Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Why did Germany adopt MMP?

Why did Germany adopt the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system?

British occupation authorities in postwar Germany created MMP in February 1946. The new Federal Republic of West Germany adopted it in mid-1948, under the name “Personalized Proportional Representation.”

Only local governments survived the German defeat in 1945. Occupation authorities had to set up district and provincial governments, by appointing officials until democratic elections could be held. Former Nazis were banned from running.

The problems with the Weimar system

From 1919 to 1933 the “Weimar Republic” of Germany had used proportional representation with no threshold. In the 1928 election 15 parties won seats, including a party which won only 0.4% of the vote. Hitler’s Nazi Party won 12 of the 491 seats with 2.6% of the vote.

“This fragmentation made it hard for parties to build and sustain governing coalitions. Contemporary and later observers concluded that this hyper-representative electoral system itself bore significant responsibility for undermining Weimar democracy.” Germans and occupation authorities had to design a better system. “Most participants in the electoral system debates concurred that . . .depersonalized voting had not done enough to foster links between citizens and their governors.” “The big question was how to devise a system that could avoid hyper-representativeness, and could combine personal links between voters and legislators.” (Political Science Professor Susan Scarrow, in “Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds?”)

Fixing the problems

In the American Zone they simply asked local German officials to arrange for elections based on pre-1933 practices. In the British zone this was considered dangerous and unwise. The appointed officials were mostly from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the leading anti-Hitler party in 1933 and after the war ended. When the British first tried to persuade them to use the British voting system, they resisted.

In February 1946 a new compromise was agreed for the British zone, which combined the form of the British system – electors voting for an individual in their constituency – with the substance of the former German proportional representation system. Results of individual ballots were supplemented by the election of additional candidates from a party list, to increase the total elected to reflect the proportion of votes cast for each party: the basic principle of MMP.

Austen Albu invented MMP at a meeting Feb. 16, 1946. (Winning The Peace: the British in occupied Germany, 1945-1948.) Albu was an engineer and active Labour Party member who, at age 42, was appointed by the British Labour government’s Minister responsible for Germany to be head of the ‘German Political Department’ in the Political Division of the British Control Commission for Germany, and became Deputy Chairman of the Governmental Sub-Commission. (Albu’s great-grandparents had come from Poland to England around 1840. In Germany in 1946 he helped Social Democrat Kurt Schumacher fight off Soviet Zone attempts to fuse the SPD with the Communist Party. Albu went on to win a UK by-election in 1948, and as a Labour MP became the Minister of State for Economic Affairs 1965 to 1967.)

Elections were held in October 1946 to select representatives for city, district and provincial councils, and in April or October 1947 for provincial governments. A variety of MMP formulas was used in the four provinces in the British zone. Some British authorities were pushing for a high proportion of local seats, while local German leaders wanted it strongly proportional. The list seat proportions ranged from 24% (Hamburg), and 25% (North Rhine-Westphalia) to 36.5% (Lower Saxony) and 40% (Schleswig-Holstein). However, North Rhine-Westphalia allowed overhang seats, giving it 31% list MPs, enough to make those results almost fully proportional, while the other three did not. Also, Schleswig-Holstein’s top-up calculation was an unusual one, and gave list seats only to parties that won a local seat.

By January, 1947 the Provinces in the American Zone had reached the stage of popularly elected parliaments, mostly using the old German list PR system.

How did MMP catch on throughout West Germany? Provincial delegates in mid-1948 designed the first federal elections for the new state of West Germany. They recognized that depersonalized voting with no local links, in the Weimar Republic, had not made government democratic enough. The SPD liked MMP, but some SPD leaders wanted a 5% threshold to prevent the splintering of parties that plagued the Weimar Republic. The SPD wanted 50% list MPs, but the final design was 40% list MPs, with a 5% threshold.

Why MMP worked

Personalizing PR has worked. Professor Matthew Shugart finds “The presence of the [local MPs] induces list members to act as though they had smaller geographic constituencies.” (In “Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds?”)

Professor Massicotte reports this too: “There is practically no difference — once elected — in the status or behaviour of constituency candidates and list candidates. . . . The voters do not perceive the difference at all.” “Typically, a list member starts out by running unsuccessfully in a constituency. To run, he or she has to become familiar with the local issues. The person tries again in the next election. If his or her party comes to power, its number of list seats will decline noticeably and the only way to get elected will likely be by running in a constituency. For this reason, such a person will remain active in the constituency during his or her term of office and give such activities almost as much effort as a “directly” elected member.” (pp. 61 and 74, Working Document)

1949 and beyond: improving MMP

Until the new West Germany’s first federal election in 1949, democratic politics had developed in the various provinces, with some local parties. Therefore, the threshold was applied at the provincial level rather than nation-wide. This let ten parties win seats in 1949, counting the new centre-right Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian wing the Christian Social Union as one party. Four of these parties fell below the threshold nationally but won more than 5% in at least one province. The “German Party,” rooted in Lower Saxony where it won 17.8%, won only 4.0% but elected 17 MPs. The Bavaria Party won only 4.2% but won 20.9% in Bavaria. The Centre Party won only 3.1% but won 8.9% in North Rhine-Westphalia. The DKP-DRP won only 1.8% but won 8.1% in Lower Saxony.

In 1949 the voter had only one vote, for a party and its local candidate. If voters wanted to “stop the SPD” or “stop the CDU” they might vote strategically, hurting smaller parties. Despite strategic voting, the outcome with provincial thresholds did not look much less fragmented than the Weimar elections.

SPD leader Kurt Schumacher was expected to be the first Chancellor of West Germany. A heroic figure, at age 19 he had lost an arm in the First World War, and had been imprisoned for 12 years during Hitler’s regime. In the 1949 election the SPD was expected to be the largest party, followed by the CDU/CSU. A Grand Coalition of the SPD and CDU existed in many provinces. In the British Zone, the four provinces had two SPD governments, one SPD-led Grand Coalition, and one CDU-led Grand Coalition. Many CDU leaders, including its “Christian Socialist” wing, wanted similar unity for the new West Germany, as did most small parties. However, CDU leader Konrad Adenauer assembled instead a narrow coalition: the CDU/CSU, their right-liberal FDP allies, and the regional 17-seat “German Party,” which together had 208 seats. After sIx dissenters, the vote to make Adenauer Chancellor was 202 of the 401 MPs, his famous one-seat majority.

In 1953 the big improvement started: the two-vote system, making the system still more personal. You could vote for the local candidate you wanted, without hurting the party you preferred. Still, the party system simplified to six parties, two of which were below 5% but had local strongholds and won some local seats, an exception to the 5% threshold. Finally, for the 1957 election the 5% threshold was nation-wide (as it has remained), leaving only four parties in Parliament. In 16 elections after 1957, no party has won a one-party majority, yet the 16 coalition governments have been stable.

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