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Electoral Systems and Failed Democracies

Ukraine and Russia’s dysfunctional democracies both share a common feature—their electoral systems use proportional representation (PR). Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal also use it. Proportional representation is a system whereby elected congress persons (or parliamentarians) owe their primary loyalty to their party rather than to constituent voters in separate geographical districts. Each party puts up “lists” of its candidates, the names usually decided by old Party bosses. Voters are only given the option to vote for one list or another, rarely for individual members concerned with their local, specific interests. Parties that gain more than (usually) 5 percent of the total vote get a number of seats in the legislature proportional to their percentage of the popular vote. Multiple parties, constantly changing coalitions, and political instability usually then results in incompetent, often corrupt governments dependent upon minority coalitions to survive.

Who gets on the lists is the key issue. Usually they are old-time loyalists and favorites of the leadership; rarely will reformers or up-and-coming younger persons who might challenge archaic economic or political interests make an appearance. It’s almost impossible to unseat the old party leadership or to vote them out. Professional politicians love the system because, with their names at the top of their list, they rarely lose power even if their party only retains a few seats in parliament.

In Russia the proportional system enabled President Putin to put the name of his alleged girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, [1] a beautiful gymnast, on his party’s list for a seat in the Duma. Andrey Lugovoy, a former KGB agent wanted by England for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko [2], was chosen by a small nationalist party’s leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the so-called Liberal Democratic Party, to run close to the top of its list. He thus became a member of the Duma with consequent immunity from arrest. Russian voters can only vote for the whole list, not individual members. Ukraine and Russia have among the world’s lowest ratings [3] in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. Ukrainians are apparently aware of PR’s problems, as they changed their system to be only half proportional [4] and half direct representation for their last, 2012, election. A major new study, Proportional Western Europe: The Failure of Governance [5] explains how the PR system makes it almost impossible for South European nations to reform their economies.

Interestingly both the failed Weimar Republic [6], which preceded the Nazi electoral victories, and the failed French Third Republic, which French voters reformed when they brought in de Gaulle and the Fourth Republic, used pure proportional representation systems.


The English-speaking world, including former British colonies and the successful Asian “tigers,” mostly uses direct voting, whereby individual representatives are chosen by and beholden to voters in their separate districts, called constituencies [7]. Thus they are concerned with how laws and government actions directly affect their constituents. This system has the cumbersome names “winner takes all” or “first past the post.”

One almost never reads in American analyses of foreign nations any discussion of their electoral systems as factoring into their unresponsive and irresponsible governments. One reason is that electoral systems are dull and complicated subjects for mass media. Also, academics generally support PR because the system fosters parliamentary/congressional representation for every fractional political or ethnic group. The March 1st Economist ran an important essay “What’s gone wrong with democracy” [8] that makes many important points, but does not even mention proportional representation as being a problem.

In Greece there was no competent tax collection nor even a proper register of property ownership. Every small profession and interest has its government-guaranteed monopoly; for example, one needed to pay a tax of some $50,000 to start even a tiny trucking company. In Italy any company with more than 15 workers is not allowed to lay anyone off [9], civil court cases average 20 years for a judicial decision, and employment taxes take some 55 percent of payroll. In Spain there were similar laws with a consequent 50 percent unemployment rate among younger citizens. All sorts of rules, some even from medieval times, hamstring and paralyze economic entrepreneurship. Laying off employees is prohibited unless a judge agrees that it is for “just cause,” which does not include going bankrupt. Few dare to start any business beyond one that only needs family members to function; hiring outsiders is too costly and risky because of labor laws, except for large corporations with the lawyers and money to navigate the administrative and judicial labyrinth.

Incredibly, Washington installed proportional representation in Iraq. It proved to be a disaster as we can already see with the nation falling into chaos again. My earlier article, “Iraq’s Dysfunctional Democracy [10],” explains the details. Iraq’s former president Ayad Allawi, now excluded from the government, explained the system well in a November New York Times op-ed, “How Iraq’s Elections Set Back Democracy. [11]” Iraq also was afflicted with the very worst kind of PR, a single nationwide list of candidates for the whole country.

Democracy means far more than majority rule. It involves constraints and delays on majority rule, protection for minority rights, diffusion of power, free speech, free assembly, and accountability for elected officials. This means clear lines of authority. Politicians everywhere do all they can to avoid accountability for their actions. Interestingly, there is not even a word for “accountability” in the Latin languages French, Spanish, or Italian. It is always translated in dictionaries as “responsibility.”

Hernando de Soto, the famous Peruvian economist, explained that PR was the reason that Latin American democracies do not work well. He argued that Latin American poverty was not a result of Latins just preferring to sit around in the sun and play music. He explained in his famous book The Other Path how it was their laws, their proportional electoral systems that discouraged hard work, savings, and entrepreneurial effort. The rousing economic success in America of immigrants from many such dysfunctional countries shows that there must be reasons for economic ill-fortune other than just race or culture.

With PR, winning congressional candidates need have little concern for the very real day-to-day problems of their constituents, e.g., abusive, corrupt bureaucrats, labor and business monopolies, and crippling government taxes and regulations. They are simply not held individually accountable for their votes. This creates a hopelessness and cynicism about government that stifles reform and even hope for a better life. Polls in such nations show waning support for democracy itself.

Venezuela, before electing its demagogic, Marxist President Chavez, was typical of nations with such systems. For 20 years, their only option was to bring back pretty much the same list of representatives to Congress whom they had just voted out in the previous election. Young reformers who might have reformed the static, oligarchic, semi-socialist prior regimes were kept off the lists. The same happened in Greece. In Venezuela from the 1970s to the 1990s, two old men, Carlos Andres Perez and Rafael Caldera, each won the presidency twice as voters had no other choices: in rejecting one, they got the other. In their desperation to be rid of the corrupt, incompetent, statist, and paralyzed old parties, Venezuelans voted for Hugo Chavez. Vladimir Chelminski, former director of the Venezuela’s Chamber of Commerce, described the situation in the Wall Street Journal [12]:

For decades, the quality of life had been deteriorating. The democratic process seemed to function well only for the benefit of politicians and their friends. The political parties that had alternated in power since 1958, Social Democrats and Social Christians, were very much the same. Both offered socialism with political freedom. Their policies paid lip service to the poor but always proved counterproductive. Private property and contracts meant little in their laws. Two-thirds of willing workers could not find employment in the formal economy …

There is a less dysfunctional PR system, such as exists in Turkey, whereby lists are selected in each state or province so that representatives do have knowledge about and an interest in supporting local concerns. Parties also must surpass a 10 percent threshold nationwide in order to be on the ballot. The higher threshold addresses part of the problem of splinter parties compared to nations where the limit is 5 percent, or even less. A higher threshold forces small parties to unite and work together, an important step towards building functional democracies. This is the reason one sees constant negotiating for coalition governments, as one party rarely gains 51 percent of the total electorate. A higher threshold also reduces the power of tiny special interest parties, religious or ethnic, which sometimes exert extraordinary power as the swing parties in coalition governments.

There are some small nations where PR “works,” particularly those with a homogeneous, educated population, where most citizens know and trust each other and have high levels of personal responsibility: Scandinavia and Holland, for example, or Israel in its early days. PR can also be modified to allow local regions to vote for lists of local candidates rather than a single nationwide list. Germany has a very complicated partial PR system [13] too complicated to explain here. However, in large nations with diverse populations and interests, especially those with ethnic or religious divisions, PR does not work well. Polish writer Frank Glodek observed in the May 2000 Central Europe Review [14] how America in 1789 was also a diverse nation with different national origins, religious beliefs, and regional interests. He explained in an excellent analysis:

Proportional representation is particularly dangerous in any nation that has suffered from ethnic, ideological or religious divisions, virtually compelling people to vote along these pre-established lines, regardless of whether they know it to be destructive and of their preference to do otherwise. Not even a five percent vote threshold for a party to hold seats in parliament is a barrier to these voting patterns and their negative impact.

Why? When you have proportional representation, you must assume the ‘others’ will vote ethnically (or tribally, Ed), putting you at risk. The only way to protect yourself is by doing the same…

A proportional representation system can never unite so many diverse nations and peoples effectively, as it is inherently and unavoidably biased toward extremism, instability, immoderation and ineffectiveness. … People forget that the United States was, from the outset, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

After direct representation, the second most obvious need for successful democracy is a federal system with a wide dispersion of powers so local citizens can govern themselves in accordance with their history and beliefs, provided they don’t inflict harm upon their neighbors. A federal system also allows different regions to experiment. India, with its relatively successful system holding together millions of vastly different peoples and religions, followed the British electoral system.

Choosing between a parliamentary or presidential system is a secondary issue, although parliamentary is probably better for third-world nations. A parliamentary system curtails stalemates and so allows for a more rapid change of government when one group or coalition is unable to govern effectively and so loses its majority.

Effective representative government is difficult and slow to take hold, but Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Arabs, and Latin Americans all want freedom, safety, and prosperity, just like us. Before we can actively promote effective government, we ourselves need to understand why so many foreign democracies don’t work well.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Electoral Systems and Failed Democracies"

#1 Comment By ed On March 31, 2014 @ 4:23 am

Rather than just listing a bunch of anecdotes, wouldn’t it be useful to look at the political science research on this topic?

#2 Comment By Cliff On March 31, 2014 @ 8:08 am

I agree with you heartily with respect to PR. As you say,

“With PR, winning congressional candidates need have little concern for the very real day-to-day problems of their constituents, e.g., abusive, corrupt bureaucrats, labor and business monopolies, and crippling government taxes and regulations. They are simply not held individually accountable for their votes. This creates a hopelessness and cynicism about government that stifles reform and even hope for a better life.”

Unfortunately, this also describes the situation in the United States today (and, for that matter, in Australia, which uses preferential voting). PR is terrible but direct voting in large and populous countries produces no better results. We need a way to produce representative government — government that is representative of the people, in the statistical sense — and elections just don’t do it these days (if they ever did).

#3 Comment By Ungainlytitan On March 31, 2014 @ 8:37 am

So Sweden, Germany and Finland are also Failed Democracies? I think this article is a load of ill thought out tosh. Your seem to equate failure of democracy with poor economic performance which it arguable and an argument I would not accept. I would also question that Spain and Portugal are failed democracies.

Of your list, South America’s problems with democracy along with Russia and Ukraine lie with failure of rule of law and the fair application of the law to all citizens.

the rise of viable middle classes in south American countries seem to have stabilized democracy in some South American countries.

In my opinion it is the existence of a middle class that controls the lions share of the wealth that is necessary for a stable democracy. The voting system does not matter a whole lot.

As for economic success, that seems to me to be facilitated more by rule of law, low levels of corruption and cronyism and reasonable social mobility, democracy is totally optional. Though the middle classes will demand a say in government when they get big enough. Which will make life interesting in China in about a generation.

#4 Comment By simon smith On March 31, 2014 @ 10:00 am

Proportional representation – what a disaster. I mean look at who uses it – Australia, post-war Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand. What war-torn basket cases they all.

Try again Jon. This time don’t confuse coincidence with causality.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 31, 2014 @ 10:20 am

My oh my. We are quite an exceptional country.

#6 Comment By Johann On March 31, 2014 @ 11:38 am

I believe the proportional representative system has the pitfalls the article suggests, but the problems with Latin America go beyond that. Another major problem with Latin America is that long ago the Catholic church there crossed the line into politics, and in much of Latin America, the Catholic church’s politics was and is Marxism. And so unfortunately many Latin Americans equate Marxist ideas with Christian ideas, ignoring the fact that Jesus preached helping the poor voluntarily out of a heart felt desire, not for a hypocritical feel-good show, and not by forcing others to do so.

#7 Comment By Netzach On March 31, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

Proportional representation, as the article mentions, comes in many forms. It doesn’t, however, deign to include the distinction between open and closed list PR, claiming that only the second form exists. In open list PR, people vote for an individual candidate belonging to a list, and the order of election from that list is determined by the number of votes each candidate got. For example, if Social Democrat list gets 1.5 million votes in total, the most popular candidate gets those, the second gets 0.75 million, the third 0.5 million and so on. Next, candidates from all lists are arranged into a list, and the top X pass, X being of course the number of seats up for election. Finland, for example, uses such system, combined with regional lists instead of a single national one. It’s a quite functional compromise between different ideals.

This still promotes coalition-building and allows for occasional swing parties, but it’s at least as much a feature than a bug. And as for racial voting, it’s not like American democracy with its Old White People Party and Minorities Party is free of that either.

#8 Comment By Wayne Smith On March 31, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

“Proportional representation” simply means “You get what you vote for.” While this is still a radical concept in the remnants of the British Empire, most developed countries have been using proportional voting systems since the evolution of the modern political party a hundred years ago. Get some better info on voting systems here: [15]

#9 Comment By Stephen Gould On March 31, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

There are systems which are nonetheless fairer than the pure “first past the post” – indeed, there is no requirement for a constituency system to adopt FPTP as its election mechanism at all. One could have a transferable vote – you vote in order (up to the number of candidates minus one), and if after the first round there’s no winner with an absolute majority, the #2 ranked of the voters who voted for the lowest candidate then get distributed etc. Or – to avoid a number of election paradoxes – one could adopt the simple method used by the American Mathematical Society, where you can give one vote to as many candidates as you like.

You can adopt a power system – where you retain constituency voting but the power of an elected candidate’s vote in the legislature is linked to his electoral success, so if you get 40% of the vote in a constituency and win, your vote in the legislature is 0.4, while if someone else gets 80% in his constituency, he gets 0.8 of a vote. (I’ve never seen this tried! 🙂 )

While I can understand the argument for favouring constituency over a PR national list, I find that using FPTP for constituency is simply wrong (and makes gerrymandering harder to overcome).

#10 Comment By Carl On March 31, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

My preferred solution is a mixture of PR and IRV (Instant Runoff Voting).

I say we make the Senate an open-list PR body of 50 members, and the House an IRV system with maximum constituency sizes of 100,000 people. That would mean a smaller Senate and a much, much larger House. The Senate would be a bit more of an old boys club, but the House would open up in unexpected ways.

We should also make it so that the House continues to run on its two year schedule, but the Senate goes to a parliamentary-style ‘no confidence’ system, where 6 years is the longest time possible between elections, but they can be held sooner if a major votes fails. (Having a parliamentary system for calling new elections would have helped in 2006 and 2013.)

To make up for the size of the House being a bit too unwieldy, we should also break up the Union, but that’s another issue. *grins*

#11 Comment By Julien Peter Benney On March 31, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

A pure proportional representation system as used in much of the non-Anglophile Enriched World and in New Zealand, was no doubt designed to meet the demands of the radical working classes for a pure “one person, one vote” system.

The extreme scarcity of resources in those nations – intensely glaciated and uplifted – means that during their transformation from agricultural to purely secondary and tertiary-based economies without primary production there are numerous competing interests that simply cannot be reconciled.

Under these conditions, it is very difficult to form a government, and unpopular but necessary decisions are very difficult to make (not that such can be the case elsewhere in the world as with Australia’s dreadful environmental policies).

#12 Comment By cornel lencar On April 1, 2014 @ 2:05 am

What a load of disinformation. Please peruse the UK Jenkins report on electoral reform to have a more informed perspective on proportional representation among other systems:

#13 Comment By Tom On April 1, 2014 @ 2:24 am

The article gets it completely backward. Proportional representation does not produce failed democracies. Countries that are likely to become failed democracies produce proportional representation.

If you were an ethnic minority in a country that just fought a bloody war, you’d have to be insane to accept first-past-the-post. You want your people in the government. And if you don’t get PR, then by golly, you’re going to keep fighting.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 1, 2014 @ 4:16 am

“Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Arabs, and Latin Americans all want freedom, safety, and prosperity, just like us.”

But a past President has observed, correctly, that at the present time, America is no longer a functioning democracy. Certainly, accountability to the people has grown tenuous with so much secret government power.

Prosperity is increasingly unequally distributed, with a vast increase in the “precariat” of those who live paycheck to paycheck or no paycheck, in permanent debt to elites. Overall, the financial state of America weakens, made worse for most, while an elite prospers at our expense and to our detriment.

Our freedom has been eviscerated by the suspension of constitutional protections, always made necessary by war and now permanent with the new normality of permanent war. Our world ranking in press freedom, for a country that once had a First Amendment, has plummeted 12 places to 46th.

A state of permanent belligerence overseas has not made us safer, but created the blowback that threatens us and is used as the justification for ever more surveillance and militarized police state tactics against us by our own government.

I suppose it is correct to say that others in those countries want those things, just as we want them – but it is no longer accurate to say that we ourselves still enjoy them, or will not soon have less of them.

#15 Comment By Michael Kenny On April 1, 2014 @ 11:55 am

The idea that proprotional representation is somehow bad for democracy will cause hoots of laughter all across the planet. The proposition is just laughable!

#16 Comment By JohnG On April 1, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

OK, let’s ignore the biggest elephant! PR or not, how about those who are not represented at all? While, of course, being taxed, because how else cold it be?

The most serious failure of pretty much all democracies is precisely this, various factions conspiring to distribute all kinds of goodies at the expense of future generations. Proportional or direct representation, things would be much better if the voter had to ask “what did you do for me while keeping the budget balanced”?

But don’t worry, the bills ARE coming, sooner or later, and not just in Greece.

#17 Comment By Miguel Madeira On April 1, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

France is not PR and is probably one of the more disfunctional political system in Western Europe. Venezuala (not PR) is also a not very good place.

#18 Comment By Winston On April 1, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

Most of the well established democracies use PR…
“The following chart lists the different voting systems used by the world’s 35 major, well-established democracies — meaning countries with high human rights ratings and at least two million inhabitants. Proportional representation (PR) systems are by far the most common.
Of the six nations that don’t use PR to elect representatives in their most powerful national legislative body, only three countries (US, Ghana, and Canada) don’t use it for at least one of their national elections (PR is used in the upper house in Australia and European Parliament in UK and France).”

Proportional Representation in Most Robust Democracies

#19 Comment By bt On April 1, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

While I also thing the author draws a lot of sloppy inferences, it is still an interesting subject.

Propositions like this in the piece:

“Each party puts up “lists” of its candidates, the names usually decided by old Party bosses”

are just silly and have nothing to do with PR whatever. You could make the same claims about any electoral system, just depends on how the rules are written.

That being said, it does seem the PR type systems are a little more prone to instability and factionalism. Winner-take-all (like USA) in theory provide more strength to the winner and certainty in who’s in charge. But not always, look at the US Senate it is essentially anti-democratic. 2 senators for Idaho and 2 for California is sort of a stupid thing – it is a legacy of the slave and free state problems, it really serves no valid function beyond thwarting the majority.

So whether PR or winner-take-all, the details seem to matter as much as anything.

#20 Comment By Bianca On April 2, 2014 @ 12:11 am

Yes, it is a rotten system, and it produces instability and parasitism of politicians and their cronies.

Yet, it is just this system that US forced down the throats in Balkans — exactly where the conflicts were most difficult to heal. The system encouraged minority voters to always vote for “their” party, regardless of the attractiveness of their program. But for majority population it created such a multitude of ideas and splinter groups that in fact, most of them cannot pass minimum treshold. And in the end, it is a very, very small number of electorate that actually gets to be represented. And they rule — mostly in order to enrich themselves or stay in power — there is no incentive to build a program or a coalition in a traditional sense, as those that make it into the parliament are hardly representative of the will of the majority of voters.

#21 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 2, 2014 @ 7:48 pm

New York City used to have PR, for what it was worth. The Communist Party actually got a few seats on the City Council, as did the American Labor Party. Of course, at that time the NY City Council was not the dominant body, the Board of Estimate was.

Many other cities in the US experimented with PR in the 20th Century, and it was championed by reformers as a way to bust up party machines (of both major parties) and it was somewhat successful in that regard in NYC and Cincinnati. It also propelled ethnic and even racial minority members into their first seats in many cities.

Here are a couple of interesting articles about that history:



And to the general PR library:


My own view is that PR can be good as a component of a system, but that it probably should not be the only component. Representation should be somewhat “ideological,” to use a dirty word, but it should also be somewhat geographical and local.

I also think that sweeping, unsupported statements about any electoral system are unhelpful.

#22 Comment By Miguel Madeira On April 2, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

Another point – Greece and Italy don’t use PR, or at least pure PR: in both countries there is a bonus to the most voted list/alliance, meaning that they are a combination of PR and Winner-Take-It-All.

#23 Comment By Edward On April 3, 2014 @ 2:29 am

“Incredibly, Washington installed proportional representation in Iraq. It proved to be a disaster as we can already see with the nation falling into chaos again.”

-Exactly what proved to be a disaster? Iraq’s proportional system? Or Washington’s “installation”? I’m guessing the latter.

#24 Comment By Len On April 8, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

Frank Glodeck is wrong. Early American society that had the vote was very homogenous. White, religious, and male. Today we have devolved into tribal groups. Most Blacks voted for Obama because he was Black. Most women voted for Kennedy and Obama because they were attractive – a virtual tribe created by television (as opposed to unattractive) that primarily influences the last group given the vote (women). TV gives us the most attractive candidates, while our newly heterogeneous society that votes provides the difference to win. A lack of education exacerbates the problem, making our demise certain. We get a president who did not know how many states we have, possibly a psychopath, and who disdains our Constitution and Law. Remember also that in 1776 only land owners voted. That system worked and gave us American Democracy because those guiding the government had a self interest to protect, but it was one that benefitted all. Finally, do not forget the impact of one man, George Wasington, without whom we most likely would have become a monarchy but for his refusal.