Sweden and Quebec: Lessons from two different electoral systems
Canadian political scientist Henry Milner compares proportional voting to winner-take-all elections
[DemocracySOS welcomes Canadian political scientist Henry Milner as a guest contributor. Professor Milner has been on the faculty of Vanier College in Montreal and at Umea University in Sweden, and has been a visiting professor or researcher at universities in Finland, France, Australia and New Zealand. He is currently a Research Fellow at the l’Université de Montréal, where he is Chair in Electoral Studies in the Department of Political Science. He is also co-founder of “Inroads: the Canadian Journal of Opinion,” and has written numerous articles, both scholarly and journalistic, specializing in political participation and electoral reform. He is author of eleven books, including his recent political memoir “Participant Observer: An Unconventional Life In Politics and Academia,” in which he tells about his eventful life as an academic on several continents, a party leader in Quebec, and a student and community activist in the 1960s and 70s after being born in a bunker in American-occupied Germany. Insider-outsider, observer and participant, academic and activist, his is a “political autobiography of a generation.”]
Two elections took place in the fall in places far apart, Sweden and Quebec, Canada, both of which I follow closely. Their results, I suggest, tell us something important about the effect of institutions and electoral systems.
PART ONE: SWEDEN
Mid-September saw the governing Social Democrats (SAP) and their allies fall two seats short of winning a governing majority in the election for the 349 members of the Swedish Riksdag. This opened the door to the center-right to try to form a coalition government.
A month later, Conservative party leader and incoming Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson, announced the signing of the Tidö Agreement with the Liberals and Christian Democrats. Many prominent Liberals expressed misgivings about the fourth party to the deal, the populist, anti-immigration Swedish Democrats (SD). SD was excluded from the cabinet, but given a secretariat in the administration with a mandate to be involved in drafting bills, directing agencies, carrying on investigations and setting the budget, with its leader, Jimmy Åkesson, a member of an “inner cabinet” with the three other party leaders.
I asked my old friend Richard Murray to write an article (briefly summarized below) about the likely policies of the new government for Inroads, the journal I co-edit, and then asked other Swedish friends to comment. All were unhappy about Sweden’s move to the right, but differed as to what the Tidö agreement constitutes. Their views reflect especially the divisions within the small but influential Liberal party.
One side sees it as a surrender to the main goals of the SD, with its fascist roots, when it comes to immigration, law and order, and the environment. The other sees the Tidö Agreement as reflecting the evolution of Swedish public opinion, an evolution visible even in the policies advanced by outgoing Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson to deal with the rise in criminality associated with the over 305,000 thousand refugees, many unaccompanied young men from Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, that had arrived in Sweden in 2015 and 2016.
The new Conservative-led government’s priorities reflect the evolution of public opinion resulting from a period of effectively uncontrolled immigration, followed by a significant rise in violent crimes which explain SD’s becoming the second largest party, after the Social Democrats, with over 20 percent of the vote. SD thus had a major impact on a number of the topics dealt with in the coalition agreement. A major focus is on gangs, shootings, and juvenile delinquency, with plans for longer prison sentences, temporary zones in which police are to have special stop and search powers, and use of anonymous witnesses.
Illegal immigrants are to be detected and deported, and asylum periods shortened and effectively limited to those fleeing Sweden´s neighbors under threat from Russia Immigrants are to be given incentives to return to their home countries, and immigration numbers are to be reduced gradually to the minimum requirements of European Union and United Nations’ regulations. Asylum seekers will be required to pay for their health insurance, and for interpreters.
Investigations are taking place and will lead to major reforms, especially in the area of health care. There is also ongoing consideration of climate change and energy policy. A major emphasis is on lowering the price of electricity, with focus on research on emerging energy technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, as well as on nuclear power.
The program calls for lower income taxes for low and middle income earners, while at the same time reducing Sweden’s extremely generous social benefits. There is also a planned reintroduction of a strict code of civil servant responsibility – including being penalized for giving false information. When it comes to education, the schools have come in for criticism for being too little focused on ”facts” and too much “critical analysis.” Since many of the specific measures to address this are in line with what some Social Democrats have proposed, educational policy is not likely to be very controversial.
Perhaps because I have been observing Sweden from the outside for 40 years, I am inclined to expect that when it comes to action rather than words - which in a multi-party agreement are typically chosen to allow each party to interpret them somewhat differently - more moderate choices will be made. Indeed, SD has already found itself having to moderate its position on foreign policy, coming to endorse Sweden’s application to NATO and support Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion.
In any case, whatever one’s reaction to the new government and its policies, no one could say that it is unrepresentative of the views of Swedes, since Sweden’s electoral system guarantees proportional representation in the Riksdag to all parties winning at least 4% of the popular vote. Moreover, with only two seats less than the governing coalition, the opposition Social Democrats’ voice is loud and strong.
This is also true regionally. Support for the left and right blocs has been shifting as in many other countries. The left alliance won with large margins in big cities and university towns, with major gains in the Stockholm region, where the SD had its lowest score, 10.7 percent. SD’s highest score was 28.7 percent in Skane in the south where Islamic immigrants are concentrated. Overall, the right made significant gains in industrial regions in the hinterland and northern Sweden.
As a result of Sweden’s proportional representation electoral system, all of the parties’ support level was reflected, but not over-magnified, in the number of seats won by each party. While many, including this writer, bemoan the result, no one can say that Sweden’s move to the right is an artificial product of a “winner take all” electoral system in which a minority of votes is transformed into a majority of seats.
However, in Quebec and many other Canadian provinces, and in the federal parliament, we see “minority rule” on a regular basis.
PART TWO: QUEBEC
When it comes to the negative effects of electoral institutions on politics and policies, one could hardly find a clearer contrast with Sweden than the election that took place in Quebec in October. Outwardly there is some similarity in the result since the election brought into power a center-right government with a key focus on immigration. In this case it was on measures to overcome the low birth-rate among French-speakers through language-based immigration policies.
The Quebec election result makes a powerful case for replacing Quebec’s electoral system, and is reflected in the polls. Young people have been mobilized via a new group known as MCRS (Citizens Mobilized for Electoral Reform), with a big protest march that took place in Quebec City in late November. The MCRS, however, finds itself coming up against a stone wall in the form of Premier Francois Legault, who came out of the October election stronger than ever.
It wasn’t always the case. In 2016, Legault, as leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), joined the other opposition parties in a joint public statement calling for Quebec to adopt the mixed compensatory electoral system of proportional representation used in Scotland and New Zealand. In the 2018 Quebec election, CAQ won an unexpected majority (74 of 125 seats, or 59 percent) with only 37.8 percent of the popular vote. Living up to his commitment, in October 2019 Legault promised a referendum to decide whether Quebec should replace first past the post with a Mixed Member Proportional method. But pressure from the CAQ caucus led to the government’s watering down and delaying its passage through the legislature. When Covid struck, it provided a perfect pretext for pulling the plug.
In the election that took place this fall, the outcome, as predicted, was a landslide victory for the CAQ. It won 90 of 125 seats (72 percent) with only 41 percent of the popular vote, with Quebec's other parties almost equally dividing the remaining 60 percent. The Liberal Party of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received fewer votes (14.4 per cent) compared to Québec Solidaire’s 15.4 per cent, but - at 21, in predominantly non-francophone districts – won nearly double the number of QS seats. The Parti Québécois, with 14 per cent of the vote -- just 9,507 fewer than the Liberals -- won only three seats. Conservative leader Éric Duhaime was able to break through in the popular vote, with 12.9 per cent, but his party was shut out of the Quebec National Assembly.
Apart from the representational distortions and injustice, the result starkly illustrates another increasingly worrisome dimension to the negative consequences of our venerable “first past the post” electoral system. Outside the Montreal region, the CAQ averaged around 50 percent of the vote but won almost 100 percent of the seats. Meanwhile, its roughly 20 percent on the island of Montreal won it two seats at its extreme East end. So CAQ speaks loudly for Quebec outside of Montreal, and the other parties speak, mutedly, for Montreal. The Liberals are the official opposition, but will have a hard time acting as other than an Anglo-rights pressure group, with their supporters unrepresented in the many francophone districts. It is not an exaggeration to say that for the next few years, Quebec will be something close to a one-party state, with the only opposition occurring in the streets, if anywhere
Of course, the metropolis/hinterland divide is present well beyond Quebec. Congressional elections in the US again manifested the regional cleavage with the blue voters in red states and red voters in blue states not only unrepresented but effectively ignored. We can be sure that without electoral reform, this polarization can only intensify.
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