Selecting a leader according to the people's true wishes

The purpose of having an election, is to find out what the people want, which candidate they'd prefer and support as a leader. It's part of a democratic regime for leaders and lawmakers to be chosen by all the citizens. It's especially important that the leader must have the support of a big majority of the population. The leader must make important decisions for the sake of the country and its people, and if she doesn't have the support of the people, she may have to use coercive methods to implement those decisions.

An election is set up supposedly so that the people can express without ambiguities their preferences for a leader. However, when the election, or the election method used, is faulty, problems start to arise in the society, because the leader may no longer represent the true wishes of the population. Thus the election method used should be carefully chosen so that citizens can express with clarity, truthfulness and unambiguity their true desire for leadership.

Worldwide, there is an apparent duality of opinion

The two great parties

Non USA citizens probably understand enough about US politics to know that there are only two big parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. They may not know that there actually are scores of other parties, albeit small and insignificant in political terms [19]. They may not know what differences (if any!) there are between the two main parties, but they will know for sure that US Presidential elections are disputed between two candidates, often ignoring the fact that much more candidates have actually entered the race [20 & 21]. The duality of American politics is very real.

Democratic and Republican performance in the US presidential elections since 1856:
Democratic Party
 46.05%  [ - ]
Republican Party
 47.72%  [ - ]
 6.23%  [ - ]
1856 - 2000: 37 presidential elections

The duopoly formed by the two main parties have invariably dominated the American elections since 1856. [3] Together, they score an average 94% of the vote.
  • 1856 was the first year a Republican was candidate. He got 33% of the popular vote and the Democratic candidate 45% (78% together). [15]
  • In 1860, the civil war upset the balance (69% together). [16]
  • The 1912 election is the most atypic: together, they scored only 65%. The Republican candidate even came out third, which is the only year such a thing happened! [17]
  • In 1992, Ross Perot's wealth was still not enough to seriously threaten the two big parties: Perot got 18% (which is huge for a third party, given the election method) leaving the Two with 80%. [18]
Excluding those four years, the Republican and the Democrats share among themselves over 96% of the vote in average.

This duality is observed in most, if not all free countries in the world. There is the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in the U.K., the Right parties and the Left parties in France (although the electoral system used in France, Runoff or two rounds plurality voting, ensures that there is a multitude of parties, those are clearly divided into two broad camps: the Left and the Right), the pan-blue camp and the pan-green camp in Taiwan, ROC, the Indian National Congress and its coalition allies on one side and the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies on the other in India...

Unstable equilibrium

There is no country with a stable trilogy of party, that is a country where politics is dominated by three parties, each being able to count on about a third of the popular vote. Such a system is actually unstable and would soon boil down to a two party system, like seen in Taiwan, ROC, at the beginning of this millennium, for example.

It has already been stated that most of the world's democracies use one form or another of plurality voting. Is it possible that there is a correlation between this duality and the election method used?

Most importantly, does this duality truly represent the wishes of the population?

Duverger: the electoral mechanics leading to a dual system

Plurality means Duality

It can be proven that the polarity of the political scene in so many countries is influenced by the election method used.

In Plurality Voting, each citizen has only one vote and can give this vote to only one candidate. This means that every vote cast for candidate A is a vote that candidate B will certainly not get. This simple algebraic fact has dramatic consequences on the nature of the election. Not only it tends to limit the voters' choice between two main candidates, or two big parties, but it is the reason why, as we shall see later, candidates don't hesitate much to use negative smearing campaign tactics to blacken their main rival, regardless of the fact that the population generally disapprove of such antics.

The reason why such a voting method limits the real choice to only the two main candidates is not so difficult to understand. It is in the nature of the game that candidates generally lust for power. They join the political race to win. Two parties with similar policies will split the votes cast among them, in effect making each of them weaker when facing a common political enemy. It is then likely that they will form alliances as necessary to make victory more certain.

Duverger's example of a plurality election (1)
 45%  [ 80,000 ]
Moderates (1)
 33%  [ 60,000 ]
Moderates (2)
 22%  [ 40,000 ]
Total Votes : 180,000

In his Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System, Duverger gives the following example: Let us assume an election district in which 100,000 voters with Moderate views are opposed by 80,000 communist voters. If the Moderates are divided into two parties, the communist candidate may well win the election; should one of his opponents receive more than 20,000 votes, the other will be left with less than 80,000, thereby insuring the election of the communist. [4]
(This was writen in 1973, when communist influence in politics was still very much a concern in western democracies). The Moderate votes are in effect split, making each Moderate candidate weaker than they could be if they united their force behind a single candidate.

The party wins, the voters lose

The French political scientist Maurice Duverger exposed in 1946 this mechanism which is now known as Duverger's Law [4]. To borrow his example, imagine a political scene shared by three parties. If a party looses by as little as one point to a to a party who has 40% of the votes, it will soon make an attempt to merge or make a power-sharing deal with a smaller party with similar views, so that they can, by uniting their support base, win the next election.

Parties have then a tendency to merge until remains two large parties each having just about half of the vote. Duverger also properly sensed that this was not merely a mechanical phenomenon, but also a sociological one: voters are well aware that a third party has no real chance to win the election. Voting for them is commonly seen as wasting one's vote. Citizens often prefer to use that vote to express their preferences between the two main candidates, thereby limiting further the much needed support to minority parties.

Duverger's example of a plurality election (2)
 45%  [ 80,000 ]
 55%  [ 100,000 ]
Total Votes : 180,000

In Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System, Duverger continues: The brutal finality of a majority vote on a single ballot forces parties with similar tendencies to regroup their forces at the risk of being overwhelmingly defeated. (...) In the following election, the two parties with moderate views will naturally tend to unite. Should they fail to do so, the weaker party would gradually be eliminated as a dual consequence of "under-representation" and "polarization." Under representation is a mechanical phenomenon. Elections determined by a majority vote on one ballot literally pulverize third parties (and would do worse to fourth or fifth parties, if there were any; but none exist for this very reason). [4]
Actually, in many countries, there are much more than 2 or 3 parties. They just don't get a chance to be represented. Voters understand intuitively what Duverger is talking about. They know that a vote for a third party is a "wasted" vote. That's why the huge majority of the elligible voters either vote for one of the two major parties, or just don't vote.

Please note that the small parties tend to remain small not because they don't represent the people's aspirations. Indeed, given a fair chance, some (but not all!) of the smaller parties could perform quite well in an election, even if not winning an outright victory. Whatever the case may be, minority parties don't grow and cannot grow because people vote against the big candidate they hate the most rather than for the one (big or small) they like the best.

Thus, in a plurality election, voters are often prevented to show their true preferences. The winning candidate may or may not be the one the nation would have preferred. We shall not know until we change to a much fairer voting system, one that can highlight the general population's true feelings about a wide range of candidates.

Duverger's Law, Live from Taiwan, a new democracy

Taiwan 2000 presidential elections

The process of smaller parties uniting to prevail over their main rival is happening today, in newer democracies. It happens just like Duverger predicted it probably would.

It is notably the case in Taiwan, the free and democratic Republic of China. The 2000 presidential election was a 5 way race. There were three strong contendants. The other two, whatever their merit and real support, never got a fair chance because all the votes went to the three main candidates in an extremely close contest. The real choice was then limited to:

If Lien and Song represented the mainstream Chinese, Chen was the flagbearer of the growing fringe of the population with a strong Taiwanese consciousness. Chen was finally narrowly elected with 39% against 36% Song and 23% to Lien. His victory was solely due to the vote being split between his two main adversaries. He can thank James Song for defecting the KMT and running against the wishes of his former party. [10 & 11]

Taiwan 2000 presidential election results
Chen Shui-bian
VP: Annette Lu
(DPP / Democratic Progressive Party)
 39.3%  [ 4,977,737 ]
James Song
VP: Chang Chau-Hsiung
 36.8%  [ 4,664,932 ]
Lien Chan
VP: Vincent Siew
(KMT / Nationalist Party)
 23.1%  [ 2,925,513 ]
Hsu Hsin-liang
VP: Josephine Chu
 0.63%  [ 79,429 ]
Lee Ao
VP: Elmer Fung
(New Party)
 0.13%  [ 16,782 ]
Total Votes : 12,664,393

James Song, the candidate who came second, really thought he had a chance of winning this election. He was a notable member of the KMT, but when the party endorsed Lien Chan, he defected the KMT to run as an independant. He eventually created his own party, the PFP (People First Party).
The split of the "blue" vote between Song and Lien allowed the opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian to get elected. Even then, his victory came as a shock to many, not least Song's supporters. Thus Taiwan came out of over 50 years of KMT regime. The democratization process of the country made a big step forward by having its very first transition of power.
In any case, there wasn't obviously enough room for more than three candidates. The competition was so intense between the three main candidates, that Hsu Hsin-liang and Lee Ao never got a fair chance to show how big their true support base was. [10, 11 & 13]

Taiwan is a country with a mix of different voting methods for different elections. The presidential election obviously is a single seat election. The legislative election however are multiple seats elections, introducing a certain amount of proportionality in the result. Like in all proportional elections, small parties have more space to thrive, and they do in legislative elections in Taiwan. To the left of the DPP, there is notably the TSU (Taiwan Solidarity Union) which is fiercely pro-independence. To the right of the KMT, there is James Song's party, the PFP, the party of the "mainlanders" (Chinese people who retreated to Taiwan with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek in 1946).

Small parties are however forced to cooperate with either one of the two bigger parties in single seat (presidential) elections and also but to a somewhat lesser extent in multi-seat (legislative) elections.

The lines are have been drawn since around 2001: Taiwan is experiencing its own duality, with on one side the Pan-Blue camp representing the conservative Chinese nationalists (KMT and PFP), and on the other side the Pan-Green camp representing the growing local, Taiwanese consciousness (DPP and TSU).

Taiwan 2004 presidential elections

There were 5 presidential candidates in 2000, but only two in 2004. With the incumbent Chen Shui-bian running for a second term, and the two 2000 runner-ups uniting their force in a joint ticket, any third presidential hopeful would have been reserved the fate of the last two candidates in 2000: they would most probably garner at best a fraction of a percent of the votes.

Taiwan 2004 presidential election results
Chen Shui-bian
VP: Annette Lu
(DPP / Democratic Progressive Party)
 50.11%  [ 6,471,970 ]
Lien Chan
VP: James Song
(KMT / Nationalist Party and PFP / People First Party)
 49.89%  [ 6,442,452 ]
Total Valid Votes : 12,914,422
Total Invalid Votes: 337,297

The two pan-blues candidates who came out second and third in 2000 decided to unite forces (as Duverger would have predicted), to run on the same ticket in 2004, with KMT candidate as presidential candidate and PFP candidate James Song as vice-presidential candidate.
The irony is that those two fiercely criticized each other during the 2000 election (they saw as each other's biggest rival).
Meanwhile, the Chen/Lu pair set out to demonstrate that 1 + 1 doesn't equal 2, i.e. that the Lien/Song pair's share of the vote in 2004 wouldn't be equal to 60%, the sum of both Lien and Song's score in 2000. In that respect, Chen turned out to be right!
Also worth noting is that as the competition was predicted to be fierce, no third candidate dared to come forward just to get a fraction of a percent of the votes. [10 to 14]

In 2004, Chen would have had a very easy victory had the opposition vote been split again. The two unhappy hopefuls from the 2000 election knew this and decided to unite their forces in order to defeat Chen together. Lien and Song run the 2004 presidential election in a joint president/vice-president ticket. So, from the 5 tickets present in 2000, the choice was reduced to 2 tickets. In 2004, the 4 presidential and vice-presidential candidates had already taken part in the election 4 years before. Chen and his running mate, Annette Lu, finally won with a tiny margin the contested election. [10 to 14]

A TSU candidate would never have had a chance to get elected. That's why none came forward. The TSU campaigned instead for Chen, the DPP leader. The only way for PFP leader James Song to get elected was by making a power-sharing deal with KMT candidate Lien Chan.

We have just witnessed in Taiwan the process by which a plurality of political parties and opinions is inevitably reduced to a duality of parties confronting each other. This process is still taking place in this new democracy (the president was directly elected by the people for the first time in 1996). On one side, James Song who defected the KMT in 2000 to form the PFP, is now negotiating with the KMT to merge the two parties. On the other side of the political spectrum, the president's party is closely cooperating with the more pro-independence (from Communist China's interference) party, the TSU.

In Taiwan, by the third fully democratic presidential election, the broad dividing lines have already been drawn, and it is clear that the political division is here to stay in the foreseeable future. This mechanism already took place a long time ago in established democracies like France, the U.K. and the USA...

Echos from the Past: 19th Century USA

Early American presidential elections (1789-1832)

We have seen above that the political debate in the US is dominated by two parties. It has been so for such a long time that it is difficult to imagine today that it could have ever been otherwise. In 1856, it was the first time that the Republican Party fielded a candidate in the presidential elections. It was also the debut for the Democratic/Republican duopoly. Yet, there was a time not long before that when the situation looked much different.

Looking back at the first ever American president election, in 1789, the candidates all represented themselves. There wasn't as yet any party. By the next election, in 1792, the candidates were already members of a variety of parties, the most prominent of which was quite ironically, called the Democratic-Republican Party!

The interesting thing is that up until 1836, it was the norm for more than one candidate to represent the same party. Indeed, in 1820 and 1824, all the candidates were Democrat-Republicans.

The Democratic Party became the first organized party in the US. In 1828, they fielded a single candidate who won easily facing the Nat'l Republican Party candidate. [3]

1836 presidential election: half of the voters are given the choice

In 1836, the Whig Party made its entry on the American political scene [2]. From that year up until 1852, presidential election will be dominated by the candidates from both the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. In 1836 however, it was not a problem for the organized Democrats supporting a single candidate, to defeat the three Whig candidates who were running at the same time. [5]

USA 1836 presidential elections (popular vote)
Martin Van Buren
 50.83%  [ 764,176 ]
William Harrison
 36.63%  [ 550,816 ]
Hugh White
 9.72%  [ 146,107 ]
Daniel Webster
 2.74%  [ 41,201 ]
Other / Write-ins
 0.08%  [ 1,234 ]
Total Votes : 1,503,534

The Democratic Party is the USA's first orginized political party. Up to 1824, it was common to see several candidates with the same party affiliation compete with each other. But in 1828, the Democrats decided to put their strength behind a single candidate.
On the other hand, the newly appeared Whig Party [1 & 2] was represented by 3 different candidates, effectively splitting the votes between them. Thus, the Democratic candidate, like in 1828 and 1832, had an easy victory.
Martin Van Buren won the electoral vote with 170 votes (57.8%) against 73 votes (24.8%) for William Harrison. [5]

It would be the last time in US presidential election history that the vote for a party would be seriously split between two or more candidates.

The Whig would learn that year the lessons that the Democrats learned 8 years before them. They learned what James Song (PFP) and Lien Chan (KMT) learned in 2000 in Taiwan. They learned, as we saw above, what is now called Duverger's Law. Divided, they have no chance against an organized party, a political machine geared towards electoral victory. If an election method such Approval or Condorcet were in use, it would of not have been necessary to select only one candidate. All of them could have run together and the whole population could have made its own choice.

1840 presidential election: one candidate on each side

The next time around, William Harisson, the Whig candidate who came second in 1836, was the sole Whig candidate in 1840. With the two camps having their leader, the battle was much more even and this time the Whigs met with a different fortune, by winning the election. [6]

USA 1840 presidential elections (popular vote)
Martin Van Buren
 46.81%  [ 1,128,854 ]
William Harrison
 52.88%  [ 1,275,390 ]
Other / Write-ins
 0.31%  [ 7,564 ]
Total Votes : 2,411,808

The Whig party members were quick to understand the cause of their previous defeat. This time they all campaigned actively behind a single candidate, like the Moderates did in Duverger's example and like Lien and Song did much later, in Taiwan.
William Harrison won the electeral vote with 234 votes (79.6%) against 60 votes (20.4%) for Martin Van Buren.
Between 1840 and 1852, American politics was dominated by a Democrat/Whig duopoly, before giving place in 1856 to the Democrat/Republican duopoly. [6]

Duverger never said that it's impossible for a third party to win an election. He just noted that this sociological effect of plurality voting would tend to favor only two parties, and that given some important social changes, a third party could rise very quickly to the top while one of the two former top parties would fall to the bottom equally quickly. [4]

It happened to the Whig Party. Risen out of nowhere in 1836, they held their ground up until 1852 but they were already all but completely gone in 1856, the voters having defected them in favor of the newly established Republican Party who made a strong showing at their first election in 1856, increased their foothold in 1860 and won their first presidency in 1964, only at their third attempt.

The fact that there cannot be a stable equilibrium with one strong party and two weak ones, is the reason why we see a party experiencing a dramatic rise and, eventually, an equally rapid fall.

As Duverger rightly points out, it is also the fate experienced by the Liberal-Democrats in the UK at the end of the 19th century. Starting from a leading position, the party was almost completely extinct after only three general elections.

But it takes the right social conditions in a country for an upstart party to replace one of the big two parties at the top. In 1992, US presidential candidate Ross Perrot put a large chunk of his huge wealth on the table. This helped him to score 18%, the highest score for a third party candidate since the American Civil War (excluding 1912 wich was a freak election year [17]). In the process, he spoiled G.Bush's bid at a second term, helping Bill Clinton to get elected instead. [18] In 1996 however, the situation was different: Ross Perrot clearly was not representing a deep fundamental change in US society. People saw him for what he really was: a third contender, i.e. not one of the two lead contenders. Understanding that he had no real chance to win, voters deserted him. Perrot was left with 8% of the votes in 1996 and didn't bother coming forward again in 2000.

With Plurality voting, power is definitely going to go to one of only two parties, and those parties are going to hold primaries in some way, to preselect the best candidate to represent the party.

Also on the Web...

  1. The American Whig Party (roughly from 1834-1856) a brief history of the party.
    It is not very clear. It speaks a lot about Jackson who was president before the Whigs appeared on the electoral charts. It leaves me a bit confused, yet more informed than I was before I found this little article.
  2. The American Whig Party (1834-1856) a brief history of the party.
    The same article as above, but slightly edited, split over several pages and with with more flashy html.
  3. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections All in depth results for all US presidential elections.
    A great source of information.
  4. Maurice Duverger, "Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System" in Party Politics and Pressure Groups (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972), pp. 23-32. The Technical Factor: The Electoral System.
    See also [9]
  5. 1836 Presidential Election Results
    From the Atlas mentionned above [3].
  6. 1840 Presidential Election Results
    From the Atlas mentionned above [3].
  7. Plurality voting (Wikipedia)
    The Wikipedist assimilited Plurality voting with First Past The Post, which I disagree. Just to give an example, Runoff (two rounds) elections are also a form of Plurality voting. See their Voting system page.
  8. Majority-Plurality Systems (ACE Website) Index page with links to four pages detailing what they consider as plurality voting: First Past the Post, Block Vote, Alternative Vote and Two-Round System.
    Their definition of Alternative Vote very much sounds like IRV, which is certainly not a plurality voting method. Otherwise, it is a nicely organized site. See their Index page. A good reference.
  9. Duverger's law (Wikipedia) Duverger's Law is a principle which asserts that a first-past-the-post election system naturally leads to a two-party system. The discovery of this principle is attributed to Maurice Duverger, a French sociologist who observed the effect and recorded it in several papers published in the 1950s and 1960s. In the course of further research, other political scientists began calling the effect a "law".
    See also [4]
  10. Taiwanese election results (Wikipedia) List of all the presidential and legislative elections.
    They have good articles about the 1996, 2000 and 2004 elections, but the results for the legislative elections are still missing.
  11. Taipei Times, Sun, Mar 19, 2000 Full coverage of the results of the Taiwan 2000 presidential elections.
  12. Year 2004 Referendum and Presidential Elections (New Taiwan, Ilha Formosa) Pre-election coverage of the campaign with introduction of the candidates.
    See also their pre-election introduction of the 2000 presidential candidates.
  13. ROC Central Election Commission Official web site in Chinese.
    I'm sorry to see that the head of the Commission uses the English web site main page to promote himself. Speak about public service! Here, you won't get any service in English unless you hire him. Fortunately, I understand Chinese. Anyway, I found the list of the past elections, with results. In chinese, of course.
  14. Taipei Times, Sat, Mar 20, 2004 Full coverage of the results of the Taiwan 2004 presidential elections results and election eve shooting.
  15. 1856 Presidential Election Results
    From the Atlas mentionned above [3].
  16. 1860 Presidential Election Results
    From the Atlas mentionned above [3].
  17. 1912 Presidential Election Results
    From the Atlas mentionned above [3].
  18. 1992 Presidential Election Results
    From the Atlas mentionned above [3].
  19. Directory of U.S. Political Parties A quite extensive list of parties who have fielded a candidate at least once, with the party name, logo and a short description and party history for each.
    Woah! I knew there were more than two parties in the US, but I just didn't know how many there were. There are two parties missing in this list though: Americans for Condorcet Voting Party, and Americans for Approval Voting Party!
  20. All Candidates for President and Vice President A comprehensive list of all 2004 US hopefuls.
    I can't believe that there are so many candidates! How big will the ballot be?
    A very interesting thing in this site is their National Political Awareness Test showing candidates' or elected officials' stance on a variety of issues. Voting Method reform should be included in this test. Also, they have Special Interest Group Ratings, where the groups can rate the candidates. Not many groups (if any) seem to have rated the candidates, but that's one thing we definitely should do.
  21. Presidency 2004 Politics1 presents our profiles of the White House hopefuls. President Bush, John Kerry -- plus all the third party and Independent candidates -- you can find them all here, plus lots of other P2004 resources!! Cast an informed vote on Election Day - Tuesday, November 2, 2004.
    This site and the one just above are very interesting to be properly informed and cast your ballot accordingly. The only problem is that the election method used renders the exercise a bit pointless.