Finland election, 2015

(Revised and extended, 19 April, 9:30 a.m. PDT)

Finland has a parliamentary election on 19 April. The Center Party, which fared usually poorly in 2011, is leading all polls. But leading polls in Finland can mean under 25% of the vote.

An article in the Canberra Times captures a little of the flavor of Finland’s candida-centered open-list system and large number of parties:

The scene was a street market in an outer Helsinki suburb. Beside stalls selling long worms of coloured candy, and soft toys, and root vegetables, were the stands erected by four or five political parties. Outside each stood at least half a dozen candidates, including our interviewee, handing out their own personal campaign leaflets and engaging, when a voter showed the slightest interest, in vigorous political discussion.

Finland’s electoral system is, to an outsider, of mind-boggling complexity. The Helsinki district sends 22 members to the 200-member, single-chamber national parliament. Each party’s share of that total is proportional to the total votes cast for all its individual members.

The four major parties in Finland can each expect to send between four and six members to the national assembly from the Helsinki district. But which four or six? In Australia, party power brokers decide who tops the list of senatorial candidates, and who gets relegated to an unwinnable place on the list. In Finland, that’s decided by the number of votes each individual candidate garners.

The Finnish voter is faced with more than 50 candidates in any one district. There’s a list posted in every polling booth, where each candidate is assigned a number. You write one number, and only one, on the ballot paper. You are choosing, with that one vote, which party you prefer, and which candidate you want that party to send to the Parliament.

Even if the article does not say “open list”, it is a good (and too rare) example of a news piece at least acknowledging the different process of voting.

This election also marks the first under a somewhat revised electoral system, as Yle News notes:

A reform in electoral districts means that the 2015 elections are substantially different from those of years past – what was hitherto four constituencies have now been been merged into two separate constituencies. [Justice Ministry’s election chief Arto] Jääskeläinen estimates that counting in these new South-East Finland and Savo-Karelia constituencies will take a little more time than usual.

“Substantially different” is a bit of an overstatement, as there were fifteen districts, and only four of them are affected. The country’s mean magnitude thus increases from 13.3 to 15.4, which is hardly a major increase to what was already a quite highly proportional example of district PR.

Of course, increasing the district magnitude for the voters in these former four is a substantial change for them. These were among the districts in which alliance lists were most common, as smaller parties would forge joint lists with larger ones to reduced wasted votes. (The parties in such alliances in low-magnnitude districts would run separately in the districts with higher magnitude.)

Yale News will carry live results after polls close at 8:00 p.m., Finnish time. They also have posted English-language interviews with the party leaders.

UK 2015 forecasts

With the UK general election three weeks away, Chris Hanretty of the electionforecast.co.uk team offers a comparison of their forecast with those of two other academic teams, ElectionsEtc.com and Polling Observatory.

The forecasts must estimate a nationwide vote share for each party, and then devise a means of projecting these figures on to the 650 individual plurality (FPTP) contests that make up a UK House of Commons election. Given these two stages for any forecast, Chris’s comparison includes running their own seat calculator on other projections’ vote shares.

One thing all the projections agree on is that no party will be close to half the seats, although the confidence interval on the ElectionsEtc and ElectionForecast figures for the Tories include the majority mark (barely). All agree that Labour has almost no chance of winning a majority.  Another point of agreement is that the leading party in votes will be the Conservatives, but on only 34%, with Labour just a percentage point or two behind. In each projection, the confidence intervals on vote shares overlap. So, yes, the race remains more or less tied.

For those of us who enjoy anomaly watches, the PollingObservatory forecast (as of 1 April) has Labour ahead in seats, 276-271, despite being just behind in votes. The other two put Conservatives ahead on seats as well as votes, although again with overlapping confidence intervals.

On the eve of the 2010 elections, I ran some numbers from FPTP elections around the world up to that time, asking how uncommon it was for the largest party have less than 36% and the third party have more than 25%. The answer, in my sample of 210 FPTP elections, was one (Nova Scotia 1998). There was at least one other that was missing in my data, Quebec 2007, where all three leading parties were within a range of 33.1 to 28.3. The question arose, because it was the consensus of the final polls that the UK was going to have such an election. However, it did not quite get there. The Conservatives made it just over 36% and the third-place Liberal Democrats slipped to 23.0. In other words, there may have been some last minute tactical (strategic) voting by just enough voters to make the result just a little more “Duvergerian”.

If we think of Duverger’s Law as a baseline expectation for an electoral system like the UK, the projections for this election might be said to conform, if all one cares about is the relative dominance of the top two over the rest. Thanks to the fall of the Liberal Democrats since entering the coalition in 2010, all projections agree that there will be a big gap between second and third. Of course, the top two on around 33% each is not exactly what we normally think of as a Duvergerian outcome, regardless of the gap between second and third. The interesting thing to watch is if there is sufficient late desertion of the UKIP (on 10-13%) and Greens (less consequentially, as they are under 5%) to push the leading party up over 36% again. If that is the Conservatives, there might be an outside chance of a majority government, depending on the constituencies where such tactical voting takes place. UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, recently called on supporters to vote Conservative in seats UKIP can’t win, and there is some evidence of UKIP slippage in recent Ashcroft polls of marginal constituencies.

For now, let’s suppose that the seat projections are about right. Are there any combinations of two (other than Labour-Tory) that would control a majority? The House contains 650 members, but Sinn Fein (of Northern Ireland) does not take the seats they win, which were five in 2010. That makes the majority threshold probably at 323. A combine of Labour and Scottish National Party (SNP) gets there, according to Polling Observatory–barely: 325 (or 324 if using ElectionForecast’s seat model).

How likely is Labour-SNP cooperation? Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, has been appealing for it–not for a formal coalition, but for blocking a Tory government. An exchange in the final debate (opposition parties only; video) was telling. Labour leader Ed Miliband forcefully refused, saying he had fundamental disagreements with the SNP, mainly over the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum. He said no to a “coalition”. However, he pointedly did not directly say there could be no cooperation short of a governing coalition, although he shook his head dramatically when Sturgeon appealed for him to join her to block the Tories. He is in a bind, for sure. Sturgeon is probably right when she says left-leaning voters would never forgive him if he refused cooperation and allowed a Tory minority government to form. On the other hand, he certainly has to be careful not to signal intention of working with a party that would break up the UK.

A path to a stable Conservative-led minority or coalition government is hard to see, on these projected numbers. However, two of the projections have Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at 311. I find it hard to believe the Liberal Democrats would enter a coalition again with the Tories, but less hard to believe they could enter a looser arrangement. However, such a combination would still be a around a dozen seats short, and even the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists (not in the projection models, but 8 seats in 2010) would not quite get them there.

Absent a late surge for the Tories, it still looks like a government led by the party with the second largest number of seats, and needing support from Scottish separatists, is the most likely result. Let me close with an understatement: This will be interesting.

Jobbik ‘wins first seat’ and other journalistic foot-in-mouthisms on Hungary

(Comments are open)

Hungary’s extreme nationalist party, Jobbik, won a tightly-contested by-election on Sunday. In Hungary’s mixed-member majoritarian system, a little over half the seats are elected by plurality from single-seat districts (before 2014, a two-round system was used). The by-election was held to fill one of these seats, previously held by government party Fidesz.

If you read the BBC’s headline, you could be excused for thinking this is a major political breakthrough for Jobbik: “Far-right Jobbik party takes first seat in Hungary”. This is of course not the case; Jobbik has been represented in parliament since the 2010 election, where it secured about a sixth of the vote, consequently growing to more than a fifth of the vote in 2014. In both elections it was unsuccessful in winning any constituency seats, so all its MPs (23 out of the total 199 in 2014) were elected from the party list. The text accompanying the video-article is more accurate, but is probably still confusing to those unfamiliar with Hungary’s electoral system:

The far-right Jobbik party in Hungary has won its first ever individual constituency in parliament, taking the Tapolca seat with a majority of just under 300 votes. It is now the most successful nationalist party in Europe and will challenge the governing Fidesz party in parliamentary elections due in three years’ time.

The video doesn’t offer any clarification. One might wonder, if this is really only its first-ever seat, how exactly its the most successful party of its kind, and how such a small force might challenge Fidesz for government.

Of course, being able to win a constituency seat is a great achievement for Jobbik and indicates it may even be in the running for first place in 2016; considering its political position, however, it will almost certainly only enter government if it wins a parliamentary majority. This is however rendered more likely by the change in electoral system from two-round to single-round plurality, which means Jobbik can benefit from the split in the vote for its more mainstream rivals, as it did in Sunday’s by-election.

Jobbik’s win is a further blow to Fidesz, whose approval ratings have tanked since winning the general election last year. It has already lost a seat in another by-election in February, causing it to lose its two-thirds majority required to unilaterally amend the country’s constitution. Strangely, this was reported by some news outlets as being a loss of its three-quarters majority. One truly wonders how such a detail could be lost in translation.

Campaign effects vs. ‘fundamentals’–Israel 2015 edition

There is a controversy within political science about the relative importance of campaign events versus “fundamentals” (whatever those might be in a given contest). There certainly is a literature on this matter in the American politics field. I do not know if there is for Israel, but apparently there should be.

An article in Al Monitor that appeared just over a month before the 17 March, 2015, election claimed that the “rotation” deal between Isaac Herzog and Tipi Livni, as heads of Zionist Camp, had hurt the center-left’s chances of winning the election. A typical quote, regarding the role of “highly respected advertising executive Reuven Adler”, called in “to rebuild the image of Zionist Camp Co-Chairman Isaac Herzog”:

Adler had thought that Livni exacerbates all of the weaknesses of Herzog, who from the outset was never perceived by the public as a strong leader. After all, he lacks charisma and a dominant personality. He looks delicate, and his voice lacks gravitas. In Adler’s mind, the very fact that Herzog agreed to a rotation agreement only intensified perceptions of him as a weak, docile individual who succumbs to pressure. Worst of all, it showed him as someone aware of his weakness.

…Adler was left out of this discussion, and an enthusiastic Herzog-Livni campaign soon hit the streets. Herzog’s Labor Party remained silent as long as the polls showed the Zionist Camp with a slight advantage over the Likud.

The article is full of claims like this–focusing on events and leadership choices, and suggesting that in the final month the Zionist Camp will push Livni into the background in order to try to regain a campaign momentum that it has been losing.

What is wrong with all this? The polling trends offer scant evidence for it. At least as best I can see.

Israel 2015 poll trends

The above (click on it for a larger version, although even then it is hard to read) is from J-Stret’s election blog. From the time of the agreement on the rotation deal (around Dec. 10) until late January, the Zionist Camp and Likud trade places and are quite steady. Perhaps both are rising a bit, and Zionist Camp even reaches 26 seats briefly in late January (as does Likud). From early February until the end of the sequence of this graph (Feb. 22), Zionist Camp is right around 24 seats. In the election, it won… 24 seats. So, just when the campaign is supposedly in this crisis and needs to push Livni to the background, there was no change in its actual performance with voters. Likud, on the other hand, shows more volatility in February, but was on an upward trajectory, it appears. As we now know, it indeed was moving up, and ended up on 30 seats, although most of that surge appears really to have happened in the final days, due to desertion of the farther-right parties.

It is hard to look at the polling trends and conclude that the campaign tactics and evaluations of Herzog’s leadership qualities were a major factor. That is, other than the agreement on the pact itself, which does seem to have shaken things up, and moved Labor+HaTnua into the 22-25 seat range, where it stayed all the way to the actual election.

Oats and Passover

Each Pesach (Passover), I find myself wondering how it could be that oats are one of the grains which Jews are not to eat during the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, unless in the form of matzah. In the field–and those who originally developed the laws certainly knew their fields–oats do not look anything like wheat or barley, which are two key grains that everyone agrees come under the restriction.

Balashon (a great blog on Hebrew word origins) notes:

[In] Jewish law, there are five species of grain in the Land of Israel that have special laws relating to them – what blessing is made, can they be used to make matza (or do they constitute chametz), must one “separate challah” with bread made from them, and more. As described in the Mishna (Hallah 1:1), the five grains are:

החיטים, והשעורים, והכוסמין, ושיבולת שועל והשיפון

chitim, seorim, kusmin, shibolet shual, shifon

The first two, chitim and seorim, are wheat and barley. Shibolet shual is generally understood to be oats, even if the more common term in modern Hebrew is apparently kvaker (a transliteration of Quaker!).

It is likely that shibolet shual is actually another type of barley–some authorities say it is two-row barley, as opposed to the 4 or 6-row type meant by seorim (as explained at the same Balashon post). There is also a controversy over what shifon is. Usually it is said to be rye, others say spelt. Neither is likely, as these grains were apparently not grown in the ancient Land of Israel, Egypt, or the other lands in which these traditions originate. Emer wheat is one good possibility, notes Balashon. The word in modern Hebrew means buckwheat, but “Unlike shibolet shual and shifon, there’s no halachic opinion that buckwheat is one of the five grains.” So if we can agree that buckwheat is too distinctive from wheat and barley to be subject to the matzah laws of Pesach, despite the etymological confusion, why not oats? They are also a very different plant.

Oats, when they are about to be harvested, look like this:

Oat farm

Wheat and barley (and rye and spelt, among others) look more like this (especially the stalk in the lower left):
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I don’t actually know what grains we are looking at in that picture. There are several grains here, including some oats. But the main stalks you see there are not oats, and it should be pretty obvious how different most of what you see in this picture is from the the field shown in the first.

Oats rise above the other grains that sprout in our fields.*

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Here is hoping we can at last rise above the prohibition on oats,** which is quite likely based on a historical error. Given how difficult it is to get across the point that beans, rice, and other “kitniyot” should not be banned during Pesach, I am not optimistic about the great oat shake-up that I am advocating.

Anyway, Chag Sameach!

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* All photos in this post are from our property, except for the first one, which is of the oat farm across the road from us. In each case, you may click the image to see a larger version. And there are several more grainy photos at the Flickr site.

** One big advantage: it would make life easier for those who are gluten-intolerant, and eat oats as a result of the fact that oats do not have gluten. (Some gluten-sensitive people need to get oats that are gluten-free, which I assume means not cross-contaminated, given that the grains that actually have the offending gluten–wheat, barely, etc.–can’t be made free of it. Disclaimer: I am not giving medical or dietary advice here, nor am I a plant geneticist!)

My preference for reclassifying oats would also have the consequence of rendering some products no longer halachically acceptable at the Pesach seder. So, in that sense, it would make life for the gluten-intolerant more difficult! I guess we can’t have it both ways: if oats are not shibolet shual and are not related to the other grains, such that all of the species relevant to Pesach rituals are (inadvertently) those with gluten, then you can’t satisfy the mitzvah of matzah with oat products. However, under the reclassification of oats, you would get to eat your oat granola all through the festival week! (Further disclaimer: I am not giving halachic advice, either! But not counting oats as one of the five species is my practice.)

So, Peru’s system is a hybrid

I’ve been trying to get the point across for years: Peru does not have a (pure) presidential system. It is a semi-presidential system.

Peruvian Prime Minister Ana Jara was forced to step down after losing a vote of confidence in Congress on Monday… President Ollanta Humala must now select a new prime minister and cabinet.

Via the BBC. My emphasis.

Also, “It is the first time in half a century that Peru’s Congress has deposed a prime minister.” But not using a power does not mean the power does not exist–and, potentially, affect the political process.

Nigeria: Jonathan concedes

In the end, despite the initial postponement, technical troubles, and the general doubt that either candidate would accept defeat, it went pretty smoothly. Nigeria’s incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan has conceded defeat.

It would be nice if the voters had not just elected a former dictator. But at least they have shown alternation is possible at the ballot boxes. This is good.

For results: nigeriaelections.org