A Different Democracy

I am pleased to announce the publication of my newest book, coauthored with a distinguished team (Steven L. Taylor, Arend Lijphart, and Bernard Grofman):

A Different Democracy:
American Government in a 31-Country Perspective

cover A Different Democracy crop

Published by Yale University Press (2014). From the publisher’s description:

Four distinguished scholars in political science analyze American democracy from a comparative point of view, exploring how the U.S. political system differs from that of thirty other democracies and what those differences ultimately mean for democratic performance. This essential text approaches the following institutions from a political engineering point of view: constitutions, electoral systems, and political parties, as well as legislative, executive, and judicial power. The text looks at democracies from around the world over a two-decade time frame. The result is not only a fresh view of the much-discussed theme of American exceptionalism but also an innovative approach to comparative politics that treats the United States as but one case among many. An ideal textbook for both American and comparative politics courses.

The back cover:

The books actually arrived in September, but I am only now getting around to the “announcement”.

Staggering–towards a typology

Offered as a public service, in response to a comment from JD, who observed:

To my knowledge, the following countries have partial renewal besides the US: Chile, Argentina, Czech Rep., France (indirect, of course).

I remember someone offering a detailed terminology for different types of staggered election. Does someone recall which thread that was?

I don’t think said terminology was offered here (or at least not by me), but it is an obvious F&V topic. So, let’s give it a try.

I plant this under “bicameralism” because, at least at the national level, the topic mainly concerns second chambers. However, it should be noted that Argentina continues to have staggered terms for its first chamber. At one time, so did Luxembourg, although they abandoned it decades ago.

By definition, staggering means that some members of a legislative chamber are elected at different times* than other members of the same chamber, generating “classes” of members according to when their seats are next up for election. It has entered the discussion due to the observation (by, for instance, my UC Davis colleague Ben Highton in February) that this year’s class of US Senate seats was especially unrepresentative of the partisan breakdown of the country as a whole.

Any typology of staggering would consider variables such as whether districts alternated in which were in play across elections or whether some fraction of each district’s seats came up at every election. I am sure there are other variables…

Please note the M-dash in the title of the post, as the meaning rather changes if it is omitted.

* Or for different term lengths, although as far as I know this variable is relevant only for a new chamber, or when the staggered schedule is being reset (as after a double dissolution in Australia.)

Visualizing the impact of two-seat districts

In response to my post about the two-seat districts in Burkina Faso, David Altman (a leading scholar on Chilean and comparative politics) contacted me to say I was not quite right in my contention that the Chilean experience showed that two-seat districts systematically advantage the second party or bloc. Fair enough. I made my point utterly without nuance–as if the second list was always advantaged more than the first–and I elided the distinction between national and district-level effects.

David showed me a graph he had generated in which it is clear that, on average, there is little difference between the vote-seat gap for the main center-left alliance and that of the right-wing alliance; in fact, the gap tended to be slightly higher for the center-left. It is the right that has been consistently second in nationwide votes, so the data seemed to challenge my “systematic” claim.

In the Burkina Faso post, I went over a number of examples from the district level in that country where there was a large advantage in terms of the translation of votes into seats for the second party. I do not think David and I disagree about the district-level effects. But what about the national?

For reasons Taagepera and Laakso* first emphasized in 1980, the best way to visualize how electoral systems treat parties (or alliances) is not by using the difference between seat and vote shares for each party, but by the advantage ratio, A:

    A=(percent seats)/(percent votes).

This is the approach I will use here. The first graph simply plots the distribution of A values in the Chilean elections from 1989 to 2013 (Chamber of Deputies only), using a kernel density plot. It also marks the arithmetic means with vertical dashed lines.

Chile Adv ratios kdens

Of course, with only seven elections, we should be cautious in interpreting how “systematic” the effect is. Yet the trend is clear: the right-wing alliance (referred to in the graph as “Alianza” and shown in blue) has a notable tendency to have higher advantage ratios than has the center-left (“Concertación”).** Yet in every election the Alianza has been second in nationwide votes, albeit by widely varying margins.

The second graph shows the advantage ratio against the nationwide gap in votes between the two parties (Concertación vote share minus Alianza vote share), with each election labelled.

Chile A vs vote gap

Note that as the gap grows, there is a tendency of the Alianza’s advantage ratio to increase. There is actually a small such tendency for the Concertación, too, although it is much closer to a flat line. More importantly, we would normally expect that as the top two parties/alliances grow farther apart in votes, the first one would gain more in seat share. Yet what the Chilean pattern shows us is that the second one gains more, relative to its vote share, as the gap grows. This is not something we would expect under any other district magnitude (except maybe M=4) under any proportional (or semi-proportional) allocation rule. It is this “relative to its vote share” point that I meant to convey. Two-seat districts are a good way to get the second force more over-representation than that of the first force.

If we turn to individual elections, we see that Alianza data point is higher than that for the Concertación in 1989, 1993, and 2005, all years in which the Alianza was more than ten percentage points behind the Concertación, plus in 2009 when the two alliances were almost even in votes. On the other hand, the large vote gap for the Concertación in two elections, 1997 and 2013, resulted in a higher advantage ratio for the Concertación. In 2013 I assume that has to do with the center-left having expanded its electoral reach by incorporating new parties and rebranding its list as Nueva Mayoría. I am not sure what the explanation is in 1997; the gap was large that year, but as the data plot shows, not unusually so.

I find it interesting that the worst year for the Concertación, by this standard, was 2005, which I had noted at the time as being unusual in having a bloc of parties compete against each other in the first round of the presidential elections while remaining united on legislative lists–the Alianza’s two main component parties had separate presidential candidates. The result in the legislative races was their best advantage ratio since the first democratic election of 1989.

It looks to me like two-seat districts in Chile have indeed generated a systematic greater advantage to the second alliance over the first, even if the effect is tempered by other features of specific elections.

* Rein Taagepera and Markku Laakso, “Proportionality Profiles of West European Electoral Systems,” European Journal of Political Research 8 (1980):423-46; see also Rein Taagepera and Matthew S. Shugart, Seats and Votes: The Effects and Determinants of Electoral Systems (Yale University Press, 1989), in particular chapter 7.

** The right has run under different names in different elections. I am using “Alianza”; the center-left changed names from Concertación to Nueva Mayoría in 2013.


The data, by year (pardon the plain text formatting):

year Conc_votes Alianz_votes A_Conc A_Alian
1989 .515 .342 1.116505 1.169591
1993 .554 .367 1.052948 1.135331
1997 .505 .363 1.138614 1.078972
2001 .479 .443 1.078636 1.072235
2005 .518 .387 1.045689 1.162791
2009 .444 .435 1.06982 1.111111
2013 .477 .362 1.17051 1.127993
Mean .4988571 .3855714 1.096103 1.122575

Electoral reform debate in Burma

Burma’s parliament is currently debating electoral reform ahead of next year’s election, as part of a wider constitutional debate.

Burma, which had been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962, has recently embarked on a path of democratisation. Since a new constitution was passed in 2008, a lot of progress has been made, including the freeing of most political prisoners and expansion of civil liberties: people have become far freer to criticise the government and some public demonstrations are being permitted, something completely unknown just ten years ago.

Burma’s current constitution came into force in a 2008 referendum. Consequently, legislative elections were held in 2010 for three-quarters of each house, the other one-quarter being appointed by the military. In the House of Nationalities, the upper house, each state or region* elects twelve members, with the lower house representing by population, for a total of 168/224 and 330/440 seats respectively (elected/total); all elections were by single seat plurality. The election was not considered free and fair, and was boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy, whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was still under house arrest at the time. The military government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) captured an outright majority in both houses (over two-thirds of all elected seats).

Under the new constitution, the president is elected indirectly, with the military and both houses of parliament each having one vote. After the 2010 election, USDP leader and incumbent premier in the military government, Thein Sein, was elected president, taking office in 2011 and forming the country’s first fully civilian government under the new constitution. Though many expected the new government to act as a proxy for the military and for the new parliament to act as a rubber stamp, both have shown surprising independence and commitment to democratisation; even military-appointed MPs aren’t always voting as a bloc.

In 2012, more than forty by-elections were held (on a single day), mostly to fill seats vacated by MPs appointed to Sein’s cabinet. With Suu Kyi having been released, the NLD decided to take part. Despite continuing irregularities, the by-elections were regarded as freer than the general election two years prior. Almost all seats were won by the NLD, with Suu Kyi winning a huge majority in her own constituency. The NLD has confirmed that it will contest the next general election, scheduled for October next year.

A few months ago, an electoral reform proposal introducing PR was passed in the upper house, and it has been debated in the lower house since then. Unsurprisingly, the proposal is backed by the USDP, which can expect a near-wipeout next year if first-past-the-post is kept, as indicated by the by-elections. This would replicate the result of the 1990 election (ultimately rejected by the junta) where the NLD won just shy of 80% of seats on 53% of the vote.

The NLD, probably for the very same reason, strongly opposes PR, at times offering arguments as silly as that PR favours large parties while suppressing small ones. At best, they’ve called for a referendum on the topic. Many from ethnic minorities are also opposed, with some taking to the streets to demonstrate against the proposal. The opposition of minorities is perhaps surprising considering the nature of PR, but in Burma most ethnic minorities are geographically concentrated and so benefit from FPTP.

The exact reform on the table is not yet clear, as the the lower house seems to have abandoned the original proposal, appointing a special commission, which came up with a number of alternatives. Besides PR, the commission put forward a number of hybrids, some of which envisage different systems for different regions of the country, with the ethnic states to retain a more majoritarian system. Either way, considering the USDP’s parliamentary majority and the assured support of military appointees, it seems all but certain that some change will be made by the time of next year’s election.

* Burma has 7 ‘states’, where ethnic minorities, such as the Shan and Karen, form majorities, and 7 ‘regions’, where the Bamar majority is dominant.

Burkina Faso a-Blaise

Burkina Faso, a marginal democracy, perhaps, but one with competitive elections, is suddenly in the news. Government buildings are ablaze, and its president, Blaise, is in danger of overthrow. So my thoughts naturally turned towards the question of how the country’s parliament is elected.

Balise Compaoré has been president for 27 years. The trigger to today’s violence and declaration of a state of emergency, and reports of some soldiers defecting, was a meeting of the parliament to consider lifting a term limit that otherwise prevents Compaoré from running yet again in 2015.

The most recent presidential election was in 2010, and it was not exactly a close contest. Compaoré won 80.2%. He had won a similar total five years earlier, which was quite a decline from his 87.5% in the election before that.

In the election for parliament (which was dissolved late today), held in 2012, however, the president’s party was in a much less dominant position. The Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), won 48.7% of the national votes and 70 of 127 (55%) of the seats. No other single party was close–the two next largest parties each had around 11% of the vote and 18 and 19 seats–but the election results over the past fifteen or so years show a general, if slow, decline in CDP dominance.

The electoral system is unusual and interesting. As best I can tell, it is a parallel two-tier PR system. There is a national tier with a district magnitude (M) of 16, of which the CDP won 8 seats. This tier is quite clearly not compensatory: the seats won here are just added to the seats won in the provincial contests. It is in the latter that things get interesting. There are 111 provincial seats divided among 45 provincial districts. This works out to an average magnitude (ignoring the national seats) of 2.47.

Of the 45 districts, 37 have M=2. These 74 seats represent two thirds of all the seats in the provincial tier, and 58% of the entire parliament. This must be the highest share of two-seat districts of any country other than Chile (where all districts in both houses elect two members*). As we know from Chile, or from electoral-system theory, two-seat districts with a non-majoritarian formula systematically favor the second-largest party or alliance, in contrast to the usual rule that smaller magnitudes favor larger parties under proportional or “semi”-proportional allocation formula. Such over-representation was the explicit aim of the Chilean system’s designers, who were inside the former dictatorship and had evidence from the 1988 plebiscite that they would be the second largest political force in the country upon a return to fair elections.

I know nothing about Burkina Faso politics prior to what I have learned today, but it is hard to imagine that an electoral system with a majority of its seats elected in two-member districts was not deliberately designed to offer a boost to the second political force in each province. I can’t say the second nationally, as in Chile, because it appears that there is no single nationwide force in opposition to the CDP. Even so, the second largest party, the Union for Progress and Change, with 19 seats in the parliament, was significantly overrepresented: 14.96% of the seats on 11.1% of the national votes. (I should note that it is not clear to me whether voters get a single vote or separate national and provincial votes, although it seems that they might be separate; Adam Carr reports “voting for members elected from national lists” and that is what I am referring to here, until I turn to “voting for members elected by province” below). The 18 seats for the third largest party in parliament, the Alliance for Democracy, give it 14.17% on 11.2% of the votes. So the Chilean pattern is evident here, too.

Moreover, unlike Chile’s use of D’Hondt, in which a list wins both seats if it doubles the votes of the second list in the district, in Burkina Faso there are cases of the second list being well under half the votes of the CDP yet getting a seat. So not only the district magnitude, but also the formula, appear designed to boost the seat share of the runner-up. Take the case of Banwa province. Here the CDP had 55.6% of the vote and the Alliance for Democracy had 15.3%. That’s a votes ratio of 3.6:1. Yet each has one seat. There are numerous other examples of ratios of 2.5:1 or greater in the two-seat districts, but the seats splitting 1:1.

Of course, sometimes the CDP is not the largest party in a province, and the M=2 system then benefits it. For example, in Bougouriba, the CDP won 37.8% to 42.4% for the Union for Progress and Change. There are three other districts, all with M=2, where the CDP came in second place, but strong enough to get a seat. In addition, there were six districts, also all M=2, where the CDP managed both seats on vote percentages ranging downward from 88% to 60.3%.

What about the districts with magnitudes greater than two, aside from the national district? We have four cases of M=4, two of M=3, and one each of M=6 and M=9. Note the dominance of even magnitudes. Aside from M=2, the most favorable to parties other than the largest would be, of course, M=4. In each the four M=4 districts, the CDP got two seats on vote percentages ranging from 37.8% to 52.4%. In one of them, Yatenga, the runner-up won both of the other seats on just 35.5% of the vote (to the CDP’s 45.5%). This was one of only two provincial districts in which a party other than the CDP won more than one seat; the other was the one M=9 district. Even there, the second party was somewhat over-represented (2 seats on 20.2%).

The CDP’s 55% of the nationwide seats on 48.7% of the national list votes is, of course, over-representation. However, based on Adam Carr’s results showing different numbers of parties contesting some provinces than others, and often fewer than are reported in the national list results, there likely are separate ballots. If there are, it is possible that the CDP’s aggregate provincial list vote is more than 50%.** In any case, it is clear that the party would have won many more seats if not for an electoral system that systematically over-represents whichever list comes second in a given province.

It appears the district tier of the current system may already have been in place in 2007, with the parliament consisting of 111 seats, the same number as the 2012 sum of provincial seats.*** In that election the CDP won 59% of the votes and around 65% of the seats, but the second largest party was over-represented despite trailing far behind (14 seats on 10.7% of votes). In 2002, by contrast, the system had divided 91 seats among 13 regional districts (with no national tier). That means an average magnitude of seven; the range was 2-10, but only one district had M=2 in that election. The CDP then won 47 seats on 49.5% of the vote, an almost proportional result even if technically a manufactured majority. That’s at least three different electoral systems in three elections–stability in the presidency, but institutional instability for a legislature that is much less dominated by the ruling party.

Burkina Faso politics suddenly look interesting!


* Pending an in-progress electoral reform.

** The motivated reader is encouraged to convert the results to spreadsheet (or search for a source that has them in such a format already) and let us know in a comment.

*** Adam Carr does not show district-level results in 2007.

Fixed term parliaments to be revisited?

Democratic Audit UK has a good discussion of the issue of fixed terms for the UK House of Commons, which were legislated by the current coalition government that took power following the 2010 election. A group of Tory backbenchers has proposed doing away with the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

With a single-party majority in 2015 looking unlikely, it is not surprising that many Conservatives would prefer a return to the old pattern whereby a minority single-party government would just bide its time till things looked promising for going to the polls and potentially securing a parliamentary majority. (As I have noted in the recent past, there are such attitudes present in Labour Party quarters, as well.)

Arguments given by supporters of repeal are that MPs are more accountable when elections could come at any time and (predictably, given the source) that fixed terms give the junior partner in a coalition too much power. In the event of a future coalition, the supporters of repeal suggest there could be a “gentleman’s agreement” that the coalition should end only when both parties wish it to end. (Isn’t that precisely that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was for? To make sure the “gentlemen” could mutually police their agreement?)

Democratic Audit’s editorial offers a series of reasons why keeping fixed terms is preferable. This was a matter that was discussed in a couple of threads here (#1, #2) at the time. What do readers think now?

Botswana election, 2014

I’ve long been skeptical of Botswana’s classification as democratic/free by standard datasets we political scientists rely on. Based on a pre-election report by Amy Poteete for The Monkey Cage, skepticism seems justified. Mysterious accidents and other odd events involving political rivals, increasing partisan use of state assets…

The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), the only ruling party Botswana has ever known, is feeling the heat, and is experiencing internal tension, including cases of losers in candidate selection running against the party’s official choice.

In the 2009 election, the BDP won over three fourths of the seats* on just 53% of votes (FPTP). That’s some serious disproportionality, but a result like that reveals electoral precariousness.

Using the dataset of the Constituency Level Electoral Archive, I took a look at just how many seats the BDP won only narrowly in 2009. In that election, its median margin over the runner-up was .188 of the district’s valid vote. It would need to lose at least 15 seats to fail to retain its majority. The 15th most marginal seat was won by .116. (Five were under .05.) There were 17 seats that it won with vote shares below that of its nationwide share of .533, including seven won with under half the vote. Thus the party looks somewhat vulnerable if there is a modest swing against it or if the defecting candidates are in close districts and take some chunk of the BDP vote with them.

Nonetheless, the BDP in 2009 did not face a single opponent in many districts; of the 17 districts where its vote was below the nationwide share, it won with a median margin of .081. Thus unless its opposition is more coordinated in 2014, the BDP will probably hang on even in the face of an adverse swing.

The election is on 24 October.

* The data I am working with show 44 seats, which would be 77.2%, while Poteete says 79%.