One should always be careful in predicting the demise of institutions (not that writers of airport books are) but as Patrick Dunleavy has pointed out, something strange is happening in the world of Westminster Systems. Now, if you know your Lijphart (which you will as a political scientist), the Westminster Model is the ideal type of government where one party due to the nature of the electoral system controls the relevant chamber of parliament and consequently forms one-party majority governments. The Westminsters have always been relatively rare but this haven’t stopped leading politicians from seeing Westminster as a better constitutional model than the coalition-based models found in most of the democratic world. Helmut Schmidt of Germany and Göran Persson of Sweden have voiced their preference for the Westminster model.
But what if you have a Westminster system where no single party controls the majority. Like in … India, Canada, the UK and now Australia?1 In fact, none of the classical Westminster systems now has a Westminster type of government: New Zealand has replaced its electoral system and is now closer to the continental European model, India and the UK … yes, the UK … have coalition governments and Canada … well, Canada is in a bit of a constitutional mess as the political leaders still can’t get to grips with the changing political system. Finally, Australia is set for a parliament with no overall control.
So, the FPTP and AV systems may no longer bring safe majorities and in this way, the classical Westminster model is challenged. Aspirations of one-party majority die slowly, which is why both Conservatives and Labour in the UK will be opposing the proposed electoral reform in the coming referendum, but they could facing more profound forces changing the rules of the game.
The Australian election actually saw both major parties winning around 40 percent of the vote, but otherwise winning more than 35 percent of the vote looks increasingly difficult in both Westminster and – to use Lijphart’s term – Consocional systems. In Germany, CDU/CSU and SPD find it hard to get more than 35 percent of the vote and depend more than ever on coalition partners – even the CSU is struggling in Bavaria. In Sweden, the Social Democrats used to win around 45 percent of the vote but would consider themselves extremely lucky to keep the 35 percent from the 2006 election. In the Netherlands, the CDA is a mere shadow of its former self.
The British Liberal Democrats have been clever enough to buy themselves five years in government (which will serve to dispel fears of government instability, even if we shouldn’t completely discount the possibility of a breakdown of the coalition) while Australia could see a snap second election and a rebound for either of the major parties. Still, I suspect that we a facing an increased fragmentation of party systems in established democracies, both Westminster and Consocional. This does not necessarily mean that government will become less effective, but politicians will find negotiating skills increasingly important. This also raises the question if politics in both traditional Westminster and Consocional regimes is really becoming more “presidential” or “Americanised”.
Curiously, the US looks destined to go in a different direction due to the changes in the Republican Party which in many ways increasingly looks and acts like a European party with strong parliamentary discipline. Given the tendency towards more adversarial politics at the federal level, the US constitutional system which, due to the checks and balances (or veto points, if you like) otherwise relies on a working consocionalism, is headed for a major institutional crisis. US could be the New Europe, though not in the way US Republicans think of the concept.
- Dunleavy includes New Zealand but as NZ has replaced the one-member constituencies, it is questionable if the country counts as a Westminster system. [↩]