PM rotation in Ireland?

In the earlier planting on Israel’s new government, I asked if examples of rotating the position of prime minister existed outside of Israel. There is evidently a good chance we might be seeing one in Ireland!

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is expected to be taoiseach in the first half of a coalition government with Fine Gael and the Greens, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar going second. (Source: Irish Times; h/t to Steven Verbank.)

There was even some discussion of the Greens’ leader also being part of a possible rotation deal.

Senior Green sources had previously floated the idea of Mr [Eamon] Ryan also getting a year as taoiseach, although Mr Ryan ruled this out…

What a shame. I am pretty sure it would have been the first case of leaders of three different parties taking turns as prime minister under a coalition agreement!

(Taoiseach is the Irish term for the prime minister.)

The 35th Israeli government

Last week, Israel finally got a new government, after three elections in under a year, the most recent of which was March of this year.

And what a government it is! Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud will remain prime minister, with a planned rotation of the premiership to Benny Gantz in 18 months.

It is being referred to as a “unity government” but that is a strange term for a government, the formation of which led to the break-up of three of the multi-party alliances that contested the most recent election, most especially Gantz’s Blue and White list. Maybe just like with “grand coalition” in Germany and Austria, it is time to dispense with the term, “unity government,” for Israel.

The most recent Israeli governments to which the term applied were following the Knesset elections of 1984 and 1988. In these elections the two main parties (Likud and Labor) each had won around 40 or more seats and formed governments in which the two parties governed together. Unlike the European examples, the parties in the earlier Israeli examples also agreed to rotate the premiership (two years one party, two years the other), although this plan broke down during the second term of planned “unity”.

This new government has the rotation plan again, but in other respects, it is quite novel. For one thing, as alluded to already, one of the two main components of the agreement, Blue and White, split. The part headed by Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi has joined the government with Likud, but the part consisting of Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid) and Telem (led by Moshe Ya’alon) will go to opposition. Likud won 36 seats in the most recent elections and Blue and White 33. However, with the split, the governing portion of the latter brings only 18 seats to support the cabinet. Thus, unlike the previous “unity” governments, in this one the two main lists that are forming the cabinet and rotating the premiership do not have a majority of Knesset seats between them (they have 54, where a majority is 61.)

(Yesh Atid and Telem, who will be in opposition, have 16 seats; there were also two from B&W who split off and joined the government as a separate party and two from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance who joined the new rump B&W, while another effectively joined the Likud’s bloc… it gets complicated!)

Despite the imbalance now of the two main components, Likud and (rump) B&W, each has rough parity in the government. This is a sense in which it is still sort of a “unity” government. B&W currently has 13 ministers, while Likud has 14, even though the Likud caucus is twice the size of B&W’s. In addition, the B&W splinter joining the government, the 2-seat Derech Eretz, gets one minister. So does Gesher, which is just Orly Levi-Abekasis, who split from Labor-Gesher-Meretz to join the government. And Labor has two. In addition, there is Rafael Peretz, who split from the nationalist Yemina (the rest of which is going into opposition), plus one from United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and one from Shas. (The latter two, both haredi–or ultra-orthodox–parties, combine for 16 Knesset seats.)

Thus, strictly in portfolios, the remnant of Blue and White made off really well, getting 37% of the cabinet despite contributing only around 22% of the cabinet’s parliamentary basis. Likud gets 40% of the cabinet, with about 44% of the parliamentary basis.

Plus, of course, there is the rotation. Gantz gets a turn at the premiership after 18 months, if the agreement lasts. So, while critics on the leftish side of the political spectrum are calling Gantz a sell out for going into government with Netanyahu, he actually got a pretty good deal, in terms of the portfolios:legislators ratio. (I will not go into policy in this post, but my sense is he did decently well there, given the bargaining situation.)

In the end, both blocs failed to win three straight elections–even the first of which was called several months earlier than required. And so compromise was the only option. Well, no, actually it was not. A fourth election in just over a year’s time could have been called. In fact, under Israeli law, it would have happened automatically had a deal not been struck to form a government. Polling strongly suggested a new election would finally give the Nethanyahu-led bloc (Likud, Yemina, UTJ, and Shas) more than 61 seats.

The bargaining over government formation, when there is a looming return to elections, always takes place against the backdrop of what each side expects in the event of a new election. This only enhances the significance of the portfolio balance and rotation Gantz was able to extract. Likud and its allies certainly had no reason to fear the outcome of an election, and could have just run out the clock and let it happen, while blaming Gantz (and Lapid) for dragging voters to the polls yet again.

So Netanyahu and his allies struck a deal either because the ongoing coronavirus crisis made going back to the polls seem unappealing, or because Nethanyahu really preferred a coalition containing at least one party to his left over one formed around a narrow right-wing (nationalist-haredi) bloc. The reason need not be one or the other. Both factors probably matter.

But bear in mind that Nethanyahu has always had coalitions in which he had partners from the center-left as well as to his right, with the partial exception of the one formed after the 2015 election–the one that was ended early to kick off what would turn out to be a sequence of three elections. In that coalition, Kulanu (10 seats) was to Likud’s left, although firmly part of the “nationalist camp” in its self-definition (and merged with Likud after the first of the three 2019-20 elections). Thus it is entirely plausible that Nethanyahu preferred some sort of deal with Gantz, and could not get Gantz to back down from demands that his bloc get a large share of the cabinet even if he failed to bring his whole list with him. With the ulranationalist Yemina (6 seats) going into opposition, and the two haredi parties not really fitting on the left-right dimension (which, in Israel, is mostly about doves vs. hawks), Likud for the first time in the Netanyahu era will anchor the farthest right position in the cabinet. (Had they gone back to elections that resulted in a majority for the right-haredi bloc, Likud would have anchored the farthest left position in the likely government.)

(As an aside, I wonder how Lapid could possibly have been willing to go to another election, given polling suggesting only around 10% or so for his list. Or maybe he just really decided that being opposition leader was the least unattractive of all his options.)

On the question of whether the agreement can last, the coalition deal includes some creative constitution re-drafting. Before it was voted in as the government, the proto-coalition amended Basic Laws in order to attempt to secure its position, and thus not be vulnerable to a potential Nethanyahu decision to break it up early and precipitate elections. Here are the main points (thanks to JD Mussel for these):

  • There is now a new legal category of government called an “Alternation Government”. The following apply to such a government:
  • PM can’t fire ministers from other bloc without alternate PM’s consent.
  • If an election is called by the Knesset, with at least 12 members of the right bloc voting for it, Gantz automatically becomes PM (and vice versa after PM alternation).
  • The PM’s existing power to call an election (which is not exactly that, since a new government can be formed within 21 days) now requires the consent of the alternate PM.
  • Neither a sitting PM nor alternate PM can serve in a government installed as result of a constructive no-confidence vote (whereby 61 members of Knesset must elect a new government in order to oust the incumbent).
  • The Basic Law change contains an entrenchment clause: “This Basic Law [probably meaning specifically these amended clauses] may only be changed with the votes of 75 MKs,”

A strange beast Netanyahu and Gantz have created! But a political (and public-health) crisis required some creative bargaining and constitutional innovation.

A couple of final small thoughts:

  • Is this the first time in the annals of parliamentary government that a formateur (the one designated to attempt to form a government) had himself installed as Speaker to preserve his leverage while bargaining to install someone else as (initial) Prime Minister?
  • Is this the first case known to constitutional history of a 62.5% majority to amend?

Dividing the Rulers: How Majority Cycling Saves Democracy

The following is a guest planting by Dr. Yuhui Li. I suggested Dr. Li draft something for this blog about his recently published book. (Note: I was the Ph.D. committee chair for Huey at UC Davis.)

You can buy the book by clicking here, and taking advantage of a discount! You can get 30% off by entering the code, UMCYCLING (for a limited time).


I’m grateful that Matthew offers to post this introduction of my book Dividing the Rulers: How Majority Cycling Saves Democracy. I hope it may interest some fellow political scientists.

The initial thought about the project originated from a debate I had years ago on Chinese social media regarding the choice of political systems. It appeared to me that many people were skeptical about the idea of democracy out of the fear that the majority, at least in theory, could be as tyrannical as individual dictators. But years later, when I learned about the social choice theories as a PhD student, I noticed an almost opposite criticism of democracy from academia, namely the instability of social choice. Both arguments sound convincing, but also at odds with each other: It’s hard to imagine a decision-making body that is both cyclical and tyrannical. In the process of solving the puzzle, I came across Nicholas Miller (1983) and Anthony McGann (2006) and realized that the two arguments can be reconciled. Cycling and the tyranny of the majority can both exist, but they can be negatively correlated with each other. As cycling is clearly the lesser of the two evils, it may be exactly the reason that democracies tend to be less tyrannical than alternative systems.

So building on Miller and McGann, I started to develop a theory and design an experiment to untangle the process of how cycling can actually be a good thing and help the temporary losers of an electoral game. I argue that in a voting body, the key factor that prevents cycling is the cost incurred on those who defect from the winning coalition. If a country’s legislative body has a low “defection cost”, cycling is more likely, and the distributive outcome more equal.

I have to admit, unfortunately, that my modeling skills are not enough to formalize a game with continuous options and highly unstable equilibria, but I did present a rather convincing strategic process showing that in a three-player committee, if the defection cost is higher than 50% of the distributable benefits in a giving round, cycling cannot happen. I then conducted an experiment by grouping respondents into three-player committees to verify that process. The experiment results turned out to be more variant than I had expected, but largely confirmed the hypothesis that a high defection cost can deter cycling and result in a more “tyrannical” outcome, with less frequent power alternation. I show that while cycling introduces uncertainty into the policy outcome, it is exactly that short-run uncertainty that creates the long-run equality by reshuffling winners and losers.

In the second half of the book, I connect such a phenomenon to the design of electoral institutions. I argue that low defection costs explain the favorable distributive outcome in countries in which the parliament does not have a majority party and the executive is subordinate to that parliament. This way, not only is the winning coalition more inclusive, but more importantly, it is vulnerable to defection and gives the losing side a better bargaining position.

While it is a common belief in the literature that the outcome of electoral system design cannot be predicted with high accuracy, I construct a comprehensive dataset on countries’ largest party vote shares and show that a no-majority party system can be guaranteed in almost any country as long as the electoral system is sufficiently proportional. I explain such a phenomenon by developing a demand and supply theory of political parties, explaining why, with very few exceptions such as South Africa’s ANC, a majority party’s politicians and voters both have strong incentives to split as long as the electoral system allows small parties to survive. And therefore the aforementioned theory that cycling leads to equality is not merely a thought exercise, but an attainable outcome giving appropriate institutional design.

There are two features of this book that I think are worth noting. First, it goes beyond positive empirical study of political institutions and offers a clear normative objective for institutional design, which is to ensure an unstable winning coalition to guard against a tyrannical government, whether it represents a majority or not. And second, the book is accessible for readers with minimal political science training, as I strive to convince as many people as possible by using intuitive methods and providing explanations to advanced concepts.

South Korea 2020

South Korea had its assembly election on 15 April, with various covid-19 precautions in place. The Democratic Party of President Moon Jae-in (elected in 2017) won a majority of seats.

As discussed previously at F&V, the electoral system was changed from mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) to, at least partially, mixed-member proportional (MMP) prior to this election. It is only partially MMP not mainly because the number of compensatory list seats is so small (30 out of 300 total), but because there remain 17 seats that are, apparently, allocated in parallel (i.e., as if it were MMM).

There was some discussion in various media accounts (and in the previous thread) of the major parties setting up “satellite” parties to “game” the MMP aspect of the system. Under such a situation, a big party will contest the nominal tier seats and use a separate list to attract list votes and seats. By not linking its victorious nominal candidates with a same-party list, a party can gain extra seats, vitiating the compensation mechanism that defines MMP. This is what happened in Lesotho in 2007, for example. (That thread has an interesting series of comments about the issue, including why German parties do not do this in their MMP system.)

The Democratic Party set up a Together Citizens Party to compete for list seats and the main opposition United Future Party set up a Future Korea Party to do the same.

However, if I understand the results correctly (at Wiki), it seems the satellite was not necessary for the Democratic Party to win its seat majority. The Democrats won 163 constituency seats on 49.9% of the (nominal) vote; with 300 total seats, this is a majority no matter what happens with the list seats. Their satellite won 17 seats on 33.4% of the list votes. The United Future won 84 nominal seats on 41.5% of the nominal vote; their satellite won 19 seats on 33.8% of the list votes. I am finding these numbers hard to understand! Maybe someone else can figure this out for us.

Live streaming election count: Vanuatu 2020

Vanuatu’s state broadcaster live-streamed its election count. Per Radio New Zealand:

The decision to live stream the counting was a unique one, made in an election that has already been tripped by storms, death and the global coronavirus pandemic.

The country went to the polls on 19 March, in some northern islands, this was extended to 20 March, as bad weather prevented ballot boxes from reaching some islands. In this vast country of about 80 islands spread across 1,300km of ocean, they then all had to make their way back.

Last week the country’s electoral commissioner, Martin Tete, died of natural causes in what had been described as an incalculable loss for Vanuatu.

The loss of Mr Tete was also a hurdle for the Electoral Office. Not only had they lost an esteemed colleague, by law, counting was not possible until a new commissioner was appointed.

By the time a new appointee was in place, the government had declared an emergency over covid-19 and restricted meetings to no more than five people.

Elections in Vanuatu are via single non-transferable vote (SNTV), so they are always of interest to me. I have even used data from Vanuatu in published research:

Matthew E. Bergman, Matthew S. Shugart and Kevin A. Watt, “Patterns of Intra-Party Competition in Open-List and SNTV Systems.” Electoral Studies 32, 2 (June, 2013): 321–33; published online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2013.01.004.

And for one chapter in Votes from Seats.

About that post on the Democratic race…

Now that Bernie Sanders is out of the contest for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, I think we can safely say that my take from late December was more or less correct. Oh, I might have wobbled a little bit in my confidence some time in February. But I never did believe the various projections that Sanders had become the favorite, even when things were looking rather bleak for Joe Biden. I certainly did not see things going through all the twists and turns that they did. That Biden would come out on top was not inevitable. Nonetheless, Biden’s dominance of the period before any actual voting started always seemed likely to play out in some fashion with him as the nominee. Or so I said in late December. That was my story and I was sticking to it!

Biden was not my first choice. He might not even have been my fifth choice in the original field (I am glad I never had to rank them!). But I am glad Sanders finally bowed to the inevitable, and got out of a contest in which his only real chance always depended on prolonged fragmentation and implausible “theories” about voter mobilization.

How is everyone?

It has been a month since any new planting here. That is unusually long for me.

I am fine, thanks. And you? I hope readers, wherever they may be, are taking precautions during this pandemic, and staying away from harm.

For the first weeks of our local “shelter in place” orders, it was not making much difference in day-to-day life for me. I work from home most of the time, and I was not teaching or otherwise needing to be on campus during the time that the orders to avoid being on campus came in.

Now, this past week, the spring quarter has started. So all of a sudden I am teaching from home, via Zoom. I can thank our synagogue for introducing me to Zoom over the preceding weeks. I was on a committee and we were using Zoom for meetings and interviews (we were attempting to hire new personnel) even before it became the sudden new thing everyone was using.

The strange thing is, given my tendency to live some distance from my employer (even more so in my UCSD days than in my Davis days), there were many times over the years when I mused about how nice it would be to stay home, with a view of the fruit orchard, and lecture from afar. But now that I have to do it, I… kind of… don’t much like it. I mean, it has gone better than I expected, after one week, but that is a low bar. I miss the in-person engagement. The technology, while quite amazing, still has its limitations.

The current crisis has taken away my two most important forms of social interaction–synagogue and teaching classes. May those be the worst things it ever takes from me, or from any of us.