinner at Chequers have given British journalists an alliterative field day, with this week’s headlines including ‘Supper for Supporters’, ‘Dinner for Donors’ and, least plausibly, ‘Dave’s Dodgy Diner’.

Of course, this is not the first time that governing parties in Britain have been accused of trading influence for money; one of the most notorious examples was the Cash for Peerages scandal of 2006/2007.  And every time a case like this arises, somebody (usually the Liberal Democrats) always suggests that it is time to consider introducing state funding of political parties.

Most other European democracies have some level of state funding of political parties.  Decisions to provide such subsidies are usually the ‘carrot’ accompanying the legislative ‘stick’ of lower donation limits and increased reporting requirements.  Unfortunately experience on the continent suggests that state funding is no panacea for cleaning up politics.  Just ask the French.

Parties (and sometimes individual politicians) will always seek to maximise their income in order to out-compete their rivals.  Therefore, alternative fundraising doesn’t cease and funding scandals are still a problem.  Indeed, when funding scandals break, they are met with even more public frustration because taxpayers have made significant contributions without seeing the promised improvements in democratic quality.

Moreover, state funding does not necessarily level the playing field in quite the way that smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats might hope.  Funds are usually allocated in one of three ways: per vote received, according to the percentage of votes won, or according to the number of seats won.  Whichever method is chosen, the most electorally successful parties receive the most money, locking in their advantage.

In the current financial climate, it is unlikely that the idea of introducing state subsidies for political parties will catch on in the UK.  If it does, however, the Liberal Democrats must insist that funding is allocated on a ‘per vote’ basis in order to avoid receiving a double blow at the hands of Britain’s majoritarian electoral system.

Slovakia’s election: another majority government from a proportional electoral system

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 euro-zone 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 one party that was 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.

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @alifionasmith

End of the Line for Russia’s ‘Locomotives’

Russia’s out-going president, Dmitry Medvedev, has submitted a bill to the State Duma proposing that parties should be banned from fielding ‘fake’ candidates at the top of regional lists for Duma elections. These candidates, usually well-known or popular figures, are referred to in Russian as parovozy (locomotives), and have no intention of taking up seats in the Duma. They appear on the ballot paper solely to attract voters. Following the election, they cede their seats to lesser-known candidates further down the list.

Medvedev’s proposals are part of a wider programme of electoral reform, including the re-introduction of gubernatorial elections, which were abolished in 2005. Directly appointed governors had become a liability to the Kremlin in recent years: as an unintended consequence of its refusal to devolve authority, the Kremlin was blamed for all manner of regional problems. Furthermore, many governors disappointed in their role as ‘locomotives’ during the December 2011 election, failing to meet their United Russia vote quotas while being indiscreet in their attempts at electoral manipulation.

United Russia’s insistence on fielding ‘locomotive’ candidates was a testament to farcical nature of Russia’s ‘virtual politics‘. Unsurprisingly, the practice has long attracted criticism from the OSCE. Medvedev’s proposals for reform are welcome, but they will not necessarily improve the quality of Russia’s democracy. Until the Kremlin ceases using its ‘administrative resource’ to control which candidates can stand for election, it will be impossible for genuine opposition to gain a foothold.