Lesotho (MMP) & Malta (STV) hold early elections on the same day

Lesotho and Malta will hold early elections this Saturday, June 3rd. Both have parliamentary systems and each one uses a different (and interesting!) type of proportional representation – each having a certain following among readers of this blog.

Lesotho uses a one-vote variant of MMP, with 80 single-seat districts in the nominal tier and 40 in the list tier. There is no threshold, and no seats are added in case of overhang, so a party can win a majority by taking more than 60 districts.

Malta uses STV, with a twist: if I understand correctly, in case one party receives an absolute majority of first-preference votes, seats are added to ensure that party has a majority, and that the majority is in proportion to its majority of the vote.

The elections were also called in different ways. Lesotho’s parliament (election not required before February 2020) was dissolved after the government lost a confidence vote in March – the prime minister could have handed over power to the coalition that ousted him, but chose instead to ask the king for an early election. Malta’s early election (originally not due until March 2018) was called by the prime minister.

Turkey: referendum post-mortem

As most are undoubtedly aware by now, the package of constitutional amendments proposed by Turkey’s government passed narrowly in the referendum two weeks ago.

I feel like my first post on the subject did not adequately cover the already deeply authoritarian background in which the referendum took place. Freedom of speech and the press have never been fully established in Turkey, and their suppression has worsened over the last decade. Moreover, since AKP rose to power in 2002, the public sector has been subjected to repeated purges, and not just since last year’s failed coup. The referendum campaign itself was strongly affected by this, and the legitimacy of the outcome should certainly be questioned. Claire Berlinski writes[1]:

“The poll took place under a state of emergency. A third of the judiciary has been fired; some are still in jail. Three members of the Supreme Election Board are in prison, too. It’s possible that they’re mostly Gülenist coup-plotters as charged, and possible that jail is exactly where they ought to be, but this doesn’t obviate the point: Nothing like an independent judiciary buttressed this referendum. In some cases, authorities prevented “no” campaigners from holding rallies and events; those opposing the motion were tear-gassed (of course), and prohibited from carrying signs or assembling, or even beaten or shot at. The “yes” campaign received vastly more publicity; its supporters were given hundreds of hours on television stations. Opponents, almost none…

Hundreds of election observers were barred from doing their jobs, and at the last minute, the election board changed the standards required to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing. Many instances of voter fraud appear to have been captured clearly on camera. [my link]”

It is clear that many of these democratic deficits have existed for years now. Not just in terms of democratic rights or process, but also the constitutional checks and balances. As Berlinski argues, the referendum “merely legally formalized the longstanding de facto state of affairs”. Dissolution power, extensive decree powers, emergency powers – all existed already. The only difference was that they were mostly vested in the government. Under semi-presidentialism, president’s Erdogan’s position was already secure[2], but his power depended largely on being able to control the government.

In theory, under the semi-presidential system, AKP MPs (including the Prime Minister) could use their position to check the president’s power by scrutinizing the government and holding it to account. In practice, of course, they have little reason to do so. Therefore, the only situation in which the president (and the government) might be subject to meaningful check would be if the government ever lacked a majority in the Grand National Assembly – in extremis, this could have resulted in cohabitation, depriving Erdogan of control over the executive entirely.

My current theory is that AKP’s loss of its assembly majority in 2015a is what motivated Erdogan to seek a fully presidential system – completely eliminating the assembly’s confidence power over the government and vesting all executive power (plus decree powers) in the president and his agents. Now Erdogan will be secure in his position as president, as before, but his control over the executive will be secure too.

Therefore, despite this change to presidentialism (and earlier, semi-presidentialism), this democratic breakdown comes in the ‘parliamentarism’ column. Was it something inherent in parliamentarism that made, or allowed it to happen? Probably not. All else being equal, things could have easily followed much the same path.

What probably did make a difference, I think, is the electoral system – specifically the 10% threshold, which has a strong tendency to manufacture majorities[3]. At the 2002 election, the AKP came to power with a single-party majority gained off a mere 34.3% of the vote. Admittedly, at every election since (except 2015a), the AKP received more than 46% of the vote, vote shares which would have granted it majorities even in most proportional systems. But I wonder whether, under a truly proportional system for the assembly[4]:

  1. Fewer voters would have voted strategically for AKP (at the 2007, 2011, and 2015b elections), instead voting for other parties which would have been viable as a result of the lower threshold; and/or
  2. Lacking a majority from 2002 through 2007 would have prevented AKP from accruing an incumbency advantage (of any kind – democratic or not) at the 2007 election (assuming it would still have managed to form the government).

If either were true (and both seem likely to me), it is considerably more difficult to see how the party would have managed to undermine democracy and usurp power in the way it has. Without a majority, the other parties would have been able to check AKP’s consolidation of power, it would have been much more difficult for the party to change the constitution to introduce direct presidential elections (2007) or undermine the independence of the judiciary (2010), and it would have been difficult for it to force through its own choice of president in 2007. Even if the above propositions were not true, proportional representation and a multi-party legislature[5] would undoubtedly have delayed the erosion.

[1] I strongly recommend Berlinski’s account of the decline of Turkey’s democracy since 2002 (and the atrocious western response), Guilty Men: How Democracies Die.

[2] Meaning, he cannot be removed by majority vote in the assembly or by his party.

[3] Though I do not think this feature is inherently undemocratic, majoritarianism is problematic (especially in young democracies). If it is included in a system, it should always be balanced out by countervailing checks such as strong bicameralism and a well-entrenched constitution.

[4] At a minimum, this would mean a threshold reduction from the current 10% to 5%, ceteris paribus.

[5] Or a powerful upper house elected by proportional representation, especially with non-concurrent and/or staggered elections.

Turkey referendum: Latin Americanization on the road to autocracy

Turkey will go to the polls on April 16th, to vote on a set of constitutional amendments which would change the country’s system of government to presidentialism. Though it seems that in Turkey, the current system is generally referred to as ‘parliamentary’, Turkey has actually been semi-presidential (specifically, premier-presidential) since the country’s first direct presidential election was held in 2014.

The amendments passed the three-fifths legislative majority necessary to put them to referendum with support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Introducing presidentialism has long been president Erdogan’s express wish. The idea has apparently been around in Turkish politics for a while before it was adopted by the Erdogan and his party, AKP. Full presidentialism seems to have been ‘plan A’, so introducing semi-presidentialism (passed in 2007, entering operation in 2014) was perhaps only ever meant as a way-station toward this goal.

The main details of the amendments are as follows:

  1. Establishing presidentialism:

As stated above the president is already elected directly, specifically using a two-round system. The president is to become both head of state and head of government, with the power to appoint and fire ministers and the vice president. There is no requirement for the Grand National Assembly to confirm appointments. Executive office is incompatible with assembly membership. Interpolation of ministers is to be removed from the constitution, leaving MPs with written questions.

  1. Legislative powers:

The president is to have veto power over legislation, subject to absolute majority override in the assembly. He is to have the power to issue decrees in “matters concerning the executive power” and regulations “to provide for the enforcement of the laws, provided they are not contrary to them”. These cannot affect fundamental rights, except under a state of emergency; an emergency can be declared by the president without confirmation by the assembly, but the latter must be notified immediately and can shorten or end it at any time. These decree powers are essentially the same as those currently held by the cabinet. The president would also dominate the budgetary process: the complete budget is to be proposed by the president and put to a straight up-or-down vote in the assembly without possibility of amendment, with failure to adopt a budget within a timeframe leading to continuation of previous arrangements.

  1. Term lengths and dissolution power:

The assembly’s term in extended to five years (from the current four) and legislative and presidential elections are to be held concurrently. If the presidency becomes vacant, fresh presidential elections must be held. If parliamentary elections are due within less than a year, then they too are held on the same day as early presidential elections; if the parliament has over a year left before its term expires, the newly elected president serves until the end of the parliamentary term, after which presidential and parliamentary election cycles are held concurrently again.

The president is to be limited to being elected twice, but there are some exceptions, the first of which is that a mid-term vacancy-filling election doesn’t count towards the total. The current presidential power to dissolve the assembly is retained, in addition to a new clause which enables the assembly to dissolve itself, by three-fifths majority vote – in either case, fresh elections are held for both president and assembly, who serve new five-year terms. Early concurrent elections triggered by the assembly can always be contested by the president.

  1. Impeachment

The president or any member of the executive is indicted by two-thirds majority in the assembly (upon which many powers, including dissolution, are suspended), which takes the decision on removal to the Supreme Court. A president which has thus been removed is ineligible for re-election.

  1. Judiciary

The acts of the president, previously protected, are now to be subject to judicial review. The structure of the judiciary will not change much – with the role of the president in appointments remaining quite strong. Of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the president is to appoint 6 and the assembly is to appoint 7 (4 of whom must be judges from the highest courts) – for renewable four-year terms. The Council appoints most (two-thirds to three-quarters) of the judges of each of the highest courts, with the rest being appointed by the president directly.

According to the BBC, Erdogan claims that the new system will ‘resemble those in France and the US’. There is clearly little truth to this. First of all, France is semi-presidential, specifically the premier-presidential variant. This means that the prime minister, while appointed by the president, can formally only be removed by the assembly – in other words, what Turkey has now. These amendments would outright abolish the prime ministership and parliamentary responsibility, granting the president (already in a position to play a dominant role in the country’s government) absolute control over the executive branch.

Does that mean that the new system will essentially be the same as the US? Not really. Presidential or not, the proposed system includes numerous features bearing little resemblance the American model of checks and balances. The amendments would invest the Turkish president with extensive constitutional decree powers, allow him to all but dictate the budget, but on the other hand leave him with a substantially weaker veto than the US. The absence of assembly confirmation vote for ministers, not to mention presidential dissolution power, are also alien to the US constitution. Overall, the proposed institutional framework is to bear far greater resemblance to past and present constitutions of Latin America, where assembly confirmation is non-existent, emergency and decree powers are common, while some of the other institutions in question have featured occasionally, e.g. presidential dissolution power (Ecuador, formerly Chile and Argentina) and weaker veto (Brazil, formerly Venezuela).

In any case, the proposed amendments represent an immense consolidation of power in the hands of president Erdogan. It would probably allow him to serve beyond the supposed limit of two five-year terms. Judicial appointments involve a somewhat greater degree of presidential influence over a judiciary that has already lost a great deal of independence in recent years. Judicial review, needless to say, will not amount to much. Furthermore, the requirement for judicial ratification may leave impeachment ultimately toothless even in the unlikely event that the requisite majority were achieved in the assembly. Meanwhile, the weak veto and the assembly’s own (weaker) power to call early elections is unlikely to provide much balance in practice. Though dissolution would entail new elections for both president and assembly, a president armed with the power to dissolve the assembly still seems more likely to have the upper hand in the exceptional situation his party ever lacks a majority there – exceptional because of the country’s majoritarian system, and because the president’s very power of calling early elections enables him to do so opportunistically, as Erdogan did in 2015[1].

The Venice Commission’s report characterises the proposed changes as “a dangerous step backwards” for democracy in Turkey. It certainly feels hard to disagree.

[1] One might add (as the Venice Commission does) the fact that elections will be concurrent, which is certainly true, though, as we have recently seen, it’s certainly possible (though still uncommon) for countries to elect a president in the second round that was not of the legislative majority elected concurrently with the first round (e.g. Argentina, Peru), while more generally, two-round systems cause vote fragmentation in the first round. If elections in Turkey remain competitive, it may be that the two round system will, in the long run, cause fragmentation which will spread to the assembly. Perhaps more likely is that once in a while, the concurrent elections could result in divided government as in the first scenario I mention here. A situation like that might provoke Linzian scenarios, but is probably most likely to simply result in early elections at some point, whose outcome would most likely be a reversion to the regular unified control.


By JD Mussel

img_20161102_173530The olive is one of the Biblical Seven Species (shiv’at haminim – שבעת המינים) of the Land of Israel. Growing up in the Lower Galilee, picking olives from our backyard tree was a yearly affair I enjoyed helping my parents out with from a young age. Although, once, we took some of our olives to an olive press in a nearby Arab village, my father would usually cure them in salt water with garlic, lemons, bay leaves and chili peppers. We’d pretty much have a year-round supply of olives at the dinner table, of which I was an avid consumer by the time we left Israel when I was 12.img_20161105_170610

Like Israel, most of California has a Mediterranean climate, and it so happens that UC Davis has many olive trees around campus. Having seen these soon after arriving in September I soon noticed that they still went unpicked in October. I called up the university grounds department, and was told I could take as many as I wanted. Naturally, I leaped at the opportunity…img_20161112_010736



And so, last month, after twelve weeks of waiting, they were ready.


img_20170205_142157I am very grateful to my parents for the inspiration and, of course, for the recipe.


Spain: not a federation, but not strictly unitary – video

VanDeGraph of youtube recently put up an excellent video explaining Spain’s autonomous regions.

He does a very good job of explaining the crucial distinctions between between federal and unitary states[1], and why Spain, despite its very high degree of decentralization, is not (strictly speaking) federal – and, by implication, why some countries which do not actually call themselves federal probably are (e.g. South Africa).

[1] I do, however, disagree with VanDeGraph’s distinction between federations and confederations as hinging on the right to secede, or that federalism necessarily excludes this right.

Romania returns to Party-List PR and to cohabitation

By Henry Schlechta and JD Mussel

Romania held elections to its bicameral legislature on December 11. The elections resulted in the Social Democratic Party winning almost half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, while the largest opposition National Liberal Party appears to have received only about 20%.

The election saw a return to Party-list PR after having used a type of District-Ordered List system at the last two elections (2008 and 2012). The previous system worked as follows: candidates competed in single-seat districts; if a candidate received 50% of the votes, they were elected. The rest of the seats were first allocated to parties so that the overall result was proportional (with the possibility of overhang), and then was decided which candidate was elected in each district through a complex formula (truly!) which allocated seats roughly in order of candidates’ share of the vote, but ensuring each district had (at least) one of its candidates elected. As the number of seats per party was decided proportionally, this often resulted in the situation that a district was represented by its second, third, or even fourth-most voted candidate. Lastly, a few seats were allocated to minority parties, for whom the 5% threshold applied to other parties is waived under the constitution.

The new system effectively returns to that used before 2008, with party-list PR in multi-seat districts (the electoral system was, and is, identical for both chambers with the exception of district magnitude; Chamber average M=7 (‘M’ for district magnitude), Senate average M=3). The old system seemed to have become unpopular given its creation of a large number of overhang seats in 2012[1]. As a result of the landslide victory of the Social Liberal Union pre-electoral coalition, which required a great deal of extra compensatory seats to be given ensure proportionality. Parliament had tried to change the electoral system to single-seat plurality (First-Past-the-Post) in before the election in 2012, but this was overturned by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that this was incompatible with the constitutional 5% threshold provision and its waiving for ethnic minority parties in the Chamber.

This year’s election result is particularly interesting because of Romania’s semi-presidential constitution. The President, Klaus Iohannis, was elected in 2014 as the National Liberal candidate. He first served alongside a Social Democratic prime minister, Victor Ponta, whose cabinet  was a coalition which did not include the National Liberal Party, but after Ponta resigned in November 2015, and subsequently Iohannis appointed a technocratic non-partisan cabinet. The cabinet is required to step down following the election, so no no-confidence vote is required against the incumbent cabinet.

Romania’s system is premier-presidential, and president Iohannis will have the initiative in appointing the prime minister. However, since the Social Democrats form a majority with their preferred coalition partners, the result will almost certainly be a return to cohabitation for a country which has already had it for much of the past decade (2007-2008, 2012-2015), including immediately before the appointment of the current non-partisan cabinet.

Nonetheless, president Iohannis has shown he is willing to use his position, ruling out the nomination of anyone with a criminal record for the office, in keeping with a law a Social Democratic president might have been willing to flout in order to appoint the Social Democrats’ leader Liviu Dragnea, who got a suspended prison sentence this year for trying to rig a referendum in 2012, making him ineligible under a 2001 law.

In response, the Social Democrats have nominated an alternative candidate for prime minister, Sevil Shhaideh, a Muslim woman from the country’s Tatar minority; this means Romania will have both president (Iohannis is a Transylvanian German protestant) and prime minister from ethnic and religious minorities.

Interestingly, the authority to approve and dismiss Romania’s Prime Minister is vested in both houses sitting together as one. Romania has (somewhat unusually) bicameralism with two powerful and elected houses. Even more unusually, rather than the normal practice of requiring one or both houses to approve all legislation, each house has certain reserved competencies, on which it may pass legislation without the approval of the other (the latter having only a suspensory veto of no more than two months’ delay). Probably due to the two chambers concurrent terms and virtually identical electoral system (and therefore composition), this does not seem to have caused any major problems.

Similar procedures (including both houses in no-confidence votes) existed at some point in Peru (before Fujimori’s self-coup), where ministers were removable by either house of the legislature. Argentina has a ‘Chief of Cabinet’ responsible to both houses voting separately, though remaining ministers are not, and Colombia’s ministers are individually responsible to votes of either house, though there is no Prime Minister.

[1]176 senators and 412 deputies were elected, 22% and 19% of which was due to overhang, respectively.  According to the cube-root law 412 would be appropriate for a country of 70 million, whereas Romania’s population is about 20 million. The current numbers seem have returned to 136 Senators and 329 deputies or thereabouts.

California primaries: Myth of the ‘independents’

By JD Mussel

Paul Mitchell of Capitol Weekly’s CA120 column tells the rather farcical story of the more than 100,000 Californian voters who thought they were registering to vote as independents and ended up voting in the American Independent Party’s presidential primary.

The American Independent Party is the far-right outfit originally established by Alabama segregationist George Wallace for his 1968 presidential run (which was aimed at sending the election to the House of Representatives). They ended up choosing Trump as their nominee this year, though he didn’t even appear on the ballot for the primary. I didn’t know California allowed electoral fusion before I noticed this dual nomination on the sample ballot I got in the mail last week[1].

[1] Yes, I have moved! I have now joined MSS at the University of California, Davis where I started my graduate studies last month.