Colombia 2018: Counter-honeymoon elections and presidential primaries

Colombians have voted today in elections for the two chambers of the congress and in (optional) presidential primaries. I believe Colombia is the only country to hold assembly and presidential-primary elections on the same day. Notably, these are the first elections in which the political party formed by the former guerrilla movement, FARC, is participating.

Colombia is rare among presidential (or semi-presidential) democracies in using counter-honeymoon elections over a long time frame. A counter-honeymoon election is one held late in the presidential term, much closer to the next presidential election.

In fact, I believe that since 1958, only three Colombian congressional elections have not been in the counter-honeymoon: 1970 and 1974 (which were concurrent) and 1991 (which was an early election called by the Constituent Assembly that had been elected the preceding year to create a new constitution).

By the measure of elapsed time between presidential elections, Colombia is about as extreme as can be. The elapsed time of its recent elections, including today’s, has been around 0.95. In other words, when the congress is elected, only 5% of the time between presidential elections remains.

Among all elections from presidential systems in the dataset used for Votes from Seats, the mean elapsed time is 0.268. However, most assembly elections in the wider world of presidential democracies are concurrent. If we eliminate these from the sample, the mean is 0.540. In other words, on average, non-concurrent elections tend to be held around the midterm. But the range is large. The minimum is 0.164 (France 1988; the 2017 honeymoon election France also had a similar value). The maximum is 0.992 (Poland 2005; another near the maximum was El Salvador 2009).

When an election is this late in a presidential term it is likely to be essentially a preliminary round of competition for the upcoming presidential election. I wrote about this effect in Colombia in 2010. That would be the expected effect even if there were no presidential candidates on the ballot, but in Colombia, there are. Parties that choose to hold a presidential primary (consulta) hold them on the same date as the congressional elections. The first such primary was held by the Liberal Party at the same time as the 1990 congressional elections. And most congressional elections since then have featured one or more primaries.

There were two primaries in Colombia today. They were not actually party primaries, but something new for Colombia (and rare anywhere): alliance primaries. There is a right-wing alliance holding a primary among three candidates, including those of the Democratic Center (the party led by former President Alvaro Uribe and strongly opposed to the peace terms the FARC received) and the Conservative Party. Then there is a left-wing alliance holding a primary among two candidates. In addition, there are other parties that already have nominated candidates for the upcoming first round of the presidential contest itself, and thus are not holding primaries. The primaries are “open” in the sense that any voter may request either one of the primary ballots. (See details at AS-COA.)

According to data graphed and analyzed statistically in Votes from Seats, counter-honeymoon elections tend to be more fragmented than those at other points in the term. The Seat Product Model, predicting the effective number of parties (both seat-winning and vote-earning) tends to be quite accurate for assemblies in presidential democracies* except when held with an elapsed time greater than roughly 0.90. Really late-term elections have a tendency to an effective number of parties significantly higher than the Seat Product Model prediction (depicted in Figure 12.1 in the book).

We suspect that is precisely because with the current president’s term almost up, and politicians jockeying for position in the next presidential election, more parties enter and receive votes as a sort of “testing of the waters” prior to the presidential election.

Would holding presidential primaries on the same day dampen this fragmenting effect of the counter-honeymoon? I see no reason why it would. It simply inflates the number of presidential candidates (or “pre-candidates”) testing the waters. Moreover, if the primary is for an alliance, rather than a single party–as is the case in Colombia this year–then the parties have every incentive to run separately and seek to boost their legislative vote as well as their preferred candidate for the presidency.

Thus Colombia’s high fragmentation in recent elections might be explained both by the counter-honeymoon assembly election and the primaries. Moreover, the presidential election itself is a two-round process, and the Senate is a single nationwide district (M=100). That is a lot of things pointing towards a high number of parties!

As for the FARC’s electoral debut, how many seats will it win? I will predict five in each house.***


* Despite more variation overall than is the case in parliamentary democracies.

** This is one of the easier predictions I will ever make. This is what the peace accord guarantees them. They could win more, if they won sufficient votes to elect more. That is highly unlikely.
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5 thoughts on “Colombia 2018: Counter-honeymoon elections and presidential primaries

  1. Indonesia counter-honeymoons too, with legislative nominations for the subsequent presidential election (any 20% of legislators, or any party which won more than 25% of the vote, can put forward a presidential candidate). A system which seems to me like a great way to do presidentialism.

  2. It seems there are six parties in the new Senate with at least 10 seats, and none with even 20 (out of 100 total, not counting various special seats). That is some remarkable fragmentation.

    And the FARC could not even manage half a percent of the vote!

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