What Good is MMP Anyway?

November 11, 2009

This is the next in several posts on MMP and the debate around whether it should be retained or done away with in the referenda to take place over the next few years. Here I ask: What good is MMP anyway?

The traditional wisdom on proportional systems versus majoritarian systems (or MMP vs. FPP) is that proportional sytems are ‘nicer’ and more inclusive, whereas majoritarian systems are more effective. The logic behind this is pretty straightforward: The more parties in government, the more people get to have a say; with only one party in government decisions get made in a quick, decisive way.

But does this logic hold? Actually, in 1999 it was blown out of the water. Political scientist Arend Lijphard categorized 36 countries as consensual or majoritarian, but he also asked the ‘so what?’ question, and he found that on the whole the traditional wisdom was unfounded: there is no trade-off between quality and effectiveness of democratic government.

1. Economic development is at least as good under proportional (MMP) systems as under FPP. Successful macroeconomic management needs a steady hand as much as a strong one, and MMP systems are in fact better at managing inflation than FPP systems (though this is probably because they are associated with independent central banks).

2. Consensual systems like MMP are associated with less political violence like riots.

3. Consensual systems provide for better democracy: Higher voter turnouts, higher representation of minorities and women, more equal distribution of political power and less corruption.

4. Consensual systems are ‘nicer’: they have less people in prison and are less likely to use the death penalty, they have better social welfare systems, they are better at protecting the environment and provide more foreign aid.

Obviously you will have to read the book and look at the statistical analyses, but taken at face value these conclusions rob opponents of MMP of one of their main arguments: We can have our cake and eat it too – there is no trade-off between inclusiveness and quality of government and effectiveness or economic growth.