By: Bryce Greer
As of today, the Economist Intelligence Unit has categorized only 23 countries as a “full democracy.” Looking at all that happened in the first month of 2021, with the military coup of Myanmar or the storming of the U.S Capitol Building on January 6th, I do not doubt it. Luckily, here in Canada, we remain a staunch defender to the title of “full democracy,” but do not let that fool you. There are cracks in our own democratic foundation that is letting in the tides of far-right populism. One of these cracks is our current electoral system, First-Past-the-Post (FPTP).
The FPTP system is arguably fueling an environment that will allow for the rise of far-right populism, already noticeable with the new People’s Party of Canada. To elaborate, political scientist Cas Mudde has defined populism as a “response to the perceived lack of options within an increasingly closed political space.” As a result, many in the environment become discontent, turning to non-voting as a solution in many cases, but begrudgingly feeling as though they suffer the “us” (or the people) versus “them” (the elites) rhetoric. If this definition sounds close to home, it should.
Over the winter holidays, controversy broke out over the shocking number of Canadian politicians who travelled, some internationally, despite orders by the government for all Canadians to stay home and avoid unessential travels. Look at the clear hypocrisy: “Rule for thee, but not for me.” Certainly, the “us” versus “them” rhetoric can be expressed openly at news like this. And yet, in many of these ridings where these politicians were voted in, they represented only a minority of the voters due to the FPTP system. There is clear misrepresentation of the people.
Look further at the Canadian Federal Elections. In 2019, Trudeau’s Liberals won the government, albeit a minority, with 33% of the popular vote. The Conservatives, on the other hand, lost despite having 34% of the popular vote. In 2015, Trudeau’s Liberals won a majority while representing 39% of Canadian voters, and in 2011, Harper’s Conservatives won a majority with 39% also. In what sense does this speak “democracy” when many people do not support the party in power? The system is clearly failing in proper representation.
Not only does FPTP create a misrepresented democracy, but it also creates a polarized pseudo two-party system even though Canada is anything but. Every federal election narrows down to whether the Liberals or the Conservatives earn power, both earning roughly the same popular vote. In 2019, this was around 33% each. Looking at the seat distribution, however, and it is advantageous only to these two parties, treating alternatives like the NDP or Green Party to be a wasted vote. Again, consider the 2019 election. The NDP earned 16% of the popular vote, about half of the Liberal’s 33%, yet the Liberals earned 157 seats and the NDP earned only 24. The numbers do not add up. Despite 16% of Canadians voting the NDP, they represent only 7% of the seats in government.
So, as FPTP clearly misrepresents the people, what is the alternative? Well, there are several, although the predominant choice is Proportional Representation (PR) which in its simplest form means that the percentage of voters equals the percentage of seats in parliament. One of the largest critiques of PR, however, is this idea that it gives platforms to populists. Certainly, as we see the PPC represent the far-right, populists may gain seats in this electoral system. Yet, under FPTP, we already see the efforts of populist tendencies that creates examples of democratic backsliding, like false claims of election fraud, according to political scientist Nancy Bermeo.
FPTP is dated, misrepresents the Canadian voters, and can spawn the threat of an undermined democracy. Days following the storming of the U.S. Capitol, the Conservative Party claimed Trudeau was rigging the next election. Others have called him a mini fascist. Through a system that allows for polarized and forced voting of the lesser of two evils, the rise of a populist is not an unlikely possibility. Remember, it was FPTP and not PR that saw Maxime Bernier, a far-right populist, lose by a margin of 2% to Scheer despite only 28% of Conservatives voting him in the first round the 2015 Conservative Leader Election. If he had not split off, perhaps Bernier would have been the Conservative voted due to many wishing for Trudeau to be out. In such world, perhaps we would have lost our proud title that is “full democracy.”