When is MMM not MMM?

Is any electoral system in which a tier of single-seat districts (SSDs) is accompanied by a noncompensatory tier of list PR a “mixed-member majoritarian” (MMM) system? This question arises in advance of the 30 June legislative election of East Timor. But that is actually getting ahead of the story…

I have just opened the latest book by Benjamin Reilly of ANU’s Center for Democratic Institutions: Democracy and Diversity: Political Engineering in the Asia-Pacific (Oxford, 2006). I will be reviewing this book for Democratization. I am eager to read it, and the approach and organization look idea for my Institutional Engineering course in future years.

Of course, my first step was to do what every academic does, and turn straight to the bibliography and index to check the citations to and discussion of my work. On p. 111, Professor Reilly accuses me of making little sense. And you know what, he is right: some systems that I would label as MMM should not be so identified.

In East Timor’s 2001 election, there were 75 seats allocated by closed-list PR and 13 single-seat districts allocated by plurality. Yes, thirteen of 88, or 14.8% of seats are allocated by the “majoritarian” nominal-tier. For 2007, the 13 SSDs will be the same, but the total number of seats has been cut to 65, making the nominal tier only slightly larger in percentage terms (20%).

Of course, in branding the noncompensatory (parallel) mixed-member systems as MMM, I have always had in mind systems in which the nominal tier was either “close to” half or well over half the total number of seats.* In such combinations, the list-PR allocation is unlikely to prevent any party that can emerge from the nominal tier over-represented (perhaps substantially) from retaining over-representation. Of course, such a party’s over-representation can only be reduced by the addition of the PR seats. Nonetheless, any party in a position to be over-represented in the nominal tier will also obtain a large (and approximately proportional) share of the list-tier seats. It thus will retain some degree of over-representation far and away beyond what it would have with any compensatory mixed-member system (MMP), even one with a relatively small PR tier and/or small magnitudes in that tier. Hence, “MMM.”

But what if the nominal tier is very small? Of course, the system is not going to be very majoritarian–even if one party pretty much sweeps the nominal tier. Reilly suggests calling the system MMM only if a majority of the seats are allocated in the nominal tier. I think that might be going too far, and not only because the label, MMM, certainly should be retained for parallel systems with a 50:50 split between the tiers. Even Hungary, with around 54% of its seats in the list tier and a mechanism for partial compensation is quite majoritarian in its impact (and thus should not be called MMP, as it is in some works, including other works of which Reilly is a co-author). But I can certainly agree that 15% nominal tier and noncompensatory allocation do not add up to a majoritarian system.

Classification aside, why would anyone want a noncompensatory MM system with such a small nominal tier? I can see the logic behind a very small list tier (as in South Korea, for example). Such a system provides some minimal degree of representation to parties that are small or have dispersed voter support and reduces the risk of overwhelming single-party majorities while still retaining a mostly “majoritarian” and nominal logic to the overall system. But why do the reverse, and have a mostly PR system with a small tier of SSDs that one party might sweep, as Fretelin almost did in 2001*? The potential for one party to dominate the nominal tier increases the actual majoritarianism of the system only if the largest party was very short of a majority of list seats (and therefore not in need of much a bonus to become a majority party) and, owing to the large geographic extent of the districts (relative to country size), there certainly is not much local representation at work. It is an odd combination, whatever we might call it.

UPDATE: Apparently, the SSDs were removed from the system for the 2007 election.

* The concept of MMM was debuted on p. 13 of Matthew Soberg Shugart and Martin P. Wattenberg, Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? (Oxford, 2001). The definition is not much different from what is written here, and we make no mention of a minimum percentage of seats in the nominal tier (or, for that matter, of the list tier of an MMP system).

** Fretilin won 12 of the 13. When added to its almost perfectly proportional share of the 75 list seats, this gave the party 62.5% of the total seats on 57.4% of the list votes for a fairly modest degree of over-representation (advantage ratio of 1.08).

6 thoughts on “When is MMM not MMM?

  1. One possibility is to account for independent candidacies. Important figures such as Gusmao and Ramos-Horta (ex- and current presidents) did not belong to a party until this year.

    Since parties don’t get compensated for independent-won seats, and the rest of the SSD seats are more likely to go to the larger parties, this curious system seems a decent compromise, and quite simple to explain to unseasoned voters


  2. The name MMP has always struck me as anglo-centric, since it was created in Germany and they call it no such thing. They call it “personalized PR” which ties nicely into the capsule description of two-vote MMP: the best of both worlds, where both parties and individual deputies are accountable.

    But it seems to be too late to change the English usage, since New Zealand has locked it in, and “additional member system” has not displaced it. Still, Prof. Louis Massicotte gets no argument when he uses the term Compensatory Mixed.

    If noncompensatory (parallel) mixed-member systems are not to be called MMM since they are not fully majoritarian, could they be just be called Parallel Mixed? The term “Superimposed Mixed” seems to have no real advantage over the shorter term.


  3. Emphasizing “parallel” rather than “majoritarian” is sensible enough, though I still prefer “mixed-member” as a more precise term than the more generic “mixed.” And then we would have “mixed-member parallel,” or MMP! Uh oh. Or if we use “mixed” instead of “mixed-member” I suppose we could call it MP or PM.

    I sense an abbreviational morass here!


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