JD’s Switzerland trip (with photos!)

In February I spent a weekend in Switzerland with a friend. We toured Basel and Bern, visiting the Federal Assembly and the legislatures of two cantons, and also witnessed campaigning for a number referendums (and more!) that would be held the next week.

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On electronic displays this poster showed up as a gif, with the trucks rushing through

On the federal level (and in similar terms in most Cantons and municipalities), Switzerland has two types of citizen-initiated referendum:

  • Votes on ‘popular initiatives’, which amend the constitution. These require the gathering of 100,000 signatures in no more than 18 months. To be approved in the referendum, they require both an overall majority of those voting and a majority of Cantonal votes.
  • ‘Optional’ or ‘facultative’ referendums, which concern recently-enacted federal laws (I like to call these veto-referendums). These require the gathering of 50,000 signatures (or 8 Cantons – though I don’t think this happens in practice) in no more than 100 days from the publication of the act in question. For the act to be vetoed it merely requires to be rejected by a majority of those voting.

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    A striking multilingual poster near the Basel docks

When we visited there were four federal referendums about to be held, of which three were popular initiatives and one was an optional referendum. As it happened, all four votes would follow the government’s official recommendation: rejection of all the initiatives and approval of the federal law.

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Central Bern, a protest against the popular initiative for the deportation of criminal migrants

The campaigns were very visible and there were posters were everywhere, both in public places alongside regular commercial advertising and on apartment balconies and small shops’ doors. We also saw many different leaflets, including some published by political parties. Far more visible than in the UK, which I also visited during the recent referendum – in London, the only sign I saw of the campaign were some flyerers at a tube station at rush hour on the day of the referendum.

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Cantonal referendum posters in Basel. Note the middle one, sponsored by the Liberal Democratic Party

(As a side note, Switzerland has virtually no regulation of campaign finance, either on the federal or cantonal level. I wonder if that had anything to do with it.)

A number of Cantonal referendums were held on the same day as the federal ones, and we saw posters for these in both Basel and Bern.

We visited three legislative buildings:

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Basel-City’s Canton/City hall

Basel-City’s late mediaeval rathaus (city hall), home to the cantonal legislature which also serves (with the exception of a handful of members) as city council. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the chamber, as the tour clashed with our visit of the Federal Assembly in Bern.
Secondly, Bern’s legislature, the Grosser Rat/Grand Conseil. As far as we could tell there were no regular tours; we were let in by the janitor.

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The Bernese legislature, the Grand Council

Switzerland generally has relatively large legislative chambers. Basel-City, with a population of just under 200,000, has 100 seats, almost double what it should have per cube root; Bern, with a population of  just over a million, has 160, 60% over cube root. The Confederation as a whole is just right with 200 in the lower house for a population of 8.3 million.

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The Federal Assembly’s National Council 

The federal legislature is spectacular. The picture here is of the lower house, the National Council. The upper house, the Council of States, was more difficult to get a good photo of so here’s a link; the wall painting is of a traditional ‘landsgemeinde’ or popular assembly that used to be common in rural areas. Today the practice persists as the form of government of two cantons, where the citizens meet once a year, while the agenda for that meeting, and most details of legislation, are prepared by an elected assembly. One of the members of the Council of States is still elected by their canton’s popular assembly every four years.

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Poster with the candidates of the Socialist/Social-Democratic (depending on whether you translate from French or German) Party in the executive by-election of February 28th (and ultimately also April 3rd for the second round)

Lastly, in Bern, we saw a poster for another campaign – we weren’t sure when we saw it, but it turned out to be for a by-election over two positions in the cantonal executive. Unlike the federal government, the cantonal executive councils are directly elected, mostly (as in Bern) through a two-round system, though proportionally in some cantons. The unusual thing in Bern is that there is one seat reserved for the French-speaking minority of the Bernese Jura – and this seat was one of the two up in the by-election. But, even more interestingly, it turns out this seat is not just reserved to candidates from that region, but the winner is the candidate with the higher geometric mean between the vote total in Bernese Jura and the canton as a whole – a fascinating and likely unique arrangement!

 

 

Turkey’s coup

Awful, eh? I mean, in particular, the aftermath. It seems we are watching the consolidation of a potentially totalitarian state.

I don’t know enough about Turkey to know if that statement is really “true”, but given how often I have written about Turkey’s elections and constitutional reforms in the past, I thought there should at least be a space here to discuss what’s happening…

A list order change under Australian Senate rules

The voters in Tasmania have pushed a Labor Senator up the ranks and she will be reelected ahead of other candidates of the party.

Under the old system, most voters cast ticket votes, making the order of election in any given party more closed list than open or STV. Now, voters can rank “below the line” without having to rank all candidates. (Alternatively, they can rank parties “above the line”.)

The article notes that Tasmanian voters have tended to vote below the line more than voters in other states, anyway (probably because they use STV for their state assembly).

There are also some strange ballot rankings above the line. ABC says, quoting Polling analyst Kevin Bonham:

I’ve seen cases like people voting One for the Shooter, Fishers and Farmers, and Two for the Animal Justice Party, two parties that are more or less totally opposed to each other in the views. I saw people voting for the Sex Party, then Family First – one exists to basically negate the other. People are viewing parties in quite a strange way.

Greece to abolish bonus adjustment (maybe)

A law to change Greek electoral system has passed, according to Ekathimerini. The law removes the provision that awards the plurality party 50 bonus seats in the 300-seat parliament.

This complies with a manifesto commitment of the party that leads the current governing coalition, SYRIZA.

The cynical interpretation, of course, is that they must not be very confident of remaining the largest party. Indeed, polling shows New Democracy (the prior ruling party, of the center-right) ahead. By a lot, though only around 30%, with SYRIZA in something of a free fall.

Nonetheless, the removal of the bonus adjustment will not take place in time for the next election, but rather would start with the one after that. Greece is one of the few (only?) democracies to mandate that an electoral system change can take effect immediately only if it obtains a super-majority.

As things stand, apart from the 144 SYRIZA and nine Independent Greeks lawmakers, the only other members of the House that intend to vote for the draft legislation are 15 from the Communist Party and nine from the Centrists’ Union, as well as two independent deputies. (Ekathimerini)

This left the law short of the required two thirds.

Of course, if the next government is made up of a party or coalition that likes the bonus, the reform law could be repealed. Hence the “maybe” in the title of this post.

(A later WSJ report–behind a pay wall–confirms that the bill passed, with well under 2/3.)

Thailand’s new constitution and electoral system

Thailand will be holding a referendum on adopting a new constitution on August 7. A translation of this document is available here. The nation is currently ruled by a military junta, which took power from the elected government in May 2014. If the constitution is adopted, elections will be held in mid-2017 to choose a new civilian government (though that date has been pushed back a fair few times).

The document provides for a bicameral Thai parliament, as has been the norm for the nation’s numerous democratic constitutions. There is a Senate and a House of Representatives. One of the most substantial changes is that the Senate, which was half-elected and half-appointed by the King (I am unclear whether this was to take place on the advice of the government) under the 2007 constitution, and entirely elected under the 1997 one, will now be wholly appointed. This represents a return to pre-1997 practice.

While the Senate only has a delaying role on most legislation, passage at a joint sitting is required for certain ‘organic’ laws, like those on elections, the operation of the Constitutional Court, and the specific method for choosing Senators. This will become especially important in the first term of government, as the first Senate is to be appointed on the advice of the members of the junta.

The House of Representatives is the larger and more powerful of the two houses. As was hinted at by the drafters of the new document, it is to be elected using mixed-member proportional representation, though with closed lists and a remarkably small list tier (150 list/350 constituency).

When this proposal was first put about, I did some simulations of what the House would have looked like following the 2011 election had MMP been used. These estimates are based off a smaller list tier (the size of the one used under MMM in 2011). Any increase in the size of the House is due to overhang.

"Projections
The key loser would be the populist Pheu Thai party, strongly opposed by the coup leaders and the winner would be the Democrat Party, which is considered to have the tacit support of the coup leaders. This would not necessarily be an unfair advantage (given it would give the Democrats a somewhat closer share of seats to their nationwide support), but it would be an advantage nonetheless.

MMP is specifically entrenched in the document. Amendment procedures have also changed; while past documents have allowed a majority of members of the House to make amendments, the new document will require 20% support from opposition parties to make amendments. Needing a super-majority isn’t unusual internationally, but not many constitutions contain quite so many specific electoral provisions as Thailand’s.

What impact increased proportionality will have on Thailand’s democracy is not entirely clear. On one hand, it could require governments to form broader coalitions, which might reduce confrontation in Thai politics and thus less resort to extra-constitutional means. On the other, it could lead to a fragmented House and weak, revolving-door civilian governments, like those that existed before 1997.

It is also worth noting that the elections scheduled for mid-2017, if they take place then, will be held under a law written and approved by the current military-appointed legislature.

Regardless of this constitution, Thailand has clearly got serious problems with military intervention. Previous Constitutions of a similar nature to this one ended in failure. It is unclear whether this one will be any better, though I see it as unlikely.

Austrian presidential re-vote ordered

This is quite a big deal. One of the closest presidential elections anywhere, anytime will have to be re-run, due to irregularities. The Constitutional Court so ordered today.

How many other cases are there of re-votes of an entire national election in established democracies? I am unable to think of one.

(I should note that “entire” here means of the second round, thus with just the two candidates.)