The power of political parties has become, perhaps increasingly, a common complaint of observers and participants in Icelandic politics and many of the proposed reforms of the political system have focused on reducing the power of political parties. For example, by introducing an element of a `personal vote’ into the electoral system (usually by adopting an open list proportional representation system) and measures to strengthen parliament vis-à-vis the executive.
The election of the constitutional assembly is a useful reminder that parties do serve an important function in politics. The constitutional assembly election saw over 500 candidates running for 25 seats – the great majority of which was unknown to most voters. As I have discussed before, learning about what these candidates stood for was an enormous and an overwhelming task for voters. Contrast that with a regular parliamentary election in Iceland where the number of candidates is probably of a similar magnitude. Yet voters don’t appear to have much difficult (most of the time) figuring out how to cast their votes in parliamentary elections. The reason is that the candidates stand for parties and the voters cast their votes for parties rather than candidates. And importantly, the parties usually have reasonably clearly formulated party platforms – choosing among 4-6 party platforms is a far easier task than choosing among 500 candidates. This is one of the primary roles of parties, i.e., to aggregate policy preferences and to formulate policy alternatives so that on election day voters simply face a choice among a handful of party platforms.
The downside, of course, is if the parties do a poor job of presenting voters with platforms that they would like to see. Overall, I think Icelandic political parties do a decent job of that – at the very least, most voters see the parties as representing different interests. Of course, it is possible to argue that while offering different policy alternatives, the political parties still fail to represent the wishes of a majority of voters – and opinions are likely to differ on that point. Regardless of what position one takes on that issue, it seems sensible to ask what the alternative might look like if one adopts institutional reforms aimed dismantling the party system in its current form. While extending voters’ ability to cast a personal vote arguably increases voters’ choice, those choices may ultimately be less meaningful. An open-list proportional representation system would increase the independence of MPs (and candidates) from their parties, allowing them to carve out their own policy platforms. The question then is, if I vote candidate X who runs for party Y but that candidate is not elected I may end up having supported a party whose MPs support policies that I don’t like that much. In the worst case scenario, party labels would a worthless signal about candidates policy preferences. A more likely scenario is that the party label will still provide a rough guide to its candidates’ ideological orientation. But it is not clear to me that it is desirable to introduce greater uncertainty into the mix. As it stands, voters have a difficulty predicting how their votes will influence policy – I may like a certain party but it may not always be in my best interest to vote for that party because I’m unsure which coalition will form after the election. Increasing the scope for casting personal vote would likely increase that uncertainty – now I would both be uncertain about which coalitions may form and also about who the people at the bargaining table will be.
Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that, essentially, we already have a system based on a personal vote. All the major parties regularly hold party primaries where voters, usually, determine the order of the candidates on the party lists. This fact points to an interesting question. First, if an electoral system based on a personal vote is seen as conducive to producing more independent MPs and a stronger parliament, why don’t the party primaries achieve this? Or turning things around, what is it about making the personal vote important in parliamentary elections that makes MPs more independent? My intuition is that MPs’ independence has less to do with the electoral system than the nature of parliamentary systems – MPs are forced to support the government lest they want to risk becoming a part of the opposition, which plays to the advantage of the cabinet. Moreover, most MPs dream of becoming ministers one day and defying the party leaders is rarely conducive to realizing that dream.
At any rate, it is not clear to me that the case for weak political parties has been made – it is easy to point at the Icelandic parties and argue that their strength limits the independence of MPs and the power of Althingi. The solution to those problems is usually treated as obvious – make the fortunes of MPs more independent of their parties – but I think it is also important to think more carefully about what the alternative might look like, i.e., what would politics with weak parties look like? I have already suggested that it may make voters’ choice more difficult but one might also wonder about how it would affect legislative politics. What happens when we don’t have strong parties to usher legislation through parliament? If I had to guess I would say it would be less efficient and more time consuming without necessarily making for better public policy – in order to cut through legislative stale mate, policy makers will be more likely to cut through legislative deadlock by catering to special interests. But that is just a guess – and there is no need to rely on guesses, there is some evidence, and possibly a lot of data, that could be used to answer questions such as these.