Did Greece just have a normal election?

The Greek general election of July, 2019, may have been about as “normal” as they get. After the country’s period of crisis–economic and political–things seem to have settled down. The incumbent party, Syriza (“Radical Left”), which saw the country through the crisis got booted out, and the old conservative New Democracy got voted in.

Of course, around here when we refer to an election as “normal” it means it conforms to the Seat Product Model (SPM). Applying the SPM to an electoral system as complex as that of Greece is not straightforward. However, based on some calculations I did from breaking the system down to its component parts (an approach I always advocate in the face of complexity), it seems we have a result that conforms to a plausible interpretation of its “expectation”.

The basics of the electoral system are as follows: there are 300 seats, of which 50 are an automatic bonus to the party with a plurality of the vote, while the remainder are allocated as if there were one nationwide district. The “as if” is key here. In fact, there are 59 districts. In other words, the district magnitudes in which the election plays out for voters and candidates are quite small. There are 12 seats in a nationwide compensatory tier [EDIT: see below], so we have 288 basic-tier seats for a mean district magnitude of around 4. (I am not going to go into all the further details of this very complex system, as these will suffice for present purposes; Election Resources has a great detailed summary of the oft-changed Greek electoral system.)

To check my understanding that the system is as if nationwide PR for 250 seats, plus 50 for the plurality party, I offer the following table based on the official results. Note that there are two columns for percent of seats, one based on 250 and the other based on the full 300. For the largest party, ND, the “% seats out of 250” is based on 108 seats, because we are not including the 50 bonus seats in this column.

Party % votes seats % seats out of 250 % seats out of 300
Nea Dimokratia 39.9 158 43.2 52.7
Syriza 31.5 86 34.4 28.7
Kin.Al 8.1 22 8.8 7.3
KKE 5.3 15 6.0 5.0
Elliniki Lysi 3.7 10 4.0 3.6
Mera25 3.4 9 3.6 3.0
14 others 8.1 0 0.0 0.0

We can see that the seat percentages out of 250 are close to the vote percentages, as we would expect if the system acts as if it were nationwide PR (not counting the bonus). More to the point, we would expect all parties, even the smallest that win seats, to be over-represented somewhat, due to the nationwide threshold. That is indeed what we see. Over 8% of the votes were wasted on parties that failed to clear the threshold. The largest of these, Laikos Syndesmos, had 2.93%. The threshold is 3%. No other party had even 1.5%.

It is clear that the system has worked in this election exactly as intended. The largest party has a majority of seats, due to the bonus, but even the percentages out of 300 are close to proportionality–far more than they would be if Greece tried to “manufacture” majorities via FPTP or two-round majority instead of “bonus-adjusted PR”.

The effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) is 2.70. It would have been 3.13 based on the indicated parties’ percentages of seats out of 250. So the bonus provision has reduced NS by 13.7%. (The effective number of vote-earning parties, NV, is 3.68, calculated on all the separate parties’ actual vote shares.)

But what about the SPM? With 288 seats in districts and 12 nationwide, we technically have a basic-tier seat product of 288 x 4 (total seats in the basic tier, times the mean magnitude). However, this includes the 50 bonus seats, which are actually assigned to districts, but clearly not allocated according to the rules that the SPM works on: they are just cream on top, not a product of seat allocation rules in the basic tier and certainly not due to compensation. So, what percentage of seats, excluding the bonus, are allocated in districts? That would be 288/300=0.96, which out of 250 yields a “shadow” basic-tier size of 240 (96% of 250). So our adjusted basic-tier seat product is 240 x 4=960.

In a “simple” system (no compensatory tier as well as no bonus), we would expect, based on the Seat Product Model formula, that the effective number of seat-winning parties would be NS=9601/6=3.14. We would expect the size of the largest party to be s1=960–1/8=0.424. Note that these are already really close to the values we see in the table for the 250-seats, pre-bonus, allocation, which are 3.13 and 0.432. I mean, really, we could hardly get more “normal”.

[Added, 14 July: The following paragraph and calculations are based on a misunderstanding. However, they do not greatly affect the substantive conclusions, as best I can tell. The system is two-tier PR, of the “remainder-pooling” variety. However, the 12 seats referred to as a nationwide tier are not the full number of compensatory seats. With remainder-pooling systems it is not always straightforward to know the precise number of seats that were allocated above the level of the basic tier. Nonetheless, the definition here of the basic tier seems correct to me, even if I got the nationwide portion wrong. Thanks to comments by JD and Manuel for calling my attention to this.]

Nonetheless, there is a nationwide compensation tier, and if we take that into account through the “extended” SPM, we would multiply the above expected values by 2.50.04=1.037, according to the formula explained in Votes from Seats. (The 0.04 is the share of seats in the upper, compensatory, tier; 100–0.96). This is obviously a minor detail in this system, because the upper tier is so small (again, not yet counting the bonus seats). Anyway, with this we get expected values of NS=1.037 x 3.14=3.26. We do not have a formula for the largest seat winning party (s1) in two-tier PR, but one can be determined arithmetically to lead to the following adjustment: s1=0.973 x 0.424=0.413. (This is based on applying to the extended SPM for Nthe formula, s1=NS–3/4, as documented in Votes from Seats [and its online appendix] as well as Taagepera (2007).) I believe these are the “right” figures for what we should expect the outputs of this system to be, on average and without taking election-specific politics into account, given this is not a “simple” (single-tier PR) system even before the bonus seats are taken into account.

Out of 250 seats, 41.3% is 103. The ND actually won 108 pre-bonus seats. The 50 bonus seats then would get the party to an expected 153, which would be 51.0%. It actually got 52.7%.

So, as we deconstruct the electoral system into its relatively simpler components, we get an impact on the party system that is expected to result in a bare-majority party. As for NS, values are generally around s1–4/3, which with s1=0.51, would be 2.45, which is somewhat lower than the actually observed 2.70. But perhaps the actual relationship of s1 to NS should be something between a “typical” party system with a largest party on 51% of the seats (2.45) and the party system we expect from 250 seats with Greece’s pre-bonus two-tier PR system (3.26). The geometric average of these two figures would be 2.82. The actual election yielded NS=2.70, which is pretty close. OK, so maybe the similarly of this value of NS to our “expectation” came out via luck. But it sure looks like as normal a result as we could expect from this electoral system.

Of course, in 2015, when there were two elections, the country was in crisis and the outcome was rather more fragmented than this. I am not sure when the 50-seat bonus was implemented; it used to be 40. So I am reluctant to go back to the pre-crisis elections and see if outcomes were “normal” before, or if this 2019 result is just a one-off.

For the record, in September, 2015, the largest party had 48.3% and NS=3.24; in January, 2015, the figures were 49.7% and 3.09. These are hardly dramatic differences from the expectations I derived above (51.0% and 2.82), but they are more fragmented (particularly in terms of higher NS albeit only marginally in terms of a lower s1). So, all in all, maybe the Greek electoral system is not as complex as I think it is, and all its elections fall within the range of normal for such a system. But this 2019 election seems normaler than most.

Electoral reform’s comeback in the United Kingdom

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog in which I argued that the increased vote shares for the two major parties in the United Kingdom at the 2017 election, and the relatively low levels of disproportionality that this had created, meant that no political party would be able to have both the incentive and ability to change the electoral system.

Since then, things have changed somewhat.

The inability of Theresa May’s government to propose a Brexit deal which would satisfy parliament and the reluctance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to express its full-throated opposition to Brexit has led to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage forming the new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens making considerable headway. At European Parliament elections held in May of this year, the Conservatives and Labour won just 22% of the vote between them, with the Brexit Party finishing in a comfortable first and the Liberal Democrats coming second. Since then, the Conservatives and Labour have also plummeted in polling for Commons elections, with only a few percentage points seperating them and the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats.

Now, the Brexit Party have joined the Liberal Democrats, regionalist parties, and Greens, long advocates for the cause of electoral reform, in calling for the replacement of first-past-the-post with an as-yet unspecified proportional electoral system. While it may seem slightly unusual for Farage’s party to be promoting an idea that is more often associated with the left wing of politics in the United Kingdom, it can be explained with reference to the potential uncertainty that the party has about the number of seats they could win under FPTP given that current estimates of their support are around 20%. While all such predictions should be taken with a grain of salt given the dramatic changes in party support, one analysis of opinion polling suggests that 20% of the vote for the Brexit Party could translate into just 68 seats, while the Conservatives’ 23% would translate into 193 seats and Labour’s 25% would secure them 257 seats.

In such circumstances, the Brexit Party may well see it as wiser to argue for an electoral system that guarantees them a stable share of seats, rather than entering into the potential lottery of a near four-way tie under FPTP. However, does this logic apply to the ‘major’ Labour and Conservative parties? After all, they lead the Brexit and Liberal Democrats only narrowly, and this lead could be erased by a weak campaign, leaving them with a potentially disastrous seat haul.

Would either of these two major parties be willing to change their positions on electoral reform? Labour may appear to have a more substantial ideological committment to electoral reform: after all, then-leader Ed Miliband backed the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum and a Labour government introduced list PR for European elections, MMP for devolved assemblies, and the Supplementary Vote for directly elected mayoralties. The Conservatives opposed AV, and promised to roll back MMP for the London assembly and the Supplementary Vote in their 2017 manifesto.

However, in this case the political logic of the electoral system may run the other way. The histograms below show the share of the vote cast for the Labour and Conservative parties at the 2017 election, in seats where each party won. As can be seen, Labour have more winners with higher majorities than the Conservatives, who won virtually all of their seats with less than 62.5% of the vote.

labourtory

(data from Constituency Level Election Archive)

This suggests that the Conservative seat total may be more vulnerable to a dramatic drop in the party’s vote share than Labour, which has more seats in which they can afford to lose a large share of their vote. This is reflected in the aforementioned Electoral Calculus analysis, which gives the Conservatives 64 fewer seats than Labour for a vote share slightly less than two percentage points lower. As such, a switch to PR may make more political sense for the Conservatives, despite their long ideological committment to FPTP.

At this stage, talk of electoral reform is somewhat theoretical: as wrangling over Brexit continues, Parliament is unlikely to be able to find time to dedicate to the complicated exercise of changing the electoral systen, and the currently pro-PR parties have only derisory representation in this Parliament. However, if the next Prime Minister is unable to deal with their slim majority in this Parliament, a new election may bring these issues to a head, and bring the problems of the FPTP system in a four-party system out of the realm of the theoretical.

Rotation of US Supreme Court justices?

According to the transcript of the Democratic pre-candidates’ debate (night 2), Bernie Sanders said:

I do not believe in packing the court. We got a terrible 5-4 majority conservative court right now. But I do believe that constitutionally we have the power to rotate judges to other courts. And that brings in new blood into the Supreme Court…

I would not pretend to know what Bernie meant. He says some strange things. But the Constitution is pretty brief on structure of courts. Let me try to imagine what he meant, and consider whether it could be constitutional.

Could legislation establish that there is a wider panel of appellate justices from which Supreme Court justices are drawn for periods of time? I am certainly not a constitutional lawyer, but maybe.

In Article III, Section 1, the US Constitution states, in part,

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour…

So we know from this that how “inferior courts” are structured is up to Congress, and that individual judges can’t be subjected to a term of some set length, without a constitutional amendment.

We also know, from Article II, Section 2, that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the supreme Court.” No other judges of any court are mentioned. So legislation could establish the inferior court judges are appointed by the Supreme Court, for example (a model that is actually used in some countries). But the point about “rotation” raised by Sanders is the reverse: could members of the Supreme Court be drawn from other courts, rather than be sitting on a permanent body?

I do not see why not. The judges as individuals can’t be dismissed except for violating “good behaviour”. But could not Congress establish that the President, at set periods, appoints (with advice and consent) judges from the Circuit Courts to sit on the Supreme Court, who at set periods rotate back to their “inferior” courts? The only obstacle that becomes immediately apparent to me is if the specific court (Supreme or inferior) a judge sits on is considered part of his or her “Compensation” (capital C in original, Article III, Section 1). But if all judges in these courts are accorded the same salary and benefits, then maybe the Constitution actually does permit some sort of rotation.

Now, I am not saying that Sanders is clever enough to have thought it though the way I just articulated. Nor I am claiming that I have not overlooked some other constitutional obstacle. But the Constitution is a lot more vague than folks might think when it comes to stipulating how the federal judiciary is structured. Most of that is left to Congress.

Open-list PR and the definition of antisemitism

Here’s an unexpected convergence of my interests. Open-list PR has helped lead to a Finnish organization’s adoption of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism.

Via JPost:

The recently elected Finnish MP Hussein al-Taee, a supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was embroiled in an antisemitism, racism and homophobia scandal in May. After revelations in the Israeli and Finnish media about his antisemitic Facebook posts CMI [Crisis Management Initiative] scrubbed him from its website…

Alas he’s still in parliament. His preference votes placed him sixth on the SDP list, which won 7 seats In Uusimaa district; he was a mere 63 votes ahead of the list’s first loser.

It is possible that his views may have helped him edge out other candidates and win a seat. But on the positive side, his election evidently helped increase sensitivity of the CMI to anti-semitism.

Europe 2019

I don’t usually follow European Parliament elections all that closely. But this year’s were rather interesting–particularly in the not-quite-Brexited-yet UK.

So, if folks want to discuss, here’s the place…

Is there going to be an Israel 2019b?

Today, the Knesset of Israel took the first step towards passing a bill to dissolve itself and set an early election, probably in early September. This came after Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman said he would not join an emerging government coalition that he claimed would be a halakha government. He was referring to the demands in such a coalition of the two Haredi Knesset factions, Shas and United Torah Judaism. (Halakha is Jewish law.)

It is still possible that this is all an elaborate ploy by PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his various allies to pressure Liberman into backing down. However, Liberman himself has said he welcomes new elections, and the preliminary reading of the elections bill passed with 65 votes, or exactly the number that the putative right/Haredi coalition would have if Yisrael Beitenu’s five seats are included.

In the 2019(a?) election in April, Netanyahu’s Likud won 35 seats, and the two Haredi lists 8 each. Add to those the seats of “soft right” Kulanu (4) and ultranationalist Union of Right Parties (5) and you get 60, exactly half the Knesset. These 60 seats could be sufficient to form and maintain a government, as long as Liberman and his YB do not vote against its investiture. Would they really vote with the left and Arab parties to stop its formation? It seems unlikely. Given the constructive vote of no confidence now in place in Israeli Basic Law, it would take at 61 seats to elect an alternative government in order to oust an already in-place minority government. It is even harder to imagine YB voting for any actual alternative at some future point in the life of the government. Nonetheless, Netanyahu clearly wants a majority coalition, even though pleasing all those small and essential partners would not make such a government notably more stable than a minority one.

It is also possible to imagine a flexible coalition deal in which YB is allowed to vote against the version of the Haredi conscription bill that Liberman objects to. However, the Knesset is under a Supreme Court deadline (oft-extended) to pass something to replace the current law, and it is not clear if any majority can be found for one. Yet the Haredi parties insist that the law be “fixed” to protect their constituencies from being drafted, because the reversion point is a law they dislike even more (i.e., there would suddenly be a requirement for many more enlistments from the ultra-orthodox constituencies, which is something that even the army is not exactly clamoring for).

So, unless a compromise can be struck by Wednesday, it seems the train is in motion for Israel to have two general elections in the same year for the first time in its history.

And I guess that means I’d be asked by the editors to update my chapter on the electoral system for the almost in-press Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society yet again.

Ukraine will have an early election

Well, it did not take long to learn the answer to my question. Yes, Ukraine will have an early election, as President Volodomyr Zelenskyy announced on 19 May in his inaugural address. And thus, no, the current electoral system will not be replaced just yet.

The election is expected to be in July, a scenario I already discussed in the earlier post.

In the context of all this, today (20 May) the Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman, announced his resignation.

There had been a report last week that a dissolution of the coalition in the assembly would prevent the new president from calling an early election (because it would buy the assembly time to attempt to find, under terms of the constitution, an alternative premier they can agree on). But evidently not.