September, 2005: A big month for election-watchers

For those of us who love watching an election campaign almost as much as a baseball pennant race (or insert favorite sport or other spectator activity here), the month that has just dawned promises to be perhaps the most exciting of the year.

Two of America’s most important trading and security partners—Japan and Germany—go to the polls in general parliamentary elections, as will another small but important ally, New Zealand. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is preparing for its first free legislative elections, and twin brothers are vying to lead Poland. Egypt is holding presidential elections, though they are not fully competitive.

In Japan, alternation in power is possible in the “snap” election called for September 11, and if it happens it would be historic. The Liberal Democrats have ruled, usually alone but lately in coalition, for most of the last 50 years. This election was called by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi early after he lost a key vote in parliament. Koizumi has been facing resistance to his plans to reform various aspects of Japan’s cozy business-government ties, including most recently a privatization plan for Japan Post.

Far from being just an agency to deliver the mail, Japan Post is the world’s largest financial institution. When several LDP members voted against Koizumi’s privatization bill, he decided to call a snap election. The LDP could be defeated by the relatively new Democratic Party, though it looks like Koizumi’s gambit will pay off, and that he will retain his majority.

In Germany‘s September 18 election, an alternation in power (from the current Social Democratic–Green coalition to Christian Democrats and “liberal” Free Democrats) is very likely. However, the possibility of the center-right parties failing to get a majority cannot be ruled out and in such a case the Social Democrats probably would have to remain as part of a “Grand Coalition.” (In fact, a recent poll shows that a near majority of voters would prefer to see the Social Democrats’ incumbent chancellor Gerhard Schroeder remain in office, rather than be replaced by Christian Democratic leader Angela Merkl, even as his party slips so low in the same polls as to make that outcome virtually impossible.)

Germany’s election, like Japan’s, is being held ahead of schedule. Also like Japan, part of the reason is resistance in the prime minister’s (Chancellor’s) own party to economic and social-policy reform. However, unlike in Japan, the prime minister cannot simply call an election as a means to take problems within his own caucus back to the voters. Instead, Schroeder had to engineer his own defeat of a “confidence” motion and then wait for the Constitutional Court to come up with a creative interpretation saying it was OK.

Additionally, New Zealand on September 12 is holding its fourth election since the country changed from a plurality winner-take-all system to a form of proportional representation. The Labour Party has governed in various coalitions since 1999, but is under a strong challenge from the National Party for the position of leading party in parliament; however, it is not at all clear if National’s potential coalition partners will get into parliament, and thus it may be impossible for National to form a government even if it is the largest party. Labour could form a coalition with the Greens, which would mean that a “red-green” coalition would come to power in New Zealand about the same time one goes out in Germany.

Each of these elections holds implications for the USA. The US-German relationship, of course, became strained when Schroeder found that campaigning against the then-impending war in Iraq was good reelection politics in 2002. Merkl’s coalition would probably renew much closer relations with the US, though troops for Iraq are almost out of the question unless current US policy changes substantially. Japan currently has troops in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, and this has been controversial at home, with the opposition Democrats promising, if they win, not to renew the Iraq commitment when it expires on December 14. However, Japan’s foreign policy has been overshadowed as an issue in this campaign due to the heavy focus on the Japan Post issue. New Zealand has been suspended from the ANZUS treaty since 1985 on account of the late David Lange‘s refusal when he was PM for Labour to allow US ships with nuclear weapons to visit NZ ports. Lately, the US and NZ have resumed some military cooperation in spite of New Zealand’s continuing suspension from ANZUS. The extent of ongoing cooperation with the US has been an issue in the New Zealand campaign, including sparring between the party leaders over the Iraq war and questions over whether the National party remains committed to the nuke ban.

The three countries just mentioned are also of special interest to me, as they represent three cases of “mixed-member” electoral system—a topic I have published on. Mixed-member systems combine the election of some legislators in single-seat districts (like the US or UK) with others elected by proportional representation from party lists. Germany and New Zealand combine them in a way that is fundamentally proportional (parties win parliamentary seats based on their shares of the party-list vote), while Japan‘s retains strong elements of majoritarianism, meaning that the individual single-seat races remain far more important than in Germany and New Zealand. (More about why this is significant in planned future posts.)

Then there is Afghanistan, speaking of elections with implications for US foregin policy and security. That country finally will have its much-delayed legislative election on September 18. Afghanistan has been without an elected legislature even as President Hamid Karzai was elected almost a year ago, in October, 2004, in an election with many opponents, but no real opposition. Because this election is being fought almost entirely without political parties, it is impossible (for me, anyway) to say much of anything about the likely balance of political forces in the new legislature. Presumably Karzai will simply offer cabinet posts and other positions to legislators in exchange for support, much the same way potential opposition was bought out of the presidential election, with the reported assistance of the US embassy.

Even this list—Japan, Germany, New Zealand, and Afghanistan—does not exhaust the list of significant elections around the world in September. Poland is holding its first parliamentary elections since it joined the European Union. The elections coincide with the 25th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, which marked the beginning of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Solidarity is 25

Poland’s current governing coalition, headed by the Democratic Left (the reformed Communists), is almost certain to lose the elections, in part because of difficult economic reforms it has overseen as a condition of EU entry. Poland will then hold presidential elections in October (the 9th, followed by a runoff between the top two on the 23rd, given that almost certainly no candidate will have obtained the required 50%+1 of votes on Oct. 9).

This is the first time in Poland’s young democracy that parliamentary and presidential elections have occurred in such close succession. Under Poland’s semi-presidential system, the prime minister and cabinet must hold the confidence of the parliamentary majority, but the elected president is far from powerless, having a veto as well as some discretion over who will be PM in the event there is not a clear majority coalition that forms on its own in parliament. We have here, then, a relatively rare case of what I call a “counterhoneymoon election” in that the parliamentary election is being held in the shadow of a presidential campaign: The outcome of the parliamentary contest will go a long way towards shaping the final field of battle for the presidential race, but there is no guarantee that allied parties that win a majority in parliament—assuming either bloc does—will also elect a president of their own camp. Right now, it looks like the right bloc will win, although these are right-wing parties that tend to want the government to intervene more than the ex-Communists did to protect those who are hurting from the economic reform. Two parties within the rightist camp that will need each other to form a majority are also competing against each other in the presidential elections, complicating their alliance. Just to make things even more interesting, one of these parties is led by twin bothers! (It is possible that one could become president and the other prime minister. Now that would be a first in the history of semi-presidentialism!)

And, finally, Egypt is holding a presidential election on September 7. It is the first presidential election ever in that country to feature more than one candidate, although any serious opposition to Hosni Mubarak—who continues to rule under martial law as he has since the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat—has been prevented from running.

I may post periodically on my impressions of these campaigns, and on the rules under which they are being run and how they matter.

2 thoughts on “September, 2005: A big month for election-watchers

  1. Pingback: PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science

  2. Pingback: PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science

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