The recent Italian election stalemate and last year’s Greek election stalemate both illustrate the troubles with forming coalition governments within multi-party systems. I never fully understood the reason why the founders of the U.S. implemented the Electoral College system early on in our constitutional republic until I studied these election cases in Europe.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the financial circumstances Italy and Greece, and the European Union overall, have been experiencing over the last few years. The effects of decades of out of control spending, cradle to grave entitlements and living beyond their means blew up Italy’s and Greece’s economies to unsustainable levels of debt. The resulting austerity measures and economic reforms caused both Prime Ministers, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and George Papandreou of Greece high unpopularity and subsequent resignations.
The ruling coalitions of both countries then agreed to install technocratic prime ministers — Mario Monti in Italy and Lucas Papademos in Greece — to carry out the unpopular but necessary economic reforms to get both countries levels of debt back to a sustainable course before holding democratic elections to elect new coalition governments.
The first election in Greece last May produced an election stalemate because of the votes that several fringe parties received, such as the Communists (KKE) and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement. The result cut up parliamentary seats among seven different parties in such a way that no like-minded coalition majority could be formed.
The stalemate produced more uncertainty in the EU markets, more threats from Germany to cut Greece off from any further bailouts and more fears from Greek citizens who wished to stay in the euro zone (while not fully supporting or even understanding the costs that it entails). So Greece had to spend more taxpayer money to hold a second election a month later, with the hopes that enough Greeks would vote more for the mainstream parties — the center-right New Democracy (ND) and the Pan-Hellenic Socialists (PASOK) – and not as much for the third parties.
The second attempt worked, albeit producing an uneasy coalition. ND and PASOK won enough seats to form a centrist coalition government with ND leader Antonis Samaras being elected the new Prime Minister (since ND won more seats than PASOK). Radical Leftist SYRIZA leader Alexi Tsipras then became the new Leader of the Opposition.
Now, the Italian election in February was slightly different in the fact that there were fewer third parties that won enough votes and that Italy has a bicameral legislature (a House and Senate, if you will) instead of a unicameral 300 seat parliament like Greece.
But the results were the same: an election stalemate at least as of this writing. Once the results have been verified the parties will then enter coalition talks but there is no easy like-minded coalition that can be formed immediately.
In this case, the radical third party that won over 25% of the vote is the Five Star Movement (M5S) led by former stand up comedian Beppe Grillo. Pier Luigi Bersani and his socialist coalition won 29.5% of the vote while former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his center-right coalition almost tied them with 29.1% of the vote. Technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti finished fourth with 10.5%.
The results gave the socialists a slim majority in the Chamber of Deputies (or the “House of Representatives”), but no party won a clear majority in the Senate.
Theoretically, Italy could follow Greece’s example and have both the socialists and the center-right parties form a centrist coalition government (with or without Monti’s party), but that has yet to be decided. If no like-minded majority can come together, like Greece in 2012, Italy will have to hold elections yet again. Meanwhile, the subsequent uncertainty and absence of a ruling government will produce ripple effects in the EU markets as well as in Germany.
Now back in the U.S., our elections are held differently. In Europe, the legislative seats are cut up purely from the popular vote. Once the majority coalition government is formed, that government then gets to elect its prime minister. In the U.S., we elect our legislative representatives and our executive separately – both under the rules of the Electoral College system.
The Electoral College system is a winner take all system in every state (with the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska) where instead of proportionally rewarding votes to every candidate based on the popular vote, whoever finishes first in the popular vote wins all of the electoral votes.
Does this system of government discourage third party candidacies? To a point, yes. But here is the only real fundamental difference between a two-party Electoral College system and a multi-party popular vote system: In Europe, they build coalitions among parties. In the U.S., we build coalitions within parties. Our special interests are just as diverse as any other country’s; the only real difference is the vehicle in which our interests align with each other. You have the unions, the environmentalists, the trial lawyers and others aligning within the Democratic Party while the Evangelical Christians, the libertarians, the business interests and others aligning within the Republican Party.
In retrospect, the founders probably set it up that way because they had seen how divisive, multi-party elections had produced hung parliaments and unstable coalition governments before in Europe (as we’re seeing in Italy and Greece today), and developed the Electoral College system as a way to force different interests to align with each other for the sake of stability and continuity.
Third parties still indeed exist in America and get popular support among some pundits. But even in 2012, the most successful third party candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson, only managed to win 1% of the popular vote. The trouble with third party candidacies is that they will always split one side’s vote and gives the other side a win by default, unless of course there is a viable fourth party splitting the other side’s vote as well. In 1992, for example, the right-leaning vote ended up being split between Republican George H.W. Bush (37.5%) and Independent Ross Perot (19%), thereby allowing Democrat Bill Clinton to win the Presidency with only a 43% plurality.
And that’s only for the executive election. In the House and Senate, third party candidacies get almost nowhere. In the 2012 Montana Senate election, for example, the same thing happened there – Libertarian Dan Cox shaved off enough votes (6.6%) from Republican Denny Rehberg (44.6%) to allow Democrat Jon Tester to win with a 48.6% plurality. Yes there are a couple exceptions, such as independent Senator Angus King and self-identified socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, but no third party as a whole has been able to make its presence felt electorally.
Back in Europe, there have been exceptions to the rule of election stalemates. In the U.K., for example, the 2010 general election did not give any one party an outright majority – resulting in a hung parliament. The Conservatives won 36% of the vote while the Labour Party won 29% and the Liberal Democrats won 23%. In that scenario, the Liberal Democrats played the role of “king maker.”
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg ended up aligning with Conservative Leader David Cameron – not the Liberal Democrats’ traditional coalition partner – and although the relationship hasn’t always been smooth, the coalition has thus far held since 2010.
Is it possible a third party could expand its numbers and influence in the U.S.? I doubt it, because the Electoral College system discourages it, as it’s supposed to.