Mongolia 2016 – an electoral system in turmoil

Today, Mongolia voted in legislative elections under unusual – and worrying – circumstances. At the last such election four years ago, a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system was used for the first time, replacing multi-seat plurality. This system was supposed to be used again this year, but a court ruling in April invalidated the party-list PR tier, leading the legislature to enact a last-minute election law, returning the country to a plurality system[1].

The MMM electoral system first used in 2012 included 48 seat elected by plurality[2] (mostly out of 2-seat districts, it seems) and 28 by nationwide closed-list PR. The country’s electoral system had already been in flux since the country’s move towards democracy, and has switched back and forth between different types of plurality voting, which seems to have led to a number of bad experiences[3] The 2012 election resulted in a weakening of the main parties, the entry of a number of new parties, and no overall majority by any single party. The Democratic Party governed in coalition with two smaller parties until November 2014, when the main opposition party, the People’s Party, joined the government in a ‘grand coalition’ (Mongolia is premier-presidential).

On April 21st, just over two months before Election Day and after all electoral deadlines had already passed, the Constitutional Court ruled that the party-list system was unconstitutional. The argument was that election using party lists somehow does not constitute direct election because lists are put together by the parties and (in the case of closed lists) allow no input by voters other than the choice between different lists.

As Matthew and I have argued a number of times on this blog, elections by party list are most definitely forms of direct election, closed or otherwise. It makes no more sense to see election from party list where M=10 as ‘indirect election’ than the same thing where M=1, which is effectively the same as plurality. Since I am far from expert on Mongolian constitutional law, I cannot speak directly to the ruling itself. However, there can be no doubt that the timing was highly questionable, as it made any effective remedy almost impossible, and abuse (or at least opportunism) by the political parties very likely. It sets a dangerous precedent.

Unsurprisingly, the new electoral law in reaction to the ruling was supported by both main parties; as the Washington Post puts it, “One can only presume that politicians from both major parties were keen to drop the party list vote because they are well aware of voters’ growing disappointment with them.” This outcome certainly disadvantages the smaller parties. Had the ruling come earlier, the smaller parties might at least have had the chance to protest and attempt to secure some concessions. However, perhaps this analysis is a little unfair to the parties in the legislature. As it happened, the ruling did not come earlier, and as the constitution forbids constitutional amendments this close to an election, it’s difficult to see what real alternative they had. This should probably go down as one of the worst electoral system-related court rulings ever.

[1] What plurality system exactly? Sources differ. Some suggest it’s a return to the 2008 multiple-seat plurality, others a return to the 1996-2004 single-seat plurality, others yet suggest the only change to the current electoral law is the removal of the 28 PR seats, leaving only 48 seats elected by plurality, mainly from 2-seaters.

[2] Not exactly plurality, as a candidate must receive 28% of the vote to be elected, a rule left-over from the previous systems. A ‘second round’ or ‘by-election’ (sources differ) is held if no candidate reaches 28%.

[3] The specific sources of unhappiness among Mongolians with the results over the years are unclear to me, but casual observations do show there was quite some vagaries over the years (with both very lopsided majorities, and minority parliaments), and, in the 2008 case of multiple-seat plurality, the count was deeply opaque.

10 thoughts on “Mongolia 2016 – an electoral system in turmoil

  1. Following British politics and Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to step down, I am now of the opinion that closed lists are not really all that democratic. Whether it is the party electing the leader of and for its caucus/party/group in the legislature or appointing a list for a closed list election, the party (a small subset of the populace) is making decisions that limit the democratic choice of the entire population.

    Unless the system is designed for voters to directly elect parties and for parties to own seats, I agree with the court’s decision. The timing though…

    • I’m all for pointing out the defects of FPTP as a method of “direct election” but the “it’s just a closed list with one name” argument (famously raised, and perhaps originated, by Enid Lakeman) misses an important difference. With a closed list of ten names for ten seats, if you vote (eg) GOP because of John McCain at slot #2, your vote may end up electing Donald Trump at slot #4. If you vote the Democrat party ticket because of Elizabeth Warren at slot #5, you are unavoidably voting for Hillary or Bill Clinton in the first and second places on the list. Single-member FPTP does limit your choice of candidates and does summarily throw 60% or more of valid ballots into the dustbin but it doesn’t bundle candidates together in this way.
      (Using closed lists for a winner-take-all election, eg, US Presidential Electors, doesn’t have this same defect because if one candidate gets in then all get in. It’s not possible to elect McCain without also electing Trump: ticket-order is largely irrelevant except, I understand, in some States for filling casual vacancies if an Elector dies before the College votes. By contrast, a GOP voter above who admires McCain but detests Trump may well have a solid incentive – if it looks like the GOP ticket is safe to win either 2 or 3 seats, but not more – to vote for the Libertarians or the Constitution Party instead, so that McCain gets in but Trump doesn’t. On the other hand, s/he may find in hindsight that so many of them did that that McCain missed out on a seat as well.)
      I certainly don’t consider FPTP in SMDs superior to party lists, even closed lists: I just think that this comeback doesn’t answer the real objection that – empirically speaking, as a social fact to be dealt with – a lot of people hold to closed, multi-member party lists.

      • All good points, but of course, the reason for the difference Tom notes is the district magnitude, and the (usual, but not universal) rule that lists under “closed list” systems generally contain only as many candidates as there are to be elected.

        That is, the bundling is a magnitude effect, not a formula effect.

  2. Could Mongolia use the Single Transferable Vote system? Too bad the two main parties didn’t ask international experts help for what their options were for reforming the electoral system.

  3. The results of the election appear to be finalised. I cannot find nationwide vote totals; however, the seats appear to have gone 65 to the centre-left People’s Party, 9 to the centrist Democratic Party (the President is a Democrat), and one each to the more left-wing People’s Revolutionary Party and an independent.

    • Presidential elections today gave the Democratic candidate 38% of the vote, to 30.3% for the People’s Party candidate and 30.2% for the People’s Revolutionary Party candidate. The election takes place under the two-round system, so there will be a runoff between the Democrat and (pending a recount) the People’s Party candidate.

      I don’t know what the second preferences of the People’s Revolutionary voters are (as a split-off from the People’s Party, I would expect their votes to go to their candidate). However, it would seem a little astonishing that the party with such a dominant position in the assembly would come close to losing the Presidency. Mongolia is semi-presidential, and appears to fit in the premier-presidential subtype, so a Democratic win would presumably result in cohabitation (and presumably a strong Prime Minister), though it would be messy.

  4. It seems like you could make an argument for preserving the system by making it open list. By allowing the voters to choose the list instead of the parties I think the Supreme Court would run out of room to make excuses for the two dominant parties. I’d advocate a score or approval voting system to order the list.

    • You could, perhaps, though it’s worth noting that the major parties would have absolutely no interest in such a change. I am no expert on Mongolian politics, but given that neither of the major parties had a majority in the legislature following the 2012 election, abolishing the party-list seats by law would have been politically difficult, as it would have upset the smaller parties that held the balance of power. Now that a single party will be almost guaranteed of a majority, I do not expect the Supreme Court’s verdict will be overturned.

      Given that Mongolia uses electronic vote counting, with the same sort of optical-scan fill in the bubbles system used in a fair few US states, I would imagine that a score voting system would make voting very complicated. At the last election, with four parties running for party-list seats (and assuming each party would run a full slate of 28 candidates), a score voting system with ratings from one to ten would produce a ballot paper with 1,120 bubbles for the party list segment.

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