The Multi-Party Advantage

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
This essay deals with the comparison of the types of democracy found in the U.S.A. and the Netherlands. The key element being representation of voters and their political realities in the two systems.

Submitted: February 06, 2017

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Submitted: February 06, 2017



The Multi-Party Advantage.

Societies usually benefit from political stability, because political instability leads to unrest amongst citizens and business, a stunting of economic growth, and a distrust abroad. A perfect example of this can be found in the U.S.A. today. Living in Europe, the media show us the rift that’s developing between those who support the Democrats and those who support the Republicans. Looked at it from the outside, it seems to be a destabilizing process put into motion by the election of the new President of the U.S.A. Now a warning should be appropriate. In this essay there’s not going to be a verbal attack on the President of the U.S.A. Instead, the current situation is going to be used as an example of a society in which a two party system is active in parliament, regardless of which party is in power. In order to shed light on important differences between a two party system and a multi- party system, the U.S.A, is going to be compared to the Netherlands; the country that played an important role in the development of the earliest political system in America in what was then called New Amsterdam, present-day New York. It is a very opportune moment to make such a comparison, because the U.S.A. have chosen a new President, and in the Netherlands there will be a general election shortly, which also involves getting a new Prime Minister.

The American political system is characterised by a two party parliament, which is virtually impossible to change by outsiders. America knows a system in which a whole range of political parties exist, both on a national level and state level. So in itself, it seems to be a very democratic system, because you can vote for those parties. So far, so good, but things become less democratic as soon as one realizes that the system has a built in fence for keeping out other parties, especially on a national level, in the form of electing one representative into parliament, otherwise known as winner takes all. It is a guaranteed way of keeping out new arrivals on the political scene.

The Dutch situation is different. Just as in the U.S.A there is a whole range of political parties that participate in elections, both on the local level, the provincial level and the national level. In order to participate in the elections, a new political party has to have a number of members that exceeds a particular number that functions as the threshold. There is a formula that operates in deciding what the threshold is, but since this is not a lesson in maths, it is not going to be part of this essay. Suffice it to say, that at every electing there are a number of parties that fail to exceed the threshold. Still, there are dozens of parties that take part in the elections. Even after the elections have been held, there are a number of parties that fail to reach the number of votes that functions as a threshold for getting a seat in parliament. The number of leftover seats in parliament that may be generated in this way, get distributed amongst the parties that were able to get seats in parliament according to a specific formula. It means that seats in parliament get allocated to political parties based on the percentages of votes that they managed to get. In reality this means that parliament consists of a whole range of political parties.

It is very easy to form a new government in the U.S.A, because the system automatically creates a majority and a minority, thus enabling the administration in power to make decisions that shape the policy of that administration. In the Netherlands, the situation is a bit more complicated, because there is a large number of political parties in parliament, it is never a straightforward case of having a majority consisting of one political party. It would not be impossible, but in reality this never happens. It also means that political parties have to negotiate with the largest party in order to form a coalition that’s going to form the government. In those negotiations the main points of policymaking are laid down in the form of a contract that all parties involved in the coalition adhere to. This automatically means that it is a situation of give and take, and compromises are reached. It can be a time consuming process, but it means that the new coalition will be relatively stable.

There will probably never be a perfect form of democracy, but it is interesting to have a look at why one system might be more democratic than the other system. Let’s start the comparison by looking at the word democracy itself. Democracy means “government by the populace at large.” It comes from the Greek word democratia which consists of the parts demos, which means people, and kratia, which means rule, which itself is derived from the word kratos (power / authority). It is also important to look at the word parliament. This word comes from the Old French word parlement, which originally meant talk, consultation, conference, and its root can be found in the verb parler (to talk) and parlour (room) It is important to look at these words themselves, because the key elements are people and  talk. The whole idea behind the political systems which we call democracies, is that the people of a nation have a saying in what goes on in the country.

Having defined some elementary terms, it is time to go over to the real comparison of systems. In both systems - the Dutch system and the American system - the adult citizens of the nations have the right to vote. Roughly speaking the entire adult demos is allowed to have some political influence. In itself, that is democratic, but there is a fundamental difference between the democratic reality of the U.S.A. and the democratic reality of the Netherlands. It has to do with the ideas behind the word parliament. Both countries have a parliament, in the Netherlands there is a form in which there are two houses (chambers in Dutch) just as there are in America. The names and the makeup of the two political bodies, may differ, but they are the same phenomena. Yet there is a big difference in regard to how these two parliaments function in society. Representation being the key word. The people need influence, that’s why they vote, but there is a lot more to a democratic process. The people also want parliament to talk about the opinions cherished by the people. That’s where a two party system becomes less democratic, less representative of large groups of people.

Voters have packages of values, wishes, ideals, prejudices, ideas and needs, depending on their social situations. A lecturer in linguistics will have a different package than a shop owner, who has a different package to a miner and so on. In a two part system, the packages that define policies are distributed along two party lines, usually contrasting in essence. If party A has policies that support package A, and party B has policies that support package B, chances are those packages will be diametrically opposed. The voter who has a package that consists of C (a combination of contents from A and B) will have to decide which party fulfils most of his needs, wishes etc. but he will never feel satisfied by the political debate in parliament because the party he voted for does not speak out in favour of his other wishes. They do not talk for him, he didn’t get heard by the party he voted for. As a result there will be a feeling of discontent. Voting for the other party offers no solution because it just means a shift of part of the package again. In a two party system it means take it or leave it.

In the political system that allows other parties to register there is a greater fine-tuning of packages. If you do not find a package that suits you in either of the two main parties, start a third party. Both the Dutch system and the American system allow this, so theoretically speaking it is equally democratic. People who would like to get support for a political package that is not provided by the existing political parties start a new party, thus enabling likeminded people to unite on a political level, thus getting a political voice. In the Netherlands, this works on all levels, a purely local level, the provincial level and the national level. However, in the U.S.A this is not the case. It works on a local level, just take a look at the political landscape at local levels. But it changes when one talks about state levels and the national level. America knows the system of winner takes all which means that in reality the traditional two parties automatically divide the national, political cake.

In the Netherlands, the national elections are organised in such a way that the seats in parliament are allotted to parties according to percentages of votes on a national level. No matter where you voted, your vote counts for the national total number of votes for that party. That way, a two party system is prevented all by itself. As a matter of fact, it automatically forces political parties to look for coalitions.  It also ensures that voters will hear their various opinions expressed by a party during the public political debate. Thus creating greater satisfaction with the political process. Voter’s individual packages get represented to a higher degree in the political arena.

There is an added advantage to a system in which a range of parties form a parliament. In a two party system a black and white system tends to arise (this is not a racial division). If you belong to the other party, you are the enemy. Consequently, if you propose this, it must be wrong, because you are our adversaries. This phenomenon polarizes society itself. It may even lead to ignoring arguments pro and con, thus preventing beneficial change that the citizens of the nation may need. Examples of this can be found in recent American history where this actually happened. In a multi-party system, this is not likely to happen, because consent about the issues at hand need to be found amongst various coalition or opposition parties. Thus causing a moderating effect on the political process. The debate may still be fiery, but there will be a genuine debate based on ideas, rather than on adversity and aversion.

A multi-party system that forms coalitions is also likely to weed out the more extreme measures that individual politicians may promote. The more extreme views may still be heard in parliament, as they ought to be, because they represent the views of a portion of the people, but translating them into legislation becomes a different matter, because the influence of coalition partners, or the influence of a number of opposition parties will dampen the effect of opinions expressed. The system has a built in safeguard against extremism.

There is also a disadvantage attached to a multi-party system. An extensive choice is something a number of people find hard to deal with. Making up your mind is more difficult if it means you have to get informed about the options you have; choosing the suitable package means making sure you get informed, a thing which modern voters increasingly don’t want to be bothered with. For those people a choice between two parties makes things easier.

Comparison of two modern democracies shows that although both systems are democratic, one system has a better way of truly representing the people who make up the democracy, than the other one, thus creating a better founded internal political stability, preventing social unrest to a higher degree. By giving the populace a more varied choice of political parties on a national level, eventually democracy itself will be better served by a true multi-party system.

© Copyright 2019 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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