Afghanistan legislative elections, 2010

This Saturday Afghanistan holds its second legislative elections since the US invasion. Like the 2005 elections, these will be held with the electoral system that always appears near the bottom of electoral-system experts’ rankings of “best” system: the single nontransferable vote (SNTV).

Under SNTV, the winners are simply the candidates with the top M vote totals, regardless of their party (if any), where M is the magnitude of the district (the number of seats it has in the legislature). Afghanistan has a wide range of M; I have not seen if the magnitudes have been adjusted since 2005, but in that election, districts had anywhere from 4 to 33 seats each, with an average of around 7.*

In 2005, there were no party names or symbols on the ballots. In fact, there were no officially recognized parties at all. Since then, a political parties law has been passed, but a mere five parties have gained the official right to have their symbols on the ballots. So only a tiny minority of candidates will be identified by their party affiliation; the rest will be effectively independent candidates, regardless of whether they in fact have a party affiliation. See Thomas Ruttig at the FP for detail about the parties and the registration process.

Given that SNTV is a party-less electoral system in terms of the process of seat allocation, one could wonder what additional value party labels on the ballot would offer. To vote in SNTV, for any party that has more than one candidate in the district, the voter must know the candidate that he or she favors. Compared to any proportional representation system that uses party lists, or a first-past-the-post system that uses single-seat districts, knowing the partisan identity of candidates is relatively less important.

Key facts about the political consequences of SNTV are:

1. SNTV puts a premium on personal connections (e.g. being a local notable of any kind) rather than party reputation; and

2. SNTV practically guarantees tiny margins of votes between the last few winners in a district and the first few losers, especially in districts electing more than about 5 or 6 seats.

In other words, whether candidates are identified as party nominees or not, it is personal reputations that count above all else. Those personal reputations could be derived from incumbency if the member has stood above others in delivering services or benefits to the region, or from outside electoral politics, such as from being tied to (or being) a local warlord or chieftan. Or it could be a reputation from business or some other pursuit outside politics. What SNTV does not reward, in general, are candidates who try to provide broad public goods or run on ideological appeals.

* There is a gender quota, which does not fundamentally alter the dynamic of SNTV; it mere stipulates that a minimum number of the winners must be women, even if some men had higher vote totals. In a sense, it is two parallel SNTV contests in each district, with one of them reserved for women.

11 thoughts on “Afghanistan legislative elections, 2010

  1. I wonder if one way of “patching” (I doubt one could really “fix”) SNTV, and making it a bit less flawed, might be to require a runoff for the unfilled seats where fewer than DM candidates poll a certain threshold of votes (say, 15% of the total enrolled electorate – regardless what number DM is – or alternatively “half of what the Droop Quota would be if everyone turned out and voted”).

    This would…

    (a) somewhat mitigate SNTV’s bias against larger parties (which are more likely to forfeit seats if they don’t “manage” their voters carefully), because if a lot of candidates scored way over a Droop quota, then it would mean fewer votes left for those lower down the chain, and greater likelihood they would not reach the threshold. On the second ballot, higher-candidate supporters would get, in effect, a second vote – which in turn would…

    (b) transform SNTV into a form of Limited Vote (V > 1), especially if the threshold were fixed at higher than the Droop Quota. Eg, if THR = 15% of electorate, then with more than seven seats, even with 100% turnout, not all seats will be filled at the first ballot.

    Having said that, holding one ballot in Afghanistan seems a labour of Hercules so I can’t see much enthusiasm for holding two in the same month…

    I believe MSS has recommended something like the Finnish/Chilean wide-open list system for Afghanistan, which would make sense. I tentatively propose a threshold for such systems where a candidate’s “comparison number” (to use the Finnish term) is the lower of

    (i) her list’s votes, divided by her ranking in personal votes among the list’s candidates (which will distribute seats among parties on a d’Hondt highest-average basis); or

    (ii) [say] 25% of her actual personal votes (which would cause some deviation from party proportionality but would remove the objection that candidates with minuscule personal support can get elected on the coat-tails of their popular running mates).

  2. In other news, it seems that Turkey’s just voted for Fitzmass.

    [Yes, MSS, I know, but none of the threads in the “Turkey” sub-orchard will accept new comments].

    [I went back and re-opened comments on some posts on Turkey. I do not know why Word Press shuts down comments on older posts automatically. It should be an option, but I can’t find a way to globally keep comments open. This shutting down of old posts did not used to afflict this orchard.–MSS]

  3. MSS, like Turkey, the U.S. is not Afganistan. But I’m curious about your views on the use of SNTV in local elections as a mechanism for ameliorating voting rights problems.

    Clearly, STV is the best method for small local government bodies — regardless of whether there has been any past pattern of exclusion of racial groups. But U.S. courts almost uniformly prefer cumulative voting or SNTV. Conceptually, cumulative voting is better than SNTV, but that’s because it is easier for a group that should win two or more seats to do so. In small towns and school boards, however, the practical issue is often that a minority group is entitled to one seat but not more.

    Should SNTV be accepted as a tolerable compromise in this situation, or should it be opposed altogether? If it should be opposed, in favor of what, assuming that STV is not part of the conversation?

  4. I don’t think SNTV, with a fairly modest magnitude, is all that bad a system for non-partisan elections (or perhaps local elections that might be partisan, but for which non-partisan cleavages, e.g. race, might be more important).

    I wish I knew more about how SNTV works in Vanuatu.

    I suspect there is little difference in practice between the cumulative vote and SNTV. Any voters who has a clear preference for one candidate should always cast all her votes for that one candidate. If all did that, of course, it would be identical to SNTV. Perhaps at the margins, then, cumulative vote is better than SNTV for minorities that can elect one, but not more: their voters might follow the rational strategy of cumulating their votes on one candidate, while other groups might not do the same.

    I think I’d still favor SNTV over cumulative voting. I’d favor either over MNTV, which is far more common at the local level in the USA.

  5. Tom said: “I believe MSS has recommended something like the Finnish/Chilean wide-open list system for Afghanistan.”

    I don’t recall such a recommendation, nor would I know what is “wide open” about the list systems of these countries. Care to elaborate?

    In Chile, parties form alliances, which may contain no more than two candidates. All districts elect just two seats. Voters must vote for one candidate on one list. D’Hondt applies, with the largest list winning both seats only if it doubles the votes of the runner-up list. If a list wins just one seat, as is usually the case, the winning candidate on the list is the one with the larger preference vote total. So that is a standard open list system–or what I have called a quasi-list, given that voters can’t vote only for the list without indicating a preference (as they can in Brazil or Peru, for example).

    Finland’s system is about as close to Chile’s as it could be, except that most districts have a much larger district magnitude.

    I actually do rather like the system, but I would not call it “wide open,” nor can I recall specifically recommending it for Afghanistan. But it would not be a bad idea.

    (Separately, I have recommended a quasi-SNTV “fix” for open-list systems. That’s in a paper I’ll be posting in the near future, I hope.)

  6. Sorry, MSS, I should have said “wholly unranked”, ie order of election being determined solely by personal votes, not by list ranking or a combination (Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, formerly Italy, etc) of list ranking and personal votes. The closest form of PR-List to SNTV.

    Vasi – maybe the threshold should be more like 2%, then. It would still have required a runoff in, eg, some Japanese Upper House elections before the Chilean/ Finnish list system was introduced. I recall having once read that, when Japan used SNTV for its Lower House, the law did in fact set minimum thresholds (of votes) but these were so low that no candidate ever fell below them. (I also got the idea the runoff was a wholly re-run election, not just a tour decisif for those seats not filled by over-threshold candidates on the first round.)

    Having pondered for a few seconds the idea of a Japan-wide runoff I think I’d shelve the idea and stick to either lists or preferences…

  7. If you want fair two-round SNTV, you have to take all seats and all candidates to the 2nd round.

    If you allow 1st round winners, their voters (you cannot single them out and deny them a 2nd ballot) would count a 2nd time in the 2nd round.

    If you allow 1st round losers (candidates who are denied participation in the 2nd round), voters of candidates who scored too good in the 1st round (some of their voters can elect another candidate) may find no other candidate to switch to.

  8. Actually, Tom, you should have said “open list,” or if one wants to be clear that we are not including cases where the voter may mark more than one candidate, perhaps “open list with single preference vote.” Indeed, that is SNTV on the intra-party dimension after the application of PR to party lists on the inter-party dimension.

  9. Just to clarify a point raised at #7, in Japan’s House of Councilors, the open-list system permits voters to vote only for a party, without a preference vote. It is therefore not like the systems of Chile and Finland, where expressing a preference for a candidate is mandatory. In all three countries, however, the order of election is determined exclusively by preference votes (i.e. “intra-party SNTV”).

    In the past two decades, the system for the nationwide district in Japan has changed from SNTV to closed-list PR to open-list PR. The other tier of the House of Councilors continues to be elected by small-district SNTV (although many districts elect only one seat per election, and thus are FPTP).

  10. When you think you’ve seen it all, Jordania invented a nex hybrid electoral system: SNTV with virtual sub-districts: on the one hand, every voter has only one vote for one candidate in his multi-member-district (SNTV), but on the other hand, the district is divided in as many ‘virtual sub-districts’ as there are seats and every candidate stands in the sub-district of his choice. Not the M highest vote-getters are elected (SNTV), but the winner in every sub-district.

    See the preliminairy statement of the NDI electroral observation mission

    I have no idea why this sub-district complexity was added (who enacted the electoral law change anyway?), but it seems to me it’s more difficult (compared with simple SNTV) for a well-organiseed minority (say worth a Droop quota) to get a candidate elected: if their opponents know in which sub-district the minority concentrates its votes, the majority can overrun the concentrated minority in that sub-district, while winning on low numbers in other (less contested) sub-districts.

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