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No More Majorities


Posters for La France Insoumise in France's 2022 Legislative Elections. Image from France24.

 

On June 19th, French citizens went to the polls for the second round of their legislative elections. Neither of the two new electoral alliances, President Emmanuel Macron's Ensemble!, nor the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES) that united the left, managed to form a majority government. While they did not reach their unlikely goal of winning a plurality of seats, NUPES can still claim victory in more ways than one. First of all, the consolidation of the left led to each party in the alliance gaining in seats (with the exception of the floundering Parti Socialiste). La France Insoumise, the senior partner in the alliance, gained 55 seats compared to the 2017 legislative elections. The Greens won 27 seats, up from just one in 2017.

Most importantly, NUPES successfully denied Macron a majority government. Despite La France Insoumise's posters that asked voters to make their leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, prime minister, the explicit goal of many on the French left was simply to prevent Macron from attaining absolute power. Having failed to win a plurality, NUPES has already dissolved.

The left did not deprive Macron of a majority all on their own: the far-right Rassemblement National surged to win 19 per cent of the first round vote and 89 seats, their best ever result. After another disappointing presidential election loss, this is a bright spot for Le Pen's party and an encouraging sign for them should she opt for a fourth run for president.

The importance of depriving Macron of a majority is a result of the quirks of France's semi-presidential system, conceived as a solution to the instability of the Fourth Republic. Under article 49.3 of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, it is possible for the prime minister to pass laws on financial or social security issues without a vote in the National Assembly if they have the president's support. Much like U.S. politics, a president with the legislature behind them is much more powerful than one without. Unlike U.S. politics, these splits (called "cohabitations") are quite rare in France ⁠— only three times in the history of the Fifth Republic has the president been deprived of a friendly majority in the legislature.

Yet this election was different. Rather than sleepwalking into another majority for the recently re-elected president, the opposition on the left and the right pulled out all the stops to prevent such an outcome. If the question on the ballot was, "do you want Macron to govern unopposed?" French voters understood it as such and responded with a resounding "no."

Of course, it's difficult to argue that this election reflects what "the people" want at all given how poorly the results reflect people's votes. France's multi-party democracy, squeezed into a first-past-the-post system, results in seat totals that do not match vote totals at all. With around 26 per cent of first-round votes, Ensemble! won 42 per cent of all seats. NUPES, despite winning a similar number of votes, ended up with only 22 per cent of the seats. It's very easy to read the tea leaves and say what this election was "about" in hindsight, but much harder to argue that the French electoral system means these results are representative of what French voters actually wanted.

That said, this election does reflect a trend in many Western democracies of increasingly fractured polities and increasingly organized oppositions. Electorates do not want majority governments. The consequences of this are drastic in countries that use first-past-the-post, where majority governments are the norm. Countries that use any form of proportional representation are more prepared to form coalition governments.

In Canada, two consecutive elections elections have resulted in Liberal minority governments. In these elections, the Liberal Party never won more than one third of the vote. In fact, it is rare for the two biggest parties in Canada to ever poll at a combined two-thirds of people's vote intentions. Canada is perhaps the best example of a fractured polity, with an electorate so desperate for multi-party democracy that they squeeze six parties into an electoral system built for two. Even now, with the Liberal Party lagging in the polls and the Conservative Party on the rise, the odds of either party forming a majority government are low.

In the United States, there is an often-acknowledged trend of voters mobilizing against the incumbent president in midterm elections, something that is likely to happen again in the 2022 midterms. Perhaps this is the two-party version of minority government: voters believe in limiting the power of the governing parties and enforcing cooperation, such that swing-voters are more likely to vote for what they perceive as the opposition, pitting different branches and levels of government against each other.

In Germany, a proportional electoral system means that coalitions are the norm and having many parties represented in the Bundestag is to be expected. That said, the rise of the Greens has thrown a wrench in the two-party dominance of the Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Over the past three years, the Greens have often polled ahead of the Social Democrats, and more than once ahead of both the SPD and the CDU/CSU. While coalitions are the norm, there are now three potential "senior" coalition partners. This too is indicative of an electorate that is increasingly divided, and wants to enforce multi-party governance.

In New Zealand, the 2020 election proved to be a fascinating case of a rejection of single-party majority governance. Despite winning an outright majority of seats (a huge feat in a proportional system), Jacinda Ardern's Labour government offered to enter into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Greens, even giving their leaders ministerial portfolios. Was this altruistic, or had cooperative government become entrenched in New Zealand's political culture, such that governing alone would be perceived poorly?

Regardless of the electoral system and democratic norms of a country, it seems that most voters prefer to have power shared. If a voter was presented with two options: their preferred party wins a majority government, or their preferred party shares power with others, which would most voters choose? I don't doubt that their belief in collaboration, or their mistrust of partisan politics in general, might outweigh their desire to see their preferred party rule unopposed. The above examples from democracies seem to suggest so. People care about cooperation, and they care about checks and balances, even more than they care about the "stability" that comes with governing according to only one party's agenda.

The perverse version of this is the "bipartisanship" that is so fetishized in the United States: winners of outright majority governments are expected to compromise and cut deals with the loser, or else they lose the spirit of cooperation, and the support of crucial swing voters. This makes some sense, and is even necessary in healthy multiparty democracies, but in the U.S. it just results in resentment towards parties (mostly the Democrats) that actually pass their agendas.

 

Now, Macron has to convene the leaders of the main parties to cobble together a working majority and approve a pliable prime minister. This won't be easy: his most likely allies, the centre-right Républicains, have indicated that they are not interested in working with Ensemble!. Convincing both the Socialists and Greens, former NUPES partners, to join them would be even more difficult (neither party alone has enough seats to give Ensemble! a majority). Jean-Luc Mélenchon will not even attend inter-party discussions. France is clearly a country with immense political diversity, and a growing mistrust of leaders who govern unopposed. A diversity of viewpoints, as well as checks and balance on power, should be the norm in any healthy democracy, but is clearly facilitated better by proportional systems. If French voters, like their counterparts in Canada, the United States, Germany, or New Zealand, want no more majorities, they should advocate for a more collaborative electoral system.

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