Jordan’s new electoral system – the more things change…

By JD Mussel and Henry Schlechta

Jordan held a parliamentary election last month, for the first time under a proportional party-list system. This reform, in line with many previous proposals, replaces the earlier Single Non-Transferable Vote or (mechanically FPTP) pseudo-SNTV (it’s not clear which one was actually used last time around) which at the last election in 2013 was accompanied by a small national list-PR tier.

Reform of the previous single-vote system was a long-running demand of opposition parties, a number of which have taken part in these elections after having repeatedly boycotted them in the past. However, what they may not have noticed (yet) is that the new electoral system may turn out to be remarkably similar to the old SNTV.

A total of 130 non-reserved seats were filled proportionally from open lists of candidates in 23 districts, out of which 9 seats are from 3 parallel Bedouin districts (similar to NZ’s Maori districts) electing 3 seats each. The districts range from 3 to 10 seats, with a median of 4. Spread out among all the districts is a quota for 15 women and (among the non-Bedouin districts) there are quotas for Christians (9 seats) and Circassians/Chechens (3 seats). With more seats allocated to the cities, there seems to be less malapportionment than under the previous system, but it is not clear how much less.

The lists are open, with seats going to candidates with most votes within each list. This was presented as a kind of return to the ostensibly similar multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV) which had existed before the introduction of SNTV: voters have as many votes as there are seats to be filled, and can cast them for a list as a whole or for any number of individual candidates on the list. Candidacies must be as part of lists with at least 3 candidates up to the number of seats available.

Largest-remainder PR and ‘SNTVization’

Now, technically, the system is proportional. However, the apportionment formula is largest remainders, using the Hare quota. The potential problem is that the combination of these features and the open-list aspect may present incentives that roughly approximate SNTV. Larger quotas (the Hare quota is the largest of the commonly used ones) are advantageous to smaller parties: the fewer seats are allocated by quotas, the more seats allocated by remainders. The smaller number of votes required to win a seat by remainder means that smaller parties are able to win these seats. On the other hand, for a large party to win multiple seats, they must fill multiple quotas.

The possibility of getting seats from remainders can encourage large parties to turn themselves into multiple small parties, through running multiple lists and dividing their votes between these lists[1]. Hong Kong represents the best example of this tendency. While on paper it is a party-list PR system with largest-remainder and the Hare quota, the 2012 and 2016 elections saw no ‘list’ win more than one seat. Instead, larger parties like the Democratic Alliance ran multiple lists, and divided their votes between them. If no seats are allocated by quotas, the M-lists with the highest vote are allocated one seat. The effect of this is to create a system approximate to SNTV.

District magnitude does not appear to be an especially important factor in this process, with 5-member districts in Hong Kong and the 100-member nationwide district for the Colombian Senate (up until 2002) both being on paper party-list but effectively acting as SNTV.

Of course, there are other relevant institutional considerations. The new law’s requirement for at least three candidates per list could theoretically limit this tactic, though it could probably still be possible for a list to consist of one politician with public profile and two other ‘decoy’ candidates. It is not clear if there are any legal restrictions on one political party registering multiple lists; however, in the context of an electoral politics where parties are still weak and fragmented (and which was until now dominated by independent politicians), it is unlikely to be difficult to register effectively duplicate lists under similar labels.

Political impact

The results of the election show a continuation of the party fragmentation that existed before; barely any parties won more than one seat in each district. However, fragmentation was occasionally an outcome of the electoral system, as there are a couple of cases where lists that won a single seat received more than double the votes of other winning lists. This would have given them two seats if they had presented two separate lists, at least if they had managed to keep the vote distributed evenly between them. Of course, electoral systems take time in order to affect behaviour; however, it won’t be long before politicians will notice this outcome, and the strategic response would seem to be obvious. Therefore, more than likely, the new party-list system will continue as an obstacle to the development of larger and more cohesive party organizations, despite the fact that it was presented as a reform designed to bolster party-politics.

Hence, it looks like the reform may have been a clever stratagem by the government: it can be presented as an ‘abolition’ of SNTV and ‘return’ to MNTV, yet it will likely retain the incentives caused by SNTV. Or it could have been accidental. Whether or not this was intentional, it would certainly seem advantageous to the King: in public opinion, it enhances the regime’s legitimacy (the best evidence of this being how it brought an end to the Islamist boycott); nonetheless, in reality it will likely continue the previous incentives for fragmentation which weaken the parties (most importantly, the Islamists) and, crucially, the House of Representatives, which needs to remain fragmented for the King to maintain substantial power in what is constitutionally supposed to be a parliamentary system[2].

 


[1] The ideal number of candidates elected from each of these lists is one, since a party can win only one seat by remainder.

[2] There are of course other factors relevant in determining whether or not a given ‘constitutional monarchy’ is more monarchy or more parliamentary democracy (as demonstrated by the recent constitutional amendments giving the King more power over appointments) but hopefully it can be agreed that the crucial factor is whether or not governments are responsible to an elected house of parliament, by which I mean that a prime minister and cabinet can be removed by that house. Jordan’s constitution, at least since 2011, makes the government responsible to the House of Representatives.

Nepal’s new constitution

After its revolution in 2007 more than seven years of discussion, missed deadlines and constitutional deadlock in two consecutive constituent assemblies, Nepal finally passed a permanent constitution earlier this year, which entered into force on September 20th. A two-thirds majority was required to pass it.

The new constitution establishes the country as a federal parliamentary republic, with marked similarities to India and Pakistan. The president is elected for a five-year term by an ‘electoral college’ consisting of the federal parliament and provincial assemblies. Executive power is vested in the cabinet.

Legislative branch

Parliament is to be bicameral. The cabinet is responsible to the House of Representatives, which, like the Constituent Assembly, will be elected for five years through Mixed-Member Majoritarian: 165 seats by single-seat plurality and 110 by party-list PR, with no districting. The unusually-named (for an upper house) National Assembly have 59 members: 8 members from each of the 7 provinces elected by Provincial Assembly members, joined by local representatives (chairpersons and vice-chairpersons of village councils, and Mayors and Deputy Mayors of Municipal councils) whose votes will be weighted, presumably according to each local authority’s population; the other 3 will be appointed by the government. They are to serve a six-year staggered term, with one-third retiring every two years.

The National Assembly may delay financial bills by 15 days, and delay other bills proposed by the lower house for two months. Only bills that were introduced in the upper house but lack bicameral agreement are to be sent to joint session. Thus, Nepal’s bicameralism is far weaker than in India and Pakistan, where joint session is the deadlock-breaking mechanism for any non-financial bill. And even on bills that make it to joint session, Nepal’s upper house is weaker as it is smaller in relation to the lower house (India is roughly 2:1, Pakistan 7:2 while Nepal will be about 9:2).

With this weak upper house, the constitution enacted has no constitutional ex-ante checks on the power of a majority government to pass legislation. A large number of the proposed drafts contained a more powerful upper house. Sadly, the main parties probably made short shrift of such proposals, preferring not to have their ambitions checked when taking part in future governments.

The constitution can be amended by two-thirds majorities in both houses, with changes to provincial boundaries also requiring the consent of the assemblies of the provinces involved.

Judicial branch

Lastly, the Supreme Court is to be appointed on the recommendation of the Judicial Council, out of which a special Constitutional Bench will be formed including the Chief Justice and four other Justices chosen by the Judicial Council. The Chief Justice is appointed for a six-year term on advice of the Constitutional Council. All Justices serve until mandatory retirement age of 65.

The Judicial Council will consist of:

  1. the Chief Justice, presiding,
  2. the most senior Supreme Court Justice
  3. the Federal Law & Justice Minister,
  4. a senior legal expert appointed by the PM, and
  5. a senior legal advocate appointed by the Nepal Bar Association.

The Constitutional Council will consist of:

  1. the PM, presiding,
  2. the Chief Justice
  3. the chairman of the upper house
  4. the speaker of the lower house
  5. the deputy-speaker of the lower house, and
  6. the Leader of the Opposition

Enduring controversies

Far from settling Nepal’s political quagmire, the new constitution has proven to be very controversial. Its (impending) passage sparked demonstrations and unrest around the country. Protesters have blocked roads and vital supplies and dozens have died in clashes with police over the past few months.

The most contentious issue remains as it was during the years of deadlock in the Constituent Assemblies: the drawing of the boundaries of the new provinces. While the final boundaries are said not to be completely settled yet, the schedule is quite specific, and it provides for largely multi-ethnic provinces. There is therefore a great deal of opposition from groups wanting a linguistic and ethnic delineation providing them with their ‘own’ provinces.

Other disputes include women and minority rights in the new constitution (including in particular the definition of citizenship, which favours the father), its secular nature, the lower proportion of lower house seats to be elected by PR (45%, compared with 58% for the Constituent Assembly), and the federal terms concerning provincial autonomy. There are, of course, also those happy the constitutional deadlock is over, if not with the constitution itself, but

It will be interesting to see whether the final provincial boundary-drawing will be affected, and how the salience of these constitutional issues evolves. The first regular elections will not be held for several years, as the term of the Constituent Assembly, now transformed into ‘Legislature-Parliament’, will end in January 2018.

Bihar 2015: Indian democracy still works

The ‘Modi wave’ has been flattened in Bihar, one of India’s biggest states.

This past Sunday, the Electoral Commission announced the results. The BJP, the national ruling party since the 2014 federal election, was trounced.

A ‘Grand Alliance’, including among its main components two state parties (one of which formerly ruled the state in alliance with the BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), won an overwhelming majority. According to results currently posted on the Commission’s front page, the BJP remained the largest single party in votes (24.4%), but the combined votes of the three main grand alliance partners came to 41.9%. Other smaller parties that participated in the “seat-sharing” (whereby one of the partners represents the alliance in a given constituency) bring the total to around 46%. Of the main alliance partners, the Rashtriya Janata Dal won 80 of the 243 seats, the Janata Dal (United) won 71, and the INC 27.

The total alliance seat take represents over 73% of the seats, offering a stark reminder of just how disproportional the FPTP system can be, especially when multiple parties cooperate and there is a relatively uniform swing.

I had suggested back in May, 2014, that I did not think the BJP win meant a fundamental change in how the country would be governed, despite the fact that the BJP had won big in Bihar itself in the national election. The outcome of the Bihar election is yet another reminder of the centrality of alliance politics in India.

District magnitude and reelection in Iran (and what is a mixed-member system)

A recent entry at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog by Paasha Mahdavi (Georgetown) is a summary of the author’s really fascinating research on Iranian MP reelection rates. Mahdavi finds that MPs from more resource-rich regions are more able to secure reelection because they get credit from targeted spending in their districts.

Reelection rates in Iran are overall low: “Since 1980, less than 30 percent of politicians running again in Iranian parliamentary elections retained their seats.” However, rates vary substantially across districts.

The relationship between increased resources and reelection rates is statistically stronger in those districts that elect one MP than in those that are multi-seat districts (graph at Mahdavi’s blog entry). Mahdavi argues this is due to the stronger accountability relationship when there is only one MP.

So far so good. It is terrific to see this sort of research in any country, but especially in Iran, which of course has an authoritarian regime, yet one with regular semi-open elections (which have long fascinated me).

However, can we please get the terminology right? Mahdavi writes:

Iran’s parliament is elected by what political scientists call a “mixed-member system.” Some districts only elect one representative while others elect two or more.

The term, “mixed-member system” does not simply mean a system in which the country contains a ‘mix’ of different magnitudes, including some that are single-member. (If that were the case, there would be many more “mixed-member” systems than there in fact are, as magnitudes ranging from 1 to some higher number are pretty common.*) A mixed-member system is defined by the following two minimal criteria:

    1. The entire country is divided into districts in which candidates win on their own individual votes (“nominal” election, some of us call it). These districts in practice usually are all single-seat, although that is not a defining requirement for many typologies, including mine.**

    2. Every voter also resides in a multi-member district–which may be the entire country, though could be regional–in which legislators are elected via party lists (in practice, almost always proportionally).

It is these overlapping components or tiers, one individual (and usually single-seat plurality or majority) and the other party list (proportional) that make a system mixed-member. Numerous other features define sub-types (mixed-member proportional, where the list seats are allocated in a compensatory manner, vs. mixed-member majoritarian, where the two sets of seats are elected separately or “in parallel”); there may be separate votes in the two types of districts (as is usually the case) or your candidate vote might also count for the candidate’s party’s list (as in Mexico). Despite these variations, the two criteria mentioned above are required for the system to be mixed-member.

In Iran, there are no party lists (as this term is understood in the electoral systems literature). All candidates win based on their own nominal votes–that is votes cast for them personally. The system for parliament (and some other elected bodies) is probably best characterized as a form of multiple nontransferable vote (MNTV); however, unlike most such systems, I believe that there is a provision for a second round where sufficient candidates have not met some threshold of votes*** in the first round.

I read something like Mahdavi’s fascinating Monkey Cage post and have two thoughts: (1) Very cool research that I wish I had done; (2) I still have plenty of my regular work to do, because even as vast as the subfield of electoral-systems analysis has become, political scientists in other subfields still make fundamental errors about well established electoral system terminology.

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* One example: the current Venezuelan system clearly meets the two criteria here for qualifying as mixed-member; several of its nominal-election districts elect more than one member.

** Finland, Peru, Spain, and Switzerland are among the districted PR systems having at least one district has a magnitude of just one seat. There have been examples of electoral systems in the past (although I can’t think of a current one) with numerous single-seat districts along with other districts that are multi-seat. There also have been many cases of mostly single-seat districts but some districts electing two or more candidates, non-prorportionally. (India in its first elections was such a case, and farther back, UK.)

*** I do not know details here. Majority? If so, how determined, given magnitude greater than one, and the possibility that not all participating voters use their full M votes (M=magnitude of the district)?

Sri Lanka legislative election, 2015

Sri Lanka held its legislative election on 17 August. The election was billed by the Western media, such as BBC, as a fight between the premier appointed by the incumbent president and the ex-president whom the current one defeated.

The United People Freedom Alliance, led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, won just 95 seats out of 225. The United National Party (UNP) of the premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe, won 106. This is good news for President Maithripala Sirisena, who is actually of the same party as Rajapaksa, but defeated him at the head of a pre-electoral coalition consisting of the UNP, and parties representing ethnic minorities, including Tamils.

Official results at SriLankanElections.com are different from those in the BBC report, although they agree on the scale of the UNP lead.

In the preceding legislative election, in 2010, the United People Freedom Alliance won 144 seats (60.3% of the vote) to 60 for the UNP (29.3% of votes).

Given that the president has the authority to dissolve the legislature, I was surprised that Sirisena did not go to the polls earlier following his victory in January. I believe the legislative term is six years (is that the longest anywhere for a first/sole chamber?); the preceding election had been in April, 2010.

The system of government is president-parliamentary. That is, the premier is responsible to the legislative majority, but also subject to dismissal by the president. In the case of Sri Lanka, the powers of the presidency are enormous, and one of Sirisena’s campaign promises was to reduce presidential power. It is unclear to me what, if any progress, has been made in this front (beyond what JD reported here), or is likely to be made.

Delhi assembly: Massive AAP win

This past Saturday voters in Dehli went to the polls to elect a replacement assembly for the one that was dissolved following the resignation of the 49-day minority government of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

While polls had generally foreseen a win by Kejriwal’s AAP (Common Man Party), none saw the massive win that the party obtained: 67 of the 70 seats, with the BJP (ruling party at the federal level since 2014) winning just 3. The Congress Party was shut out. The top three parties vote percentages were 54.2, 32.2, 9.7.

This is a stunning surge for the AAP. Its first-ever contest was for the Delhi election of December, 2013, in which it won 28 seats, second to the BJP’s 31 (Congress had 8). AAP formed a minority government, but then resigned when it could not get its signature anti-corruption bill through the assembly. In the federal election of May, 2014, the AAP flopped miserably, winning a third of the votes in Delhi but no seats. (It ran over 400 candidates across several sates, but managed just 4 seats, all in Punjab.) And now it has a solid majority of the vote and a near-sweep of the Delhi assembly’s seats.

As might be expected, some of the AAP’s changing fortunes comes down to the dynamics of first-past-the-post voting with multiple parties. The AAP actually won a slightly higher percentage of the vote in Delhi for the federal parliament in 2014 than it had won in the assembly election of 2013. The biggest source of new AAP votes clearly comes from the collapse of Congress from 24.6% in 2013 to less than ten percent this time. This swing is largely due to the Muslim community deserting the sinking ship that is Congress to block the Hindu-nationalist BJP. By contrast, when the BJP won a plurality of Delhi’s assembly constituencies in 2013, it did so with around a third of the vote, or roughly the same as in this latest assembly election. Evidently, it was the BJP’s sweep of Delhi’s seven federal constituencies in 2014 that was the aberration (46.4% of the vote to AAP’s 32.9 and Congress’s 15.1). The “Modi wave” did not carry over into the sub-national contest, and a third of the vote looks a whole lot worse when support for the the third party has collapsed.

Either Kejriwal is incredibly lucky, or he is the canniest politician in India, and had this all planned out from the start.

Choosing executive format in Sri Lanka and Mauritius

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As previously mentioned on this blog, Sri Lanka recently elected Maithripala Sirisena as president. Among his campaign promises was a pledge to initiate a series of constitutional reforms, including to the judiciary, parliament’s electoral system, as well as the reform of his own post, the executive presidency. Though his manifesto is a little vague[1], it seems the intended reform is a return to parliamentarism.

Sri Lanka adopted semi-presidentialism in 1977, with the first direct presidential elections being held in 1982. The current constitution puts the president at the centre of the political system. Specifically, it is president-parliamentary, the semi-presidential variant which empowers the president both to appoint and to fire the cabinet, which is also subject to parliamentary confidence. This executive format has combined with other institutions to make for an exceptionally powerful presidency – some common in such systems (such as a dissolution power), other unusual among democracies of any executive format (such as the ability to call and set the date for a snap presidential election, as well as the ban on MP defection, which has allowed presidents to remove dissident MPs from their party from parliament, not to mention the recent amendment allowing a president to run for a third term).

This constitutional arrangement has been a source of contention for most of its existence; in fact, abolition of the executive presidency and a return to parliamentarism has already been promised by various politicians since the 90’s, when Chandrika Kumaratunga was twice elected on that very platform. The new constitution which consequently emerged from multi-party talks was shelved by the withdrawal of the United National Party from the talks, preventing the necessary 2/3 majority from materialising. Sirisena’s constitutional reform proposals face the same challenge; although his broader agenda seems to be picking up momentum in parliament, where he has secured a majority as a result of defections, his new coalition still falls far short of the necessary supermajority. If his proposals fail to pass, calling a snap parliamentary election looks like the obvious strategy.

Interestingly, voters in neighbouring Mauritius were recently offered a constitutional reform in the opposite direction. Like Sri Lanka, the country was a Commonwealth Realm before becoming a republic, but it is still governed under its inherited parliamentary system. Its electoral system is multiple-seat plurality or bloc voting (also known on this blog as Multiple Non-Transferable Vote or MNTV) along with a small number of members appointed from among the highest-voted losing candidates in order to ensure ethnic and religious minority representation. Over the last decades, elections have increasingly been fought between pairs of variable pre-electoral coalitions.

The 2010 general election was won by the Alliance de l’Avenir, consisting of Labour (PTR), PMSD and MSM, which faced the MMM-led Alliance du Coeur. The Alliance d’Avenir dissolved in 2012, leaving Labour governing alone. Before calling the December, 2014 election, Labour forged an alliance with MMM, with at its heart an agreement to establish a semi-presidential ‘Second Republic’, an idea which has been put forward before. Though the proposal is said to be inspired by the French model (as it had been in Sri Lanka), it, too, differs from it significantly. It would have elected the president, along with a vice-president, by plurality for a seven-year term (in France, it was reduced to five in 2002), while seemingly increasing the president’s control over the cabinet to a level higher than standard premier-presidentialism,[2].

Under the agreement, if the alliance were to achieve the necessary three-quarters majority in parliament, the constitution would be amended to bring about the change, with Labour leader, Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam resigning to present himself as a presidential candidate and MMM leader Paul Berenger would replace him as Prime Minister. In the event, the Labour-MMM alliance lost the election to the opposition Alliance Lepep, led by MSM’s veteran politician and longtime prime minister, Anerood Jugnauth. As it stood opposed to the ‘Second Republic’ proposal, the Alliance Lepep’s victory puts it off the agenda for the foreseeable future.


[1] From Sirisena’s manifesto: “The new constitution structure would be essentially an Executive allied with the Parliament through cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System”, which I read as parliamentarism, but does not explicitly rule out that the emasculated presidency will remain directly elected.

[2] “The Prime Minister shall give effective consideration to any recommendation of the President to appoint and revoke a Minister.” Some commentators have argued this amounts to president-parliamentarism.