Half a year of Fruits and Votes: A remarkable series of elections

This blog has just completed its first six months of existence. And in the votes realm of Fruits and Votes, what an amazing half-year it has been! I have followed elections around the world for a long time–almost as long as I can remember, really–and while I never before have written about elections as they happen, I am fairly confident that it has been a very long time since there were so many extremely close, surprising, or otherwise remarkable elections in a six-month period.

We had a big month of elections in September, 2005, when Japan, Germany, and New Zealand–three major examples of mixed-member systems–held general elections. In Germany, an election was called early on somewhat dubious constitutional grounds and the center-right bloc squandered a large lead in the polls. The main conservative party wound up in Grand Coalition with the social democrats, the major partner of the outgoing coalition. The outcome was certainly no one’s first choice, and caused much consternation in some circles, but it might well have been the second choice of most voters. Unlike American divided government, to which it is sometimes (inaccurately) compared, the German Grand Coalition permits (forces and ensures, really) the forging of inter-party programmatic consensus. That would appear to be precisely what is needed in Germany to break the logjam over policy reforms that will now be implemented in some form, according to the coalition agreement.

In New Zealand, an extremely close election that could have gone either way resulted in a shift to the right, but not quite enough for the leading conservative party to form a government. The result was one of the odder government agreements I have ever seen in a parliamentary system, with two important ministerial portfolios going to small parties that officially remain outside cabinet. Nonetheless, it is one that is likely to prove workable and that broadly reflects what New Zealanders appear collectively to have wanted: A shift to the right, but not the hard turn that the National party and a potential small-party ally would have undertaken–and that the old disproportional electoral system might have given.

The Japanese election of September was not close, but it was remarkable for its traitors and assassins. When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called the election, it looked like his long-predominant Liberal Democratic party might finally get the boot, but he wound up with a big win. Sure, it was bigger in seats than in votes, owing to the nonproportional features of Japan’s mixed-member system (in contrast to Germany’s and new Zealand’s proportional variants). Nonetheless, there is little doubt of the mandate that Koizumi received, and no election in the history of Japan had been so clearly fought on issues (or maybe we should just say “on issue.”)

Both October and December saw elections in Iraq. In these elections, unfortunately, there were few surprises. The constitutional referendum in October resulted in the passage of a quite majoritarian constitution against the near unified opposition of a major sectarian group. It was not a surprise because there was always good reason to doubt that the Arab Sunnis would be able to veto the draft constitution. Then the December election produced no further surprises, codifying–within a constitutional structure that does not require an extraordinary majority to form a government–the minority and fragmented position of the segment of the population that will continue to use guerrillas and elections as parallel currencies of power.

Afghanistanis went to the polls in September, although the results were not released until December. This election was remarkable simply for its having occurred, but as with Iraq, there were no surprises in the results. Afghanistan’s institutions are almost the polar opposite of those of Iraq, so they do not produce the predictable sectarian-party distribution of strength in parliament (and mirror that in the executive) as we are seeing in Iraq. Instead, as expected, the Afghanistani elections produced the erratic results typical of the single nontransferable vote when there is no party to coordinate the system (as there had been in Japan for forty years where the LDP played a similar system to its advantage). Afghanistan’s turnout was low and warlords and local notables won many seats in an election that was contested along local and personal factors rather than on national issues or party lines.

November saw the special referendum-fest in California, called by our Governator to try to ram through a series of Republican and business-supported policy changes that would never stand a chance in the Democratic-controlled legislature. The voters gave a resounding no, and the Governator responded by showing he was no Charles de Gaulle. Instead, he named a Democrat who had been an advisor to his recalled successor as his top aid. Hey, you can’t make this stuff up, but this is California!

December also saw a truly remarkable election–we could even say a democratic revolution–in Bolivia, where presidents have generally been selected out of inter-party horsetrading (or the armed forces) rather than electoral mandates. Polls leading up to the election showed Evo Morales well below 50% but he wound up with almost 55% and a completely unexpected depth of support across most regions of the country.

Chile held an election in December (with a presidential runoff in January) that was not at all surprising–the center-left alliance continued its post-dictatorship dominance. However, the election was unusual–even if in a way that seems remarkable only to elections specialists like me. The right-wing alliance that has remained the second largest force in the country’s electoral politics ever since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship could not agree on a single presidential candidate. So it presented two in the first round of the presidential election, but, because of the exigencies of the electoral system, it continued to run a common slate in the congressional elections. As far as I know, this is the first time in the world of elections that an alliance of parties has presented a single legislative list but multiple presidential candidates. The tactic backfired quite badly in that, while the two presidential candidates combined for a higher share of first-round votes than the right usually gets, they had no coattails whatsoever.

Then in the new year, we had two remarkable elections in January. In Canada, an election that looked like it would return another Liberal minority back in November when parliament was dissolved turned rather dramatically in the last two weeks of the campaign. The result was a Conservative minority government that will have the smallest share of seats for any government in Canadian history (though it has already grown by the addition of one defector from the Liberals). While the polls showed that a Conservative minority government would be the likely result well before election day, the extent of the turnaround during the campaign was quite unusual. And even on election day, there were surprises, with the Conservatives winning seats in Quebec far beyond expectations.

The same week as the Canadian election, Palestinians shocked the world by electing a Hamas parliamentary majority. Polls–both pre-election and exit–were wrong. Hamas won less than 45% of the vote, yet will control nearly three fifths of the seats due to an extremely disproportional electoral system. The Palestinian election showed how the unusual electoral rules of multiple nontransferable vote can yield sweeps of multi-seat districts by one party that has party-loyal voters just as much as the same rules can yield excessive fragmentation when voters are not party-loyal, as the Liberian election in October had shown.

In the past week we have seen a razor-thin margin in Costa Rica’s presidential and congressional elections. As of today, the results are still uncertain. A similarly razor-thin margin in nearby Honduras in November ended with the concession of the loser after an extended count–an event still not to be taken entirely for granted in the region. And there was an election in Haiti, perhaps the most ungovernable of the region’s countries. May the political forces contain their conflicts within democratic institutions this time around. (As boz notes, who would have expected that the Haitian results would come in faster than Costa Rica’s? He also notes that both will be faster than Florida in 2000. And, he might have added, more accurately reflective of how people voted–or thought they were voting.)

It has been a remarkable six months of elections, and the coming months promise more! February is a actually bit light in the votes department, compared to recent and upcoming months. March will be another big one, with several important elections, including the Israeli general election–like Canada’s, Germany’s and Japan’s, called early, and like Germany’s (but not Canada’s and Japan’s) with somewhat dubious constitutional grounds (even granting that there is not an actual constitution in Israel–yet). The Israeli election looks likely to confirm a major shift in Israel’s party system that was prompted by the defection in November of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon–who now lies near death–from the Likud party that he helped found.

Also in March will be Ukraine‘s first parliamentary elections since the Orange Revolution and the constitutional amendments weakening the presidency, and presidential elections in neighboring Belarus, where the dark forces of post-totalitarianism are far more entrenched than they were even in Ukraine.

There will be legislative (but not presidential) elections in March in both El Salvador and Colombia. The Colombian election will be first run of a party-list proportional electoral system I helped design as a replacement for what had been essentially a single nontransferable vote system that contributed to party factionalization.

In April, Italy will hold elections under a reversion to proportional representation pushed through by Silvio Berlusconi in one of the more naked partisan manipulations of electoral rules in a long-established democracy since a similar oscillation in France in the 1980s.

And there will be much more to come, so stick around!

0 thoughts on “Half a year of Fruits and Votes: A remarkable series of elections

  1. No Venezuela’s December 4 congressional election?

    Does that mean you consider it as farcical as I do? In my opinion, this …. thing … that I saw myself in Caracas can’t be put in the same category as these authentic elections you describe.

    It was noteworthy only for its nullity.

    Lack of secret ballot, counting the votes as they were coming in, ad-hoc voting-hour extensions amid empty polling stations, official threats to abstainers, an un-maintained voter roll that included long-dead Papillon, and lack of confidence in the fairness of election officials had a lot to do with why almost no one turned up to vote in the ‘what-if-they-gave-an-election-and-no-one-came’ farce.

    The only people I saw voting were people who were forced to do it, like military recruits. To this day the election officials have not released the official numbers of how many of those forced to vote spoiled their ballots – but this isn’t a government that’s going to give out that information.

    I wonder why.

  2. Ah, I knew someone would call me on the absence of the Venezuelan legislative election, but I did not know it would happen so fast! Yes, I consider the election pretty farcical, and as I noted at the time, the real victor was the oppostion. They asked people to stay away, and by and large they did.

    Just for the record, my retrospective also left out the Norwegian cliffhanger. (As I noted, it is really amazing how many really close elections there have been around the world lately.)

    And probably something else was missing from the overview, too, that someone will remind me of!

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