District magnitude and reelection in Iran (and what is a mixed-member system)

A recent entry at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog by Paasha Mahdavi (Georgetown) is a summary of the author’s really fascinating research on Iranian MP reelection rates. Mahdavi finds that MPs from more resource-rich regions are more able to secure reelection because they get credit from targeted spending in their districts.

Reelection rates in Iran are overall low: “Since 1980, less than 30 percent of politicians running again in Iranian parliamentary elections retained their seats.” However, rates vary substantially across districts.

The relationship between increased resources and reelection rates is statistically stronger in those districts that elect one MP than in those that are multi-seat districts (graph at Mahdavi’s blog entry). Mahdavi argues this is due to the stronger accountability relationship when there is only one MP.

So far so good. It is terrific to see this sort of research in any country, but especially in Iran, which of course has an authoritarian regime, yet one with regular semi-open elections (which have long fascinated me).

However, can we please get the terminology right? Mahdavi writes:

Iran’s parliament is elected by what political scientists call a “mixed-member system.” Some districts only elect one representative while others elect two or more.

The term, “mixed-member system” does not simply mean a system in which the country contains a ‘mix’ of different magnitudes, including some that are single-member. (If that were the case, there would be many more “mixed-member” systems than there in fact are, as magnitudes ranging from 1 to some higher number are pretty common.*) A mixed-member system is defined by the following two minimal criteria:

    1. The entire country is divided into districts in which candidates win on their own individual votes (“nominal” election, some of us call it). These districts in practice usually are all single-seat, although that is not a defining requirement for many typologies, including mine.**

    2. Every voter also resides in a multi-member district–which may be the entire country, though could be regional–in which legislators are elected via party lists (in practice, almost always proportionally).

It is these overlapping components or tiers, one individual (and usually single-seat plurality or majority) and the other party list (proportional) that make a system mixed-member. Numerous other features define sub-types (mixed-member proportional, where the list seats are allocated in a compensatory manner, vs. mixed-member majoritarian, where the two sets of seats are elected separately or “in parallel”); there may be separate votes in the two types of districts (as is usually the case) or your candidate vote might also count for the candidate’s party’s list (as in Mexico). Despite these variations, the two criteria mentioned above are required for the system to be mixed-member.

In Iran, there are no party lists (as this term is understood in the electoral systems literature). All candidates win based on their own nominal votes–that is votes cast for them personally. The system for parliament (and some other elected bodies) is probably best characterized as a form of multiple nontransferable vote (MNTV); however, unlike most such systems, I believe that there is a provision for a second round where sufficient candidates have not met some threshold of votes*** in the first round.

I read something like Mahdavi’s fascinating Monkey Cage post and have two thoughts: (1) Very cool research that I wish I had done; (2) I still have plenty of my regular work to do, because even as vast as the subfield of electoral-systems analysis has become, political scientists in other subfields still make fundamental errors about well established electoral system terminology.

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* One example: the current Venezuelan system clearly meets the two criteria here for qualifying as mixed-member; several of its nominal-election districts elect more than one member.

** Finland, Peru, Spain, and Switzerland are among the districted PR systems having at least one district has a magnitude of just one seat. There have been examples of electoral systems in the past (although I can’t think of a current one) with numerous single-seat districts along with other districts that are multi-seat. There also have been many cases of mostly single-seat districts but some districts electing two or more candidates, non-prorportionally. (India in its first elections was such a case, and farther back, UK.)

*** I do not know details here. Majority? If so, how determined, given magnitude greater than one, and the possibility that not all participating voters use their full M votes (M=magnitude of the district)?

Sri Lanka legislative election, 2015

Sri Lanka held its legislative election on 17 August. The election was billed by the Western media, such as BBC, as a fight between the premier appointed by the incumbent president and the ex-president whom the current one defeated.

The United People Freedom Alliance, led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, won just 95 seats out of 225. The United National Party (UNP) of the premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe, won 106. This is good news for President Maithripala Sirisena, who is actually of the same party as Rajapaksa, but defeated him at the head of a pre-electoral coalition consisting of the UNP, and parties representing ethnic minorities, including Tamils.

Official results at SriLankanElections.com are different from those in the BBC report, although they agree on the scale of the UNP lead.

In the preceding legislative election, in 2010, the United People Freedom Alliance won 144 seats (60.3% of the vote) to 60 for the UNP (29.3% of votes).

Given that the president has the authority to dissolve the legislature, I was surprised that Sirisena did not go to the polls earlier following his victory in January. I believe the legislative term is six years (is that the longest anywhere for a first/sole chamber?); the preceding election had been in April, 2010.

The system of government is president-parliamentary. That is, the premier is responsible to the legislative majority, but also subject to dismissal by the president. In the case of Sri Lanka, the powers of the presidency are enormous, and one of Sirisena’s campaign promises was to reduce presidential power. It is unclear to me what, if any progress, has been made in this front (beyond what JD reported here), or is likely to be made.

The Greens, electoral reform, and the Canadian leaders’ debate

Last week, Canadian party leaders participated in a debate. It is currently the only one scheduled to include the Greens leader, Elizabeth May (the party’s only MP).

The debate included an entire segment devoted to, as moderator Paul Wells put it, “Canada’s democracy — how it works, why it doesn’t always work as well as we hoped.” (From my south of the border perspective, I can only admire a debate that actually asks such a question, rather than implicitly assuming that the debate and election themselves are proof of how great democracy is working, but enough of that digression for now.)

The first question within this segment of the debate went to May, and the exchange, which you can read in the transcript, is very interesting.

Paul Wells: Our first question on this to Elizabeth May. Ms. May, you’ve called the government we have now an elected dictatorship and you’ve called for electoral reform, but this election will be won and lost under the current electoral system. Do you worry that Green candidates will take support away from other parties that could defeat this government? Might the Green Party help reelect this government?

Elizabeth May: When I refer to the government as an elected dictatorship, it’s not personal in any way to the Prime Minister nor to his party…

The only job description for a member of parliament is that found in the Constitution, which is to represent your constituencies.

So we need to actually revisit parliamentary democracy, understand that this election isn’t about electing a prime minister — we don’t do that in this country; we elect members of parliament. And their job is to find the government that will hold the confidence of the House, so we can work for Canadians…

As far as Greens being concerned about this, not at all. We have had success and we’ve now had election – my election in Saanich–Gulf Islands, but across provinces — in British Columbia Andrew Weaver, in New Brunswick David Coon, in Prince Edward Island Peter Bevan-Baker. All of us got elected by driving voter turnout.

So instead of fixating on this splitting the vote non-problem, vote-splitting, we need to focus on the real problem, which is 40 percent of Canadians in the last number of elections haven’t voted. And vote abandoning, in my view, is a much bigger problem than vote-splitting…

Paul Wells: You’ve said we don’t elect a prime minister, and that’s true, but we saw quite a mess of a coalition crisis in 2008. Are we headed towards that sort of arbitrage among parties after the next election if there’s no majority?

Elizabeth May: I can’t tell you how committed Green MPs as a caucus will be to working with other parties, working across party lines to ensure that we go from a precarious, perhaps two-year minority parliament to a stable, productive, effective parliament, because you look at really great parliaments in this country, and I refer viewers back to Lester B. Pearson where the small group of NDPers under David Lewis and Diefenbaker in the Conservatives and Lester B. Pearson delivered our social safety net.

I find the exchange interesting for the effort to drive the discussion way from vote-splitting and choosing a prime minister–two common perceptions of elections in parliamentary systems using first-past-the-post electoral systems. These are perceptions that are, of course, harmful to small parties. So May attempts to emphasize local viability of Greens, and the advantages of cross-party cooperation in a non-majority parliament.

Then things returned pretty quickly to business as more-or-less usual, with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau engaging NDP leader Thomas Mulcair in a debate over the Clarity Act (regarding another potential Quebec secession referendum).

A bit later, Wells raises the issue of electoral reform directly, referencing the proposal of the Liberal Party (see p. 8 of the linked PDF). I will just quote a few snippets here. PM Stephen Harper (Conservative):

Well, I think it’s a very fundamental change to the way our political system would work in this country. We have a Westminster system. Voters are able to elect governments. They don’t elect coalitions that make up the government later. And you know, Canadians – Paul, this has come up before. It was subject of a referendum and plebiscite in Ontario and Prince Edward Island and British Columbia. I have not found Canadians who want to make this fundamental change. In fact, whenever Canadians are asked, they reject it. We know the rules. Let’s play under the rules that Canadians support.

Mulcair did not use the immediate opportunity to talk up his party’s stated commitment to introducing proportional representation (MMP, specifically). Instead he talked about the current government’s “Unfair Elections Act” (it is, actually, of course, the Fair Elections Act). Later, however, Mulcair did say, “We think that there are three main things we can do with regard to our institutions. The first is to make sure that every vote counts with a proportional representation system.” (The others were “open up parliament” to more public scrutiny and abolish the Senate.)

Unless I missed it, Trudeau himself never mentioned his own party’s commitment to electoral reform. Perhaps he thought it was enough that Wells invoked it and gave Harper a chance to denounce it.

NZ Greens first block bar-opening, then relent

There was an interesting little tussle between the ACT New Zealand and the Greens this past week. The matter concerned a private member’s bill that would allow the opening of bars in the wee hours of the morning so that New Zealanders could gather to watch live matches at the next Rugby World Cup (which will be played in Britain next month).

The bill was sponsored by the sole ACT MP, David Seymour. As I understand the parliamentary procedure (with the help of some New Zealand friends), if a private member’s bill does not win the regular lottery for consideration by the House, it is possible for an MP to introduce it directly. However, this requires unanimous consent to proceed. The Greens turned down this request.

RNZ:

ACT leader David Seymour said, under his bill, licensed premises would have been able to open for an hour before a match started, and an hour after it had finished.
But the Greens’ health spokesperson, Kevin Hague, said the party could not support the bill as it had the potential to cause real harm to communities.
He said the move was a ham-fisted attempt by Mr Seymour to be a ‘man of the people’ but it actually had the potential to cause real harm to communities.
“Under David Seymour’s bill, boozed-up people will be spilling out of bars just as parents are dropping their children at school or are on their way to kids’ weekend rugby and netball games.”
Mr Seymour called the Greens “party poopers” after they blocked the bill.

However, the very next day, the Greens changed course and allowed the bill to go ahead. RNZ again:

Mr Seymour told Parliament ACT had offered to make changes to the bill to get the Greens’ support.
“Politics is often the art of compromise and if this bill emerges with at least the All Black games and finals applied to then that, I believe, will be a great victory,” he said.

The article has some brief overview of the concessions (which seem minor to me).

I have to wonder if the Greens really wanted to garner a reputation as the party that is against World Cup viewing in bars. One further report that I heard on RNZ suggested that the party took a great deal of criticism for the initial veto.

The bill seems now set to go ahead with National Party support and Labour declaring it a personal (free) vote.

On District-Ordered Lists: in reaction to Éric Grenier’s proposal

A month or two back, Éric Grenier from ThreeHundredEight.com, who is often cited on this blog when the discussion turns towards current electoral prospects in Canada, proposed an electoral reform to introduce PR in that country. The proposal suggests a retention of current electoral districts as a list-ordering mechanism: while seats would be allocated proportionally to parties within each province, voters would still cast a vote for one candidate in their district, and each party’s seats would be awarded to the party’s candidates achieving the highest shares of the vote in their districts.

To my knowledge, two countries use a very similar system: Slovenia and Romania. The Slovenian system is practically identical, with the difference that seats are allocated to candidates on the basis of the number of votes they receive in their district, rather than the percentage. The Romanian system is different in that it guarantees a seat to any candidate with more than 50% of a district’s vote, and guarantees that each district has (at least) one representative (with potentially more in the case of an overhang). Another substantially similar case is the German state of Baden-Württemburg, where half the seats are filled by the plurality winners of each district and the other half by the party’s ‘best loser’ candidates by district vote share. In the absence of another moniker (as far as I’m aware) I shall collectively call all these systems (including Grenier’s proposal) ‘District-Ordered List systems’. Of these, only systems where each district winner is guaranteed a seat (as in Baden-Württemburg’s ‘best loser’ scheme) may be considered to be a type of MMP.

Though I recognise that District-Ordered List systems may have some merit, they suffer from some serious disadvantages, especially with comparison to 2-vote MMP.

As the Jenkins Commission put it some years ago, “turning losers into winners” may be seen as problematic. This is even more the case in those systems which do not guarantee district plurality winners a seat, as the representative elected from a district may only have taken a small share of the vote while the first-, second-, third-, and even fourth- placed candidates return empty-handed. In Slovenia (and under the Grenier proposal), some districts, particularly deeply-divided ones, can be left with none of its candidates elected and no local representation at all, while other districts may see more than one candidate elected. Romania doesn’t have that problem as its system ensures that every district has its own MP, but those MPs are more likely to be second- or third-placed within their own district. Baden-Württemburg’s best-loser MMP eliminates most of these problems by ensuring each district’s first-placed candidate gets a seat.

Another limitation of District-Ordered List systems is that they (as proposed or currently used) feature a single vote, meaning voting for district representative is completely tied up with the party vote (unlike the most commonly used variant of MMP, which features two votes: a district vote and a list vote). While ordering lists by district is an attempt to bring individual accountability to the list component[1], having a single vote means that voters cannot assess district candidates independently from the parties. For example, if a voter identifies with a party but dislikes that party’s candidate in his district, he may be faced with a dilemma. That dilemma does not exist under 2-vote MMP, where a district vote for party A’s candidate should not, in principle, affect party B (or any party’s) final seat count, which is determined separately according to the number of list votes attained by each party. This should make individual, district-level accountability stronger under regular 2-vote MMP.

Another issue has been raised previously by Matthew Shugart, this blog’s chief planter:

“By rewarding a candidate for driving up his or her vote even in a district where the candidate has little realistic chance of winning, best-loser allocation exacerbates some of the worst features of FPTP. Whereas under [2-vote] MMP rules, the two big parties have a strong incentive to seek to position themselves near the center of the nationwide electorate to maximize their party vote, under the best-loser rule, they would be back to the old days of targeting districts and seeking to appeal to voters located in relatively closely contested districts. They would want to do so because, even if they are not likely to win such electorates, those are the electorates where their highest quality candidates have the best shot at entering parliament despite losing the district race.”

I don’t know to what degree this has been the case in the aforementioned countries using district-ordered lists[2], but the charge certainly makes sense, although I think it is a little overstated: under First-Past-the-Post, parties target marginal seats as a seat-maximizing strategy. Under any system with district-ordered lists, each party’s seat total is generally determined proportionally and independently of the number of districts won[3]. This means the general effect should be lesser than under FPTP, though it may still be just as strong when it comes to nomination strategies. Either way, Matthew’s argument underlines the point I try to make above: though 1-vote district-ordered list systems are supposed to introduce a certain individual accountability to the list, the fact that voters have but one vote means that to a large extent, voting patterns are party- rather than candidate-based. Safe and marginal seats can therefore be expected to exist by virtue of partisan rather than candidate support. To summarize, this not only means personal, district-level accountability will not be any stronger than under first-past-the-post, but may also impact parties’ nomination strategies at least as much as FPTP.

To some degree, one could address these issues with the best-loser MMP model by slightly modifying it to have two votes: one for district representative and the other determining each party’s overall share of seats, but with list seats going to the ‘best losers’ in the district tier. Voters could split their vote, thus generating district results that more closely reflect voters’ appreciation for the candidates rather than for the parties they are affiliated with (all the while having their list vote count fully for the calculation of the seat total of their preferred party). There would be less of a risk in nominating ‘quality’ candidates in less-than-safe districts, as the relative safety of a district would less be a function of partisan preferences and more of appreciation for the nominated candidates. Of course, this may work only to the degree that people understand and use their two votes in this way. If they would still overwhelmingly vote for their preferred party’s candidate, either because they do not understand that it does not impact their party’s total or for instance because they only value candidates based on their partisan affiliation, the improvement felt would be negligible.

Either way, this also raises a broader question: is pitting individual candidates against other individual candidates of other parties an effective way of holding candidates individually accountable, as under FPTP, MMP or any district-ordered list PR? Personally, I suspect systems where candidates face competition from other candidates of the same party, such as open-list systems or STV, may have more to offer on this score[4].



[1] For example, the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly described best-loser MMP as having “greater accountability [than regular 2-vote MMP] as voters would have a more direct vote for those who are chosen to represent them.”

[2] The evidence Matthew cites comes from Japan, which allows parties to order their lists based on success in districts, but does not make it mandatory.

[3] The exception is overhang, which under some systems may increase a party’s seat total beyond its proportional share, and which may or may not be a realistic prospect, depending on the electoral situation.

[4] Whichever is the case, I can think of only one system that offers a direct compromise between the two principles: open-list MMP.

The dismantling of SYRIZA?

The deal struck in marathon talks between Greece and its Eurozone partners (is that word still appropriate?) requires the Greek parliament to take further action–some as soon as this Wednesday, 15 July.

The parliamentary vote last Friday, which I understand as simply a broad authorization to conduct negotiations around the government’s official opening proposal for the weekend talks, is revealing. While it passed overwhelmingly, with 250 votes in the 300-seat parliament, the government was unable to deliver a majority. SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left) and its coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL, a right-wing party that agrees with Syriza only on confronting the creditors) control 162 seats. However, only 145 members of the governing coalition supported the authorizing bill.

It is in the context of that vote–and the tougher ones to follow–that we see the importance of the accord PM Alexis Tsipras of Syriza struck with the opposition immediately after the nationwide NO to the creditors’ terms on 5 July. Without the support for the center-right New Democracy (ND) and other parties, the cave-in by Tsipras could not have passed.

It seems that Tsipras’s 5 July plebiscite on his government did indeed strengthen Tsipras’s bargaining position, but with the traditional Greek right, rather than with the EU as he had promised. It is as if Tsipras said to ND: “The voters are with me; back me up so I can implement your policy instead of the one I sold to the voters”. This is why I am calling it a “plebiscite”, not a “referendum”; I understand the latter term to mean a vote on specific proposed laws, whereas a vote re-delegating authority to the government to make decisions on the electorate’s behalf is classic plebiscitarianism.

It is unclear to me how much tougher the conditions agreed this weekend are, relative to the proposals of last week, which, in turn, were roughly as tough as what Greek voters supposedly rejected the weekend before. It is clear, however, that they include some very strict monitoring requirements that are not going down well in Athens.

Can the Tsipras government can survive the stress of all that is being required of it? Already SYRIZA–which is a “party” only due to requirements of the election law, but is really (as its name implies) a coalition of various tendencies–is experiencing divisions. Tsipras has begun to expel several rebels. The party’s rules require dissidents to resign their seats, although the party can’t compel them to leave parliament; they can become independent MP instead. The coalition partner, ANEL, has said it can’t support the new terms, although it will remain in Tsipras’s cabinet.

This would be a less than opportune time for an early election, so any new government may have to be constituted from within this parliament. The Greek constitutional provisions on the cabinet’s confidence (Art. 84) require an absolute majority of MPs present (“which however cannot be less than the two-fifths of the total number of the members”) to remove a PM, which would be hard to reach as long as a rump SYRIZA and ANEL remain together, unless some of the far-left fracture from SYRIZA were to vote with the right. If a new government needs to be formed, the provisions on government formation (Art. 37, in the chapter on the president’s role) provide clear priority to the largest party in parliament, which, thanks to the disproportionality of the Greek electoral system, would remain Tsipras’s unless 74 of its MPs (just short of half) bolt. That seems highly unlikely. Thus it would seem Tsipras can survive, but may end up heading a radically different government from the one that so resoundingly won its plebiscite just over a week ago.

Caving in Greece

No, this is not a travel-adventure post.

It looks like Greece’s governing Syriza Party has caved. Accepting €13bn of fresh austerity.

A note from the Guardian’s live blog at 13:29:

Syriza MPs have been telling our Helena Smith that the big no received in the referendum on Sunday was a “confidence vote” in Tsipras who like no other prime minister before now has the popular support to enforce such punitive measures.

In other words, what occurred last Sunday in Greece was not a policy referendum, nor was it a tool to give Greece more bargaining leverage to reject the European measures to which the voters thought they were voting a loud NO. Rather it was a plebiscite to bolster a weak domestic position. Which would have become far weaker, given the preferences of Greek voters had Tsipras led Greece out of the euro.