The Salvadoran result 2018: The electoral cycle counts!

[Note: the following has been revised based on updated voting results– 9 March, 17:17 PM PST]

Before the assembly election in El Salvador, I suggested that the FMLN should be expected to win 24.2% of the vote. I hedged, saying I thought the Salvadoran party system probably was still too rigid to allow one of its two leading parties to fall off that far. I should not have hedged, because the preliminary results show that the largest party will be the opposition ARENA, which won 42.3%. The FMLN got 24.4%. How about that. I was off by a tenth of a percentage point in my pre-election prediction!

Well, as nice as that would be as a story, it is more complicated than that…

now realize that I made an error in calculating my expectation of 24.2%. I based the expectation on the fact that the FMLN is the party of the incumbent president, that this election was being held with 80% of the president’s inter-electoral time lapsed, and the president’s own (first-round) vote total (in 2013). It was in the latter factor that I made a mistake, using 39.0%; that was the ARENA total, but the FMLN candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, had 48.9%. Plugging that into the formula (shown below), I should have “expected” the FMLN to get 30.3% of the vote in this past Sunday’s assembly election. So the party actually did a good deal worse than the corrected expectation. And I did worse in my prediction.

Perhaps the party system is no longer so rigid; one of the leading parties can fall below a quarter of the votes after all. Alternatively, as I shall explore here, perhaps I made a second countervailing mistake, which was not to include a coalition partner. If we add the votes of GANA, a center-right party but one that has supported FMLN presidencies since 2010 and, importantly, did not compete against Sánchez Cerén in the presidential contest, we get 35.9%. That’s greater that my (corrected) expectation of 30.3%, but somewhat closer to it than the FMLN’s own vote. I will return to this issue of party vs. alliance later.

The FMLN’s 24.4% is its worst showing in the votes for assembly since its debut election in 1994 (21.4%); that election was concurrent with the presidential election and the party ran just behind its presidential candidate (24.9%) who was a very distant second. Since then, the party has won 33.0%, 35.2%, 34.0%, 39.7%, 42.6%, 36.8%, 37.2%, and now 24.4%.

The party’s high-water mark was 2009, the “counter-honeymoon” election that presaged the leftist, ex-guerrila, party’s first presidential win a few months later.* Then, holding the presidency, it slipped in 2012, an election held with about 60% of the president’s term elapsed. In 2014, it won the presidency again, then held its own in the 2015 election, held with 20% of the new president’s term elapsed.

GANA first appeared, as a split from ARENA, in 2010, just under a year after the election of the first FMLN president. It has now run in three assembly elections staring with 2012, and its votes have been 9.6%, 9.2%, and 11.5%. Interestingly, it gained in 2018 even while the FMLN lost badly. If we add the two parties’ votes together for the last three elections, we get 46.4% (not much less than Sánchez Cerén’s own percentage in 2014), 46.4% (yes, again) in 2015, and 35.9%. That is obviously a sharp decline in the two parties’ combined votes, even if one of the partners did experience an increase. FMLN and GANA will now will have around 40% of the assembly seats, whereas they held half the seats after both the 2012 and 2015 elections.

What led to the sharp decline this time? Many political factors, no doubt. But what really counts is the elapsed time–an election this late in a presidential term tends to be bad for the presidential party–or alliance. The FMLN in 2018 is just the latest example of an effect I first researched in my dissertation (1988) and published about in the APSR in 1995.

Now, via Votes from Seats, we have a formula:

Rp=1.20–0.725E,

where Rp is the “presidential vote ratio”– vote share of the president’s party in the assembly election, divided by the president’s own vote share (in the first round, if two-round system)–and E is the elapsed time (the number of months into the presidential inter-electoral period in which the assembly election takes place).

The key question around which this post is based is whether we should mean “party” literally as the party of which the president is nominee, or if we should include supporting parties that do not compete against the candidate. If you think it is cheating to use the alliance, I am being transparent and reporting the party totals. If you think it is OK to use the alliance when the two parties in question do not compete against each for presidency and cooperate in the assembly–despite running separately–we can compute the totals that way, too.

The formula above expects Rp=0.620 because E=0.80 for this election. Using only the FMLN assembly vote only, observed Rp=0.244/0.489=0.489. Using the FMLN+GANA vote, observed Rp=0.359/0.489=0.734. With the expected Rp=0.620, we get the previously mentioned expectation of 0.303 for the president’s alliance vote share. Obviously the president’s own vote does not change with these calculations, because any GANA-aligned voters who voted for the FMLN candidate are already included. This is why I think it makes sense to use the combined votes–not only because it makes the formula “work” better. (Honest! But F&V readers get to do peer review here!)**

This is the second nonconcurrent assembly election I have watched closely since Rein Taagepera and I developed the formula for our book (published in October, 2017). The other was in France. In April, 2017, I “predicted” that the brand new party of Emmanuel Macron would win around 29% of the vote. This was the day after the first round, and assuming he would win the second round (which he did, easily). At the time, much media commentary was of a hand-wringing character: Macron would be weak, maybe even face cohabitation, because he didn’t have any party to speak of. I said no, the electoral cycle will ensure he gets a good boost in votes in the assembly election. An elapsed time (E) of 0.017, an extreme “honeymoon” election, would almost guarantee it.

In fact, the election resulted in Macron’s party winning 32% of the vote. (And, a large majority of seats, due to the disproportional electoral system.)

So, that’s two elections in the past year called (more or less) correctly, within a few percentage points, based only on the elapsed time and the president’s own initial vote share.

I still hesitate to call this a prediction, because the parameters in the formula (1.20 and 0.725, above) are not themselves based on deductive logic. And perhaps I also should hesitate because of the ambiguity over party vs. alliance, as discussed in this post. But there just may be something to these electoral cycle effects, after all.

[Note: lightly edited since posting.]

______ Notes
* The 2009 presidential election featured only two candidates. So the party’s presidential vote was inflated due to the abstention of all but the two big parties from the presidential race that year. This is the only time smaller parties have not contested the first round. As I said at the time, the decision by the then-ARENA majority to shift from a concurrent to counter-honeymoon assembly election that year converted the assembly election into a “de-facto first round of the presidential election”. The right got spooked, perhaps, by the strong showing of the FMLN, and did not want to risk a division, even in the two-round election. The left followed suit and, with a sole candidate, narrowly won.


** In the 2015 election, based on the new president’s 48.9% of the (first round) vote in 2014 and elapsed time, E=0.20, we would have expected a votes ratio Rp=1.055. That would mean an assembly vote percentage of 51.6%. The FMLN itself won only 37.2%, but if we include GANA, as noted, we get 46.4% (Rp=0.949), which is a small under-performance. (Consequential, of course, as they failed to get the majority predicted.) How about one election farther back in the cycle? In 2012, GANA existed, but that party had not existed at the time the then-incumbent president of the FMLN was elected. So we certainly can’t include it in the calculation for 2012! For that election E=0.60, and so expected Rp=0.765. The president had won 51.3%, so we’d expect the FMLN to have won 39.2%. It actually won 36.8% (observed Rp=0.719), so it did only a little worse than the formula suggests it could have expected.

 

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