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.
excluding plurality party