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Polity: Data on moral mandates in Europe

Written By: - Date published: 4:04 pm, February 14th, 2014 - 3 comments
Categories: election 2014, electoral systems, Europe, MMP, Politics - Tags:

The original post appeared here on Polity.

Following my post on Monday that the Prime Ministers of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden don’t have John Key’s “moral mandate,” I have done some more digging. I wanted to know whether a leader really does have a kind of “first dibs” on the policy direction of a country by virtue of leading the single largest party, regardless of how the rest of the parties fared. Is this how the world of proportional representation really works?

To find out, I looked at the results of 237 West European PR elections since World War 2, searching for any governments formed immediately after an election that exclude the plurality (single largest) party.1

If basically no European governments excluded the largest party, then that would give Key’s moral mandate line some credibility. If excuding the largest party was nothing out of the ordinary, however, that would blow Key’s principle away. A really interesting pattern emerged in the data (data table at the bottom of the post).

In Northern Europe (Scandinavia; Low Countries; Germany; Austria), excluding the plurality party is not unusual at all. Over 21% of post-election cabinets exclude the largest party, including over 31% in Scandinavia. A full 38 post-election cabinets excluded the plurality party in these countries, including the current governments in five countries – the three I named before, plus Belgium and Luxembourg.

But in Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece), there were no post-election cabinets, at all, that exclucded the plurality party.

I’m sure Key isn’t exactly lining up to argue that Greek and Italian democracy are the exemplars of righteousness and stability to which we should aspire, but they are the places where his moral mandate principle holds. In the countries we normally look to in terms of democratic governance appear much more relaxed about allowing the most popular coalition to govern, whether it includes the plurality party or not.

I really hope this issue isn’t a big one in the election campaign, because is it ultimately about little more than self-aggrandising semantics. But for the issue to go away, someone has to show that this particular rhetorical Emperor is poorly clothed. Hopefully these data go some way towards doing that.

Country Elections

since WW2

Post-election cabinets

excluding plurality party

Austria 21 1
Belgium 21 3
Denmark 26 10
Finland 19 3
Germany 18 3
Luxembourg 16 2
Netherlands 21 3
Norway 18 8
Sweden 20 5
Greece 15 0
Italy 18 0
Portugal 13 0
Spain 11 0
  • 1. I excluded Switzerland from the analysis because of its semi-permanent grand coalition arrangement. For Germany, I counted the CDU/CSU as one party, due to their permanent coalition.

3 comments on “Polity: Data on moral mandates in Europe”

  1. greywarbler 1

    Key has a mandate – no he hasn’t, he’s just a naughty boy. The argument has raged. Key and some of his tame jonos have talked about having a majority government in FPP style. This is a great post and no doubt whipped up in 5 minutes!!

    So the question was what do the Europeans do, they have a number of differing approaches and a comparison with 237 PR post WW2 governments in Europe show.

    Did they ever exclude a majority party from taking the government position, and instead have coalition governments? Yes they did, except in Greece, and other southern countries.

    In Northern Europe (Scandinavia; Low Countries; Germany; Austria), excluding the plurality party is not unusual at all.
    Over 21% of post-election cabinets exclude the largest party, including over 31% in Scandinavia.

    So Key has to change his tune, Begin the Beguine, and we hope, dance away.

  2. Mooloo magic 2

    I think those of us who are supporters of left wing social democrat politics need to be very concerned that after six year of the odious John key and his dreadful henchmen/women that they are polling so well, after six difficult years.
    It is most disappointing that the Left cannot seem to capture the support of enough New Zealanders to put Key’s tenure at risk in November. Current polling suggest Key is near unbeatable come November. Most depressing another three years of National will mean a lot of Kiwis will remain in the poverty trap and unemployed or for the employed more years on the minimum wage. We live in strange times. The so called ‘ Rock Star economy’ will only benefit the rich the rest of us will see no improvement to wages and standard of living other then it will almost get worse.

  3. DS 3

    For completeness sake: the Republic of Ireland has had 19 parliamentary elections since WWII, 5 of them omitting the largest party (6 if you include a mid-term government change in the 1990s). Iceland has had 21 elections, 4 of which omitted the largest party (6 if you include a couple of mid-term government swaps).

    It’s even happened in the UK, home of First Past the Post, though not since 1923: in 1923 the Tories win 258 seats, Labour 191, and the Liberals 158. A minority Labour Government is installed, with Liberal support.

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