Large countries do not use closed lists

I mentioned earlier that Indonesia was the largest democracy to use proportional representation (PR), and that it uses open lists, as does the fourth largest democracy, Brazil. India, the largest, uses First Past the Post (FPTP, or plurality), as does the USA, the second largest democracy. By my count, all the world’s largest democratic countries use FPTP, OLPR, or mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) until we get to Germany (16th largest country, democratic or otherwise), which is mixed-member proportional (MMP). One does not encounter the first purely closed-list system till Italy (bonus-adjusted PR), the 23rd largest country. And, of course, Italy was OLPR till 1994 and then MMM till 2006. So the first country down the list to have been entirely closed lists for at least twenty years (upon its vote, due later this year) would be South Africa. Along with Spain (#28), these are the only closed-list systems among the world’s top 30. After that, Argentina (#32) and Mozambique (#50) are the only other closed-list systems in the top fifty.* It seems we have an almost-iron law that big countries do not use closed lists.

* Yes, I skipped right over one very big country, Russia, because I don’t consider it a democracy, and in any case it is soon to abandon closed lists for a return to its former MMM system.

21 thoughts on “Large countries do not use closed lists

  1. Spain’s case needs to be slightly qualified, as open lists are used in elections to the Senate. That said, Spain’s upper house is – as Spanish newsweekly Cambio 16 put it rather tactfully many years ago – “a body that has not fulfilled its potential.”

    • Spain’s Senate uses ‘limited’ MNTV, with four seats in each province but only three votes to be cast per voter. Let’s not conflate that with open-list PR.

      I can’t but agree with Cambio 16’s characterisation, and I put it down to the Senate’s lamentable lack of power, which is in line with almost all upper houses in Europe.

      • Actually, the four-seat rule applies only to Spain’s 47 peninsular provinces: as noted in passing on my website’s Spain page, in the Balearic and Canary islands, the larger islands are three-seat constituencies (with voters allowed up to two votes), while the smaller islands are single-seat constituencies, and the North African cities of Ceuta and Melilla are both two-seat constituencies; in the latter (as well in the smaller islands) voters are allowed to cast as many votes as there are seats to be filled. Since voters can choose candidates from different tickets in the multi-seat constituencies, there have been a handful of tight races in the peninsular constituencies which have resulted in the top two tickets gaining an equal number of seats; there have also been a few instances in which popular local personalities have had success running as independent candidates.

        All the same, the Spanish Senate system has been criticized as horribly disproportional from day one, and rightly so: it actually makes the Congress of Deputies “rectified” PR system look good by comparison. Over the years there have been repeated calls to introduce open lists for congressional elections, and a reply that comes up every so often from supporters of the status quo is that “we already have open lists for Senate elections.”

        That detail aside, I find it interesting that both Spain and South Africa are the only two instances of major democracies with closed-list PR, as both countries transitioned to full-fledged democratic governance after fairly recent as well as long periods of decidedly undemocratic rule (at least as far as the non-white majority of the population in South Africa was concerned).

    • Naomi, that is an interesting observation about semi-predidentialism. Russia, at ninth largest country, is semi-presidential, but as I said in the post, I really do not think it is a democracy. Turkey is semi-presidential now, but was parliamentary till very recently. The largest country to be semi-presidential for a long period of time, as well as surely democratic, is France, number 21 on the population list. Next up would be Ukraine (not a particularly stable democracy, at #29).

      I suppose I should have mentioned Ukraine in the discussion of closed lists, but a purely closed list system was used only twice, in 2006 and 2007.

      • Another honorable mention might go out to the EU Parliament. I know it’s not a national legislature and not all members are elected by closed list, but it’s second only to India’s parliament in terms of people represented by a single democratic body.

  2. Well, if we include Spain’s Senate and its non-list limited-vote nominal system, it fits the pattern as a relatively large country that uses a nominal or open-list system for one of its chambers, or at least a substantial tier of one of its chambers, rather than only closed lists. However, I was really thinking only of politically powerful chambers when I wrote the post.

    In any case, the proposed “law” gets even stronger when we bring in elected second chambers in the large countries. Indonesia and Brazil, for example, use non-list systems for their second chambers (and Brazil’s is indeed powerful). Japan uses a mix of SNTV and open lists in the second chamber, whereas the first chamber is a mix of FPTP and closed lists (MMM). Mexico, the eleventh largest country, breaks this pattern, by using a list system for its Senate (but MMM for the Chamber of Deputies).

    And, as JD says, we should definitely not call the Spanish Senate system “list” of any kind. It is a pure nominal system, in which candidates are elected solely on votes cast for them as individuals, and not on the basis of pooled party or alliance votes.

    • While it is correct that Spanish Senate candidates are elected as individuals – Spain’s electoral law (L.O.R.E.G.) is very clear on that regard – the law also states that these “may be grouped in lists for presentation and for conduction of the election campaign:”

      Artículo 171

      1. Las candidaturas para el Senado son individuales a efectos de votación y escrutinio aunque pueden agruparse en listas a efectos de presentación y campaña electoral.

      In fact, it is quite common in the Spanish press to write about the Senate’s “open lists,” as in this article from Madrid’s ABC, concerning changes in the Senate ballot for the 2011 general election (the linked article also includes a small picture of a sample upper house ballot).

      Now, just so we be clear, I’m bringing this up merely to note that this is the language used in Spain to refer to their Senate election system, even though it has no provision for list or ticket voting (which by the way has been a source of considerable voter confusion over the years, as many voters incorrectly assume that a vote for the first candidate in a list will count for the entire ticket).

  3. In the original post, I failed to mention Turkey, 18th largest country, which uses closed lists. It is somewhat dubious as a democracy, but is generally so classified. It also has a nominal feature: the nationwide threshold is waived for independents, and many are elected in small/medium magnitude districts in which a local political force would not clear the nationwide threshold for parties.

  4. I think most EU countries use closed lists for elections to the European Parliament. If I’m not mistaken, this includes but is not limited to Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain (so excluding NI) and Spain – that is, all five most populous member states, jointly accounting for more than 300 million in population and just less than a majority of the Parliament.

    • MEPs are elected under different list types from different countries. JD is correct that many of the larger countries do use closed lists there, but some use open or flexible lists. I do not have the complete breakdown handy, though I do have a student currently working on this question, so it is something that will probably become a “handier” fact for me soon!

  5. Are you ranking by population? I’d include Algeria in the top 50 and it uses a closed list PR system for elections to the lower house.

    • Population, yes. Algeria is certainly not a democracy. However, it is interesting to me to know that it uses CLPR, because I thought it used a two-round majority system. Is this a (relatively) recent change?

      • I believe the list PR system has been in place since the country opened up a multiparty system in 1988. The most recent relevant change was 2012 electoral code, which raised the threshold to 7% (used to be at 5%). True, Freedom House ranks Algeria as not free, but there has been a string of true democratic reforms in response to the Arab Spring and it has accommodated mass protest movements that would qualify it as a nascent democracy in my opinion. A true test comes with next week’s presidential election.

      • Regarding Algeria, the abortive election process of 1992 was under “a two round majoritarian system” (see p. 11). Also, the results of the 2012 election certainly do not look like PR!

        In any case, we agree it is not a democracy. Whether it is in a position of incipient transition to democracy I certainly can’t say. However, I would observe that numerous authoritarian regimes have “accommodated mass protest movements” without any democratization ensuing.

    • MSS, the 2012 Algeria election saw PNG-like fragmentation, with more than 80% of votes going to parties smaller than 10% of the vote, about 50% going to parties smaller than 3%, with 17% (!) going to parties so small they were unrepresented. But the system is hardly majoritarian; there are no less than 20 parties represented who each had less than 3% of the vote. Just plugging in the vote numbers into a PR calculator make the seat numbers look rather unremarkable to me, assuming there are electoral districts.

      • Well, obviously PNG gets PNG-like fragmentation from a system of M=1!

        Actually, the aggregate outcome in Algeria 2012 (leading party on over 45% of seats despite 17% of votes) does not look like any known democratic electoral system. Perhaps because it isn’t.

        But for the record, the document that Urusula kindly linked to, at p. 44, has the magnitudes of the districts. Average M is about 8.9, range 5-37. It is indeed a list system of some sort. But that fragmentation is genuinely off the charts!

        I wonder when they changed it, given that the 1992 system was clearly two-round majority.

        (We have wandered FAR off the original thread, but it has been interesting.)

  6. Back to the thread, about using open lists, I want to get information about the countries using “semi-open” lists, or “flexible” lists, where a voter can vote for the list or for one person on it (although a few countries allow more than one personal vote to be cst.). That starts on your list with Brazil, and includes Sweden which changed from closed list to semi-open a few elections ago. My question is about the extent that voters use that option. The last I read, about 90% of Brazilian voters do, but a far smaller proportion of Swedish voters do. Where can I find figures on this?

    The relevance to Canada is this: our Law Commission recommended an MMP system with flexible regional lists for the “top-up” (compensatory) MPs. Unless I have missed it, no MMP jurisdiction does this, although Scotland’s Arbuthnott Commission recommended they change to this version. People want to know whether this really means all MPs have faced the voters, or will most voters just vote for the list. In order to discuss whether Canadian voters will be more like Brazil’s or Sweden’s, it would help to know the range of take-up of this option in all the flexible list jurisdictions.

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