Parliamentary Politics & Psychic Political Satisfaction

It’s easy to make fun of parliamentary political systems because depending on the institutional setup and the political environment you can have parties garnering well under fifty percent of the vote and nevertheless installing one of their own as prime minister. Especially as someone used to America’s two-party system, it always seems a bit odd to read about the Social Democratic Party of some European country receiving, “a strong mandate to form a government with 35% of the vote.” It always seems like the obvious rejoinder to that is, “yes, but also 65% of voters expressed a preference for literally anyone but that party.”

Of course, the American guarantee of two Senate seats per state hardly produces better results, since between that and, “…the Senate’s bizarre filibuster rules, forty-one senators representing less than 11 percent of the population can prevent any bill from even coming to a vote.” But at least when it comes to presidential elections (and for the moment we’re going to view an American president and a foreign PM as roughly equivalent, despite the obvious asymmetries regarding official roles as heads of state and heads of government, etc.) you tend to, at least in the modern era (where the electoral college is more of a formality than an avenue for subverting popular will) wind up with a result that matches the preferences of the majority of voters.

This is kind of satisfying in that it seems to mirror our basic views on how majority rule should work (though of course democracy is much more than just majority rule, something the Muslim Brotherhood struggled to learn in Egypt), but it’s also a bit annoying in that if your political views don’t happen to map nicely to the basic contours of either party’s platform, you can often wind up feeling  left out. By contrast, a nice bonus of the parliamentary system is the space it gives voters to support a party that more directly matches their political preferences without feeling quite so much like they’re just pissing in the wind. Voting anything but Democrat or Republican in the United States is an exercise in futility but, for example, until its recent and stunning implosion, Germany’s FDP allowed voters to express support for a classically liberal party and also influence government policy making, since the mathematics of coalition politics often necessitated its inclusion in government, and at the very least it was present (until the last elections) as a member of the opposition.*

Of course, a parliamentary system in and of itself is no guarantee of political pluralism, or psychically satisfying and also politically useful ways to express one’s policy preferences – just look at Hungary under Viktor Orban. Indeed, one Gyorgy Brull, quoted in this Reuters story from mid-November (alright so I’m writing this on a bit of a delay – blame travel), aptly captures those sentiments: “I have clear ideas on what country I would like to live in,” the 57-year old winemaker said. “But I still do not see who could represent that in a coherent way.” You and me both, Gyorgy. You and me both.

*A potentially interesting side-question is: what is the relationship between lobbying and parliamentary systems? All else equal (kind of an absurd condition here, but work with me), is lobbying less “necessary” if “special interests” can be represented directly in the legislature via niche political parties? Does the presence of a dedicated Green parties reduce the need for an environmental lobby, or does it just provide a more convenient focal point for one?