Britain’s odd election

2010-04-27 09:18

In Britain’s wildly unpredictable election, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s faltering Labour Party could finish third – but still end up running the country. The surging Liberal Democrats could get a third of the vote and a small fraction of the seats.

Britain’s complex – and some say bizarrely unfair – electoral system is emerging as a central issue in a ballot which, if no clear winner emerges, could induce a country steeped in tradition to finally move toward serious electoral reform.

The system has long given Brown’s party a head start on its rivals, allowing it to win more House of Commons seats with far fewer votes.

This is chiefly because Labour’s support is more evenly distributed across the constituencies and because the party tends to capture districts where there are fewer voters.

In recent elections, the main opposition Conservatives have needed not just more votes but a large margin of victory for a chance at seizing power.

Usually the winning party takes far fewer than half the votes, but emerges with a solid absolute majority anyway.

This time, the math suggests that the close-fought contest on May 6 is likely to deny all major parties an outright majority.
Although that is standard in many parliamentary democracies like Germany, it’s rare in Britain – where the last time it happened was 1974 – that Britons use a special term fraught with the suggestion of crisis: “a hung Parliament”.

Such an outcome could allow a wounded Brown to cling to power. But the price may be steep: he would be under intense pressure to permanently change the system that has given his party an electoral advantage.

Britain’s voting system is under the most intense scrutiny in a generation, largely thanks to a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats – the centrist, and perennially third-ranked, party who have swept ahead of Labour in opinion polls on the back of telegenic leader Nick Clegg’s show-stopping performances in TV debates.

For the first time since the 1930s, Britain appears to have a third credible contender to form a government.

But analysts find that the way Clegg’s likely voters, too, are distributed around the country, means his party could win a third of the popular vote yet claim only about 100 of the 650 House of Commons seats.

Clegg, who demands a European-style voting system that would permanently enhance his party’s chances, said: “I don’t think after this election it will ever be possible to put the genie back in the bottle.”

Wooing the Liberal Democrats could be critical in a Parliament without a majority. Although the law does allow a “minority government” to rule, in order to govern effectively, enjoy a moral mandate and pass legislation, it would need allies and perhaps even a coalition. So Brown or Conservative Party leader David Cameron will likely need Clegg.

It raises the prospect of the first sweeping changes to Britain’s electoral system since women won the vote in 1918, or the voting age dropped from 21 to 18 in the mid-1960s. – Sapa-AP

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