Electoral systems are important as they play a crucial role in determining the outcomes of elections in democratic countries (Garner, Ferdinand, & Lawson, 2016). The relevance of small parties is also important as all parties should at least have the opportunity to influence elections and policy. Small parties often represent minorities and help represent issues that are important to them. Countries in which small parties are restricted by the government go against the essence of democracy. This paper will argue that small parties in free democracies are relevant in all electoral systems contrary to small parties in democracies that are only partially free. In determining which democracies are free, this paper refers to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report (Freedom House, 2017). To prove this argument, examples in different types of electoral systems in free democracies are reviewed, to show how smaller parties have influence. These examples are compared to countries with the same general type of electoral systems in partially free democracies, to demonstrate how the governments of such countries are taking actions that make smaller parties irrelevant. This paper uses three established types of electoral systems: Proportional representation, first-past-the-post, and the double-ballot majority system.

The electoral system of proportional representation (PR) attempts to make the proportion of offices awarded to parties closely reflect the proportion of the total popular votes received in an election (King, 2000). For example, if a party gets 20% of the votes they will get 20% of the seats in the legislature. However, to avoid parties with extremely low percentages getting in, there is an electoral threshold. This means that parties must get a certain percentage of votes to be awarded a seat. Small parties typically have relevance in PR systems as coalition governments are often formed to gain a majority in the legislature. Duverger’s law states that the proportional representation system will tend to lead to multipartism (Riker, 1982). Most PR systems use either an “open-list” or “closed-list” system. In an open-list system, voters get, to some degree, to choose which individual candidates they are voting for in addition to the party. In closed-list systems, only the parties determine who their candidates are. In closed-list systems there is a risk that the power is concentrated in the hands of a few party-elites rather than the voters. To show how governments can limit democracy, resulting in the inability of small parties to gain relevance, two countries with a PR system, Netherlands and Turkey, can be examined.

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Netherlands uses an open-list system and the electoral threshold required to get a seat in the legislature is just 0.67% (van der Kolk, 2007). As a consequence of this, 13 parties are today seated in the House of Representatives. This low electoral threshold has also resulted in 14 seats going to one-issue parties (Kroet & Oliveria, 2017). This evidently means that small parties can have a big influence when a coalition government is being formed. The bigger parties must cater to these smaller parties in order to get them to form a coalition. In Turkey on the other hand, they have a closed-list system and an incredibly high electoral threshold of 10%. An example of how this has restricted the opportunities for small parties to gain relevance can be seen in the 2002 election. Eighteen parties participated in this election yet only two were able to gain seats in the parliament. The dominant party in Turkey, The Justice and Development Party (AKP), received 34.3 percent of the votes yet secured 66 percent of the seats in. The Republican’s People’s Party (CHP) received 19.4 percent of the votes and got the remaining seats. This meant that parties like the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), a party that opposes AKP, did not gain any seats despite gaining over 20 percent of the votes in 13 provinces (Gençkaya , 2014). Under President Erdo?an, one of the founders of the AKP, the government has also shown a lack of respect for civil liberties, with citizens being arrested for opposing Erdo?an’s regime (Freedom House, 2017). This supports that opposing ideas have been restricted and also means that smaller parties with ideologies opposing AKP have become irrelevant. This limited form of democracy has led to much violence and a failed military coup in 2016.

Another type of electoral system is the first-past-the-post system (FPTP). This system elects candidates on a “winner-takes-all” premise meaning that the candidate or party that gets the most popular votes wins. Countries that use this system include the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. As Duverger’s Law states, the FPTP electoral system tends to lead to a two-party system so the influence of smaller parties is not as obvious as in other electoral systems, such as the Dutch electoral system (Garner, Ferdinand, & Lawson, 2016). However, even in the United States, the clearest example of a two-party system, smaller parties are not irrelevant. This can be illustrated by the presidential election of 2000. In the 2000 presidential election, the influence of a smaller party can be seen through what is called the spoiler effect. The spoiler effect occurs when a non-winning candidate affects which candidate wins, by taking votes from the candidate he/she is most ideologically similar to (Electology, n.d.). The FPTP system is susceptible to this phenomenon due to the two-party nature of the system and the “winner-takes-all” premise. It should be noted that even though the Electoral College elects the president in the United States, rather than by a direct popular vote, it can still be considered a FPTP system. This is because in every state, apart from Nebraska and Maine, a “winner-takes-all” system is used to calculate who wins that state’s electoral votes.

The main candidates of the 2000 election were Republican nominee George W. Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore. Bush ended up winning one of the closest elections ever by prevailing in the electoral vote, 271 to 266. However, without the presence of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who got just 2.7% of the nationwide popular vote, Gore would have been the 43rd president of the United States instead of Bush. Nader evidently helped Bush win Florida and New Hampshire, where Bush’s margin of victory over Gore was less than the amount of votes Nader received in each of those states (Buell, 2002). If Gore had won either one of New Hampshire or Florida, he would have won the election. Nader received more than 22,000 votes in New Hampshire which corresponds to three times the margin of Bush’s victory, and in Florida, Nader received over 97,000 votes, which corresponds to almost 200 times the margin of Bush’s victory. Even though, Nader wasn’t elected and had no direct influence on any policy that was made under the Bush presidency, he did indirectly have an effect because without him Gore would have been president and the political landscape of the United States and the world could have been different even today. Therefore, small parties are and have been relevant in FPTP electoral systems.

As indicated by its name, in the double-ballot majority electoral system candidates must receive a majority of votes, meaning over 50%, in order to win. By requiring a majority, this system attempts to provide more representativeness than the FPTP system. If no candidates win the majority in the first round of voting, a second round of voting is held. In this second round the candidates are limited. Some countries use a threshold to eliminate candidates, while others may only allow a certain number to move on to the next round (King, 2000). Duverger’s law states that like the PR system, the double-ballot majority system will tend to lead to a multipartism. Therefore, it is important to look at other ways small parties can gain relevance other than through coalitions being formed. One example can be found in France, which uses the majority electoral system. Immigration was not an issue debated in France prior to the late 1960s, as immigrants were seen as necessary labor force. However, as economic expansion in France declined immigrants were beginning to be seen as problematic. The National Front, a small party back then, heavily influenced the debate on immigration despite not having any seats in the National Assembly until 1986 (Schain, 1995). Parties that focus on few issues can be relevant despite gaining few votes as the typical voter only focuses on a few issues (Egorov, 2015). Therefore, the National Front was able to capitalize on the growing debate involving immigration. Parties focusing on fewer issues also tend to gain more loyal followers.

In Russia, the double-ballot majority electoral system is used for the presidential election. However, Vladimir Putin has restricted all other parties making it impossible for anyone but himself to win. The Russian constitution hands immense power to the President, which Putin has abused in order to ensure himself victory (Shevtsova & Eckert, n.d.). For example, the leader of the opposition to Putin, Alexei Navalny, was deemed ineligible to run for president by the Central Election Commission. This is because he was found guilty of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended prison sentence. Navalny claims that these allegations were constructed to stop him from running against Putin. Navalny also spent twenty-five days in prison for organizing anti-Putin rallies (Mortimer, 2017). The case of Navalny is not the first time Putin has used his power to abolish his opposition. Prominent opposition figures have been jailed and some have even “mysteriously” died (Wilson, 2016). Putin recently announced his presidential bid for the 2018 election, and anything other than a Putin win seems impossible.

Putin has control over Russia’s electoral resources which has also successfully restricted the ability of opposition parties in the election for Russia National Assembly, the Duma. Parties opposing Putin will typically need the media to obtain a nationwide presence. However, since Putin has control of these resources the media either talks negatively about the opposition or does not talk about them at all. Prior to 2003, the Duma used a system where half of its members were elected by a PR system and half were elected in single-member districts using FPTP. However, single-member districts were abolished after 100 of the 225 single-member district seats were won by independent or small party candidates in 2003 (University of Strathclyde, 2015). The PR seats were also made more unreachable for small parties after the electoral threshold was raised from five to seven percent. These conditions made it impossible for small parties to gain influence in Russia. However, Russia has now reverted to the old system with single-member districts again. This does not necessarily mean that opposition candidates and parties will get more seats though. Individual candidates in favor of Putin have more name recognition and resources in the elections (Herszenhorn, 2013). Many disgruntled voters also stay home for the elections. In the 2016 election, turnout rates in Moscow and St. Petersburg were an all-time low 28 percent (Gregory, 2016).

Some may argue that George W. Bush would have won the election without the influence of Ralph Nader. The Green Party attempts to point to various factors as to why Nader didn’t cost Gore the election (Dieter, 2003). While factors like the butterfly ballot, Gore’s poor debate performances, and the Bush v Gore Supreme Court decision easily could have influenced the result, it does not change the fact that Nader still did impact the election. One point that the Green Party brings up is that twelve percent of Florida’s Democrats voted for Bush. However, in every election there are members of the Democratic party who vote for the Republican candidate and vice-versa. For example, in the 2008 presidential election, which Barack Obama won rather comfortably, ten percent of Democrats voted for John McCain (Cornell University, n.d.). In a national exit poll, that asked respondents how they would vote if the race were just between Bush and Gore, 47 percent of Nader’s voters said they would have voted for Gore, while 21 percent would have voted for Bush, and 32 percent would not have voted at all. If those figures are applied to Florida, Gore would have won by a margin of 26,000 and thus comfortably won the state (Scher, 2016). Therefore, without the presence of Nader, Gore would have been the 43rd president of the United States.

Some have also argued that the national exit poll asking respondents how they would have voted in a two-person race should not be looked at (Schinella, 2004). Instead a Florida exit poll asking respondents how they would have voted in a two-person race should be looked at. This exit poll showed that 49 percent would have voted for Bush and 47 percent for Gore (Cornell University, 2000). This suggests that Bush would have benefitted if Nader was absent. However, this exit poll was flawed as it had a sample size of just 1,829. Furthermore, Nader received 1.63% of the vote in Florida meaning that the exit poll would have found a sample of around 30 Nader supporters. This makes the sample size far too small to conclude anything definitively (Scher, 2016). An argument that this was a rare occurrence due to the extreme tightness of the Florida results could also be made. However, in 1992 Ross Perot received around 19 percent of the votes which surely influenced the result of the election. Even in the most recent election, third-party voters could have swung the election. Despite Green Party candidate Jill Stein receiving just over one percent of the popular vote, she could have taken important votes from Hillary Clinton. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Stein got 51,463, 49,678, and 31,006 votes respectively. Donald Trump on the other hand won by a smaller margin in all those states (England, 2016). While the absence of Stein would almost certainly not be enough, other third-party voters, even if not voting for left-leaning candidates, might have voted for Clinton due to Trump’s polarizing nature.  

This paper uses Duverger’s law to support that the FPTP electoral system tends to lead to a two-party system, while the PR and double-ballot majority systems tend to lead to multipartism. However, some may argue that Duverger’s law is not applicable especially to the FPTP system. One argument is that if voters know that only two parties are competing, why would they support any other party (Dunleavy, 2012)? However, Duverger does account for this. He explains that the FPTP system would lead to strategic voting, meaning that voters would take account of the potential outcome of the election instead of just voting for their personal preference. Without strategic voting, more third parties would get votes because voters would abandon their preferred choice to vote for a candidate that has a shot at winning. Furthermore, Duverger’s model could even be applicable without strategic voting. This can be explained through sincere voting. In sincere voting, a candidate in last place will withdraw in order to transfer his votes to a candidate with similar policy viewpoints. In an article by Mark Fey of the University of Rochester, he finds that at equilibrium of this model with sincere voting, the number of candidates choosing to run would be two. This result is consistent with Duverger’s law (Fey, 2007).

Another criticism of Duverger’s law is that the FPTP electoral system, translating to a two-party system only occurs in the United States. For example, parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in the United Kingdom (UK) have many seats which disproves Duverger’s Law (Dunleavy, 2012). While it is fair to say that Duverger’s law does not account for social cleavages like the SNP and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the UK, it is also clear that the UK has two main political parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. The fact that every UK Prime Minister since 1922 has belonged to one of these parties is further evidence for this (Gov.uk, n.d.). It should also be mentioned that Duverger’s Law only states that the electoral systems tend to lead to either a two-party system or multipartism. Therefore, Duverger’s Law does not imply that they always will, just most of the time. Duverger’s Law is one of the most important theories in political science and that is no coincidence. 

Based on the above findings it is can be concluded that small parties in all electoral systems have relevance if it is a free democracy. In countries that are only partially free, governments can restrict the influence of small parties, making them irrelevant. This has been shown using examples of free and partially free democracies from three established electoral systems. An example used was in Russia, where Putin’s control over electoral resources has stopped small parties from gaining influence. Governments restricting small parties has implications for the extent of democracy that a country has. Countries that do not have free democracies will likely also impede on the rights of its citizens along with smaller parties. This can lead to violent events like the failed military coup in Turkey. Other potential refuting arguments have been presented. These arguments have been disproven using evidence discussed earlier in this paper, as well as additional evidence. Small parties in free democracies are relevant in all electoral systems contrary to small parties in democracies that are only partially free.