No, the allies did not “impose” MMP on Germany

An entry on the Whoa! Canada blog claims that the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system Germany uses was an imposition of the allied occupational authorities.

For those who don’t know, at the end of Second World War the victorious Allies governments imposed Mixed Member Proportional Representation on West Germany.

They did this specifically to prevent the rise of another Hitler.

Further on, it makes a specific claim about the then British Prime Minister, in a bold subheading of a section that actually does not even try to elaborate on its claim:

Winston Churchill knew Proportional Representation was a defence against fascism.

This is all very fanciful. The allied occupation authorities did not “impose” MMP on Germany, and the British in particular favored reverting to Germany’s pre-Weimar majoritarian system, as did the Americans. MMP was a product of compromise among the various German parties and the American, British, and French occupation governments.

The (unsourced) claim that Churchill saw PR as a bulwark against fascism is especially creative. At the time, PR was widely (if inaccurately) seen as responsible for the rise of the Nazis. If anything in the German system was adopted to be a bulwark against fascism, it was the 5% threshold–the very most non-proportional feature of the system to this day.

For a good overview of the adoption of MMP in Germany, see Susan E. Scarrow, “Germany: The Mixed-Member System as a Political Compromise,” in Matthew S. Shugart and Martin P. Wattengerg, eds., Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford University Press, 2001.

14 thoughts on “No, the allies did not “impose” MMP on Germany

  1. The idea of significant Allied intervention in the West German constitutional process seems to be a common myth about the settlement of WWII. Certainly many Americans seem to think the Germans were ‘gifted’ with democracy, despite that the present German constitution is little more than a bugfix on the Weimar constitution to prevent future Machtergreifungen.

  2. Here’s another good cite on the choice of MMP in Germany:

    The Logic of Institutional Preferences: German Electoral Law as a Social Choice Outcome
    Kathleen Bawn
    American Journal of Political Science
    Vol. 37, No. 4 (Nov., 1993), pp. 965-989

  3. This is almost as bad as a claim I read many years ago, that MMP was a compromise between the British and Americans who were used to FPTP, and the French and Soviets, who were “used to party list-PR”.

  4. A credible source, The Electoral Reform Knowledge Network (ACE), refers to the installation of MMP in Germany as an “External Imposition”. The same source also refers to some compromise. So, the premise of this blog seems like a fanciful splitting of hairs.1. 2.

    Winston Churchill stated on a number of occasions that, in general, he preferred proportional representation. I am not aware of any specific statements in respect of Germany.

    From ACE:

    ” External Imposition

    A small number of electoral systems were more consciously designed and imposed on nation states by external powers. Two of the most vivid examples of this phenomenon occurred in West Germany after the Second World War, and in Namibia in the late 1980s.

    In post-war Germany, both the departing British forces and the German parties were anxious to introduce a system which would avoid the damaging party proliferation and destabilisation of the Weimar years, and to incorporate the Anglo tradition of constituency representation because of unease with the 1919-1933 closed list electoral system which denied the voters a choice between candidates as well as parties.

    During 1946, elections in the French and American zones of occupation were held under the previous Weimar electoral system. In the British zone a compromise was adopted which allowed voters to vote for constituency members with a number of list PR seats reserved to compensate for any disproportionality that arose from the districts. Thus the Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP) system, which has since been emulated by a number of other countries, was born. This mixed system was eventually adopted for all parliamentary elections in 1949 but it was not until 1953 that two separate votes were introduced, one for the constituency member, and another based on the Länder, which ultimately determined the party composition of the Bundestag. The imposition of a five percent national threshold for party list representation helped focus the party system on three major groupings after 1949 – the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Free Democrats – although in all a total of 12 parties gained representation in those first post-war national elections.

    • The Ace Project is a terrific resource, but should not be considered more “credible” than the scholarly literature. We have in this thread two well documented sources (Scarrow, 2001, and Bawn, 1993) that show that the system was not an imposition by the allies.

      Besides, while the section quoted above from Ace Project has this passage under a sub-heading regarding external imposition, the plain text itself does not support the claim in the Whoa! Canada blog post referenced in the original post here. That claim was that it was the proportionality that was an imposition. The Ace Project passage quoted indicates an overriding concern of the British and others for avoiding “party proliferation”, not for introducing PR as an alleged bulwark against a resurgent Nazism. It goes on to note that the MMP system was a “compromise” (as indeed noted in the comment; I am not sure what hairs are being split, given the rather bold but unsubstantiated claim in the post to which I was responding).

      It actually might be challenging to find a text that so undermines the point of its very heading.

      • I disagree with the title to your blog, not with all of its substance. The focus of your tweets was also on “imposition”. Quibbling over whether MMP was imposed or negotiated is frivolous compared to some of the other defects of the the Whoa! Canada blog. .

        As to the “imposition”, another passage in ACE notes that MMP was created by the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany.
        The Basic Law was approved by the occupying forces prior to being ratified by state parliaments. No doubt here was negotiation involved to ensure acceptance of the new system by the Germans. But it was clear who was directing.

        “After the use of the absolute-majority Two Round System (TRS), see Two-Round System, in the German Empire, and the use of a pure proportional representation system in the Weimar Republic, see Mixed Member Proportional, a new electoral system was established by the Parliamentary Council in 1949. The system was created by the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany – the West German Constitution. It was thus a result of inter-party bargaining between democratic forces in West Germany. Like the Basic Law, it was originally considered to be provisional, but has remained essentially unchanged since 1949, see External Imposition.”

        I agree with most of your other comments. In my mind, the Weimar PR system was only a very minor factor in allowing the Nazis to assume control of Germany. There were major flaws in other democratic institutions and collusion with parties who were responsible for keeping the Nazis in check. The proliferation of political parties may have made it more difficult to form an effective opposition to the Nazis but exploitation of those weaknesses was driven by much more substantive factors. So to say that the imposition of MMP was to prevent the rise of another Hitler overstates the importance of this particular measure.

        The Whoa Canada blog is not presented as a scholarly endeavour …but merely a call to action on electoral reform. The quest for electoral reform is a political battle, not one of seeking facts and evidence. The latter is well documented after 14 Canadian studies on electoral reform which all recommend proportional representation.

    • I’d be curious to know of these quotes by Churchill supporting PR. I have not seen them, but I am no expert on the very quotable Sir Winston. Of course, the specific (un-refernced) claim at Whoa! Canada was that he indicated support for PR in the fight against fascism.

      • “…Having to choose, as we shall have to choose if we are to redress the constitutional injustice, between the Alternative Vote, the Second Ballot and Proportional Representation in the cities, I have no doubt whatever that the last is incomparably the fairest, the most scientific and, on the whole, the best in the public interest…”

        Quote: It was immediately following the election of February 1950 that Churchill, as Conservative
        Leader of the Opposition, proposed that a parliamentary select committee should be established to
        consider electoral reform. He was quoted as saying:

        “We must not be blind to the anomaly which has brought to this House 186 representatives who are returned only by a minority of those who voted in their constituencies. Nor can we overlook the constitutional injustice done to 2,600,000 voters who, voting upon strong
        tradition, have only been able to return nine members to Parliament. I do not think this is a matter we can brush aside or allow to lie unheeded. I make the solemn proposal to the Government that we should set up a Select Committee to inquire into the whole question of
        electoral reform. As to the composition of the committee I suggest it should be based upon the numbers of votes recorded by the electorate for the three parties which are represented in the House. Otherwise, I do not see how the Liberals would gain any representation.
        (Guardian 8 March 1950)”

        Quote: Indeed, Winston Churchill, opening the Second Reading debate for the Opposition, explicitly endorsed the principle of one
        person, one vote:

        “In regard to the representation of the House of Commons, there are two principles which have come into general acceptance. … The first is: “One man, one vote”; and the second is: “One vote, one value.” The first has been almost entirely achieved. There are only barely a
        quarter of a million votes out of 34 million which are not at present governed by the principle of “one man, one vote.” (Hansard, vol. 447, col. 858, 16 February 1948)

        Click to access Renwick_Electoral_Reform_in_the_UK_EPOP_2012.pdf

        Churchill said of first-past-the-post:
        “The present system has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any party, nor to any section of the community. In many cases they do not secure majority representation, nor do they secure an intelligent representation of minorities. All they secure is fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation.”


        “…He is supportive of electoral reform but he says the proposed change to Alternative Vote “adds new features of
        caprice and uncertainty to the conduct of each individual election.”

        He goes on:
        “The plan that they have adopted is the worst of all possible plans. It is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal that the
        Government have embodied in their Bill. The decision of 100 or more constituencies, perhaps 200, is to be determined by the most
        worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.That is what the Home Secretary told us to-day was “establishing
        democracy on a broader and surer basis.” Imagine making the representation of great constituencies dependent on the second
        preferences of the hindmost candidates. The hindmost candidate would become a personage of considerable importance, and the old
        phrase, “Devil take the hindmost,” will acquire a new significance. I do not believe it will be beyond the resources of astute wire-pullers to
        secure the right kind of hindmost candidates to be broken up in their party interests…””

  5. During third reading of the Representation of the People Bill, Churchill, back in the Tory fold, spoke against Alternative Vote (Hansard vol 253 p102, 02 June 1931). Concerning PR, he said “Therefore I was especially interested and glad to find that the Conservative delegates to the Three Party Conference agreed with the Liberal party representatives that, if a change had to be made — for which, of course, we are not pleading at the moment — proportional representation in the great cities was the least objectionable way of meeting the Liberal grievance and the constitutional defect. I have always disliked proportional representation on account of its complications, and I have not infrequently spoken of it in contemptuous terms … between the Alternative Vote, the Second Ballot and Proportional Representation in the cities, I have no doubt that the last is incomparably the fairest, the most scientific and, on the whole, the best in the public interest.”

    Scarcely a ringing endorsement of PR, It says nothing about the specific claim that PR would be a bulwark against fascism (unsurprisingly, since in 1931 he still viewed fascism as a bulwark against communism in Europe).

  6. You would wonder, if PR was a fixed Allied policy, why it was not imposed in the lower house of the Japanese diet where the Allied occupation authorities had a vastly freer hand than in Germany.

    • Well, they got SNTV, and I don’t think it unreasonable for them to have thought, at the time, that that wasn’t too different from PR.

  7. Churchill was not in a position to “impose” something like that on the Germans because the conservatives were in the oppositionduring the ’45-’51 term.

    And the German Basic Law doesn’t say anything about a specific electoral system and didn’t constrain the electoral system choice (later judgements of the constitutional court do)

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