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.

* 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)?

Iran’s presidential election

Is there any authoritarian regime that has such competitive executive elections as Iran’s? Has there ever been? Authoritarian regimes are not my specialty, but I suspect the answer to both questions just might be no (at least if by “ever” we exclude the liberal but pre-democratic regimes of the 19th century). While I do not claim to have insights into the Iranian leadership, the regular elections for that country’s president are striking in their featuring many less-than-dominant winners and, at least apparently, in frequently not having a pre-identified “official” candidate.

These patterns are evident in the most recent election, in which Hassan Rouhani was elected president with barely over 50% of the vote. Usually in authoritarian regimes that hold elections, the winner gains an officially proclaimed large majority–more like 70%-90%–and there can be no mistaking well before election day which candidate is the one sanctioned by the current leadership. Iran seems to be the exception.

Now we know from the 2009 experience that, when push comes to shove, the regime insiders have no compunction about ensuring their favored candidate is proclaimed the winner, and in suppressing opposition-led protests, filling up the jails and even the morgues if necessary to enforce their will. That is, after all, why it is an authoritarian regime, not a democracy. But it is an unusual breed of authoritarianism, 2009’s events notwithstanding.

An article by Farideh Farhi and Saideh Lotfian in Foreign Affairs states the point succinctly in its title: Why Rouhani won–and why Khamenei let him.” Farhi and Loftian make the following observation: “the new president might benefit from a broader base of support than any in Iran’s post-revolutionary history, which will be an important asset as he seeks to navigate the country out of isolation and economic crisis.” The point is that Rouhani is sufficiently an insider to the revolutionary elite as to be non-threatening, yet sufficiently “reformist” at least in his public appeal to win over the sort of voter who went for Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. Mousavi, of course, remains under house arrest since the demonstrations attempting to overturn the official verdict against him in the previous election. While candidates other than Rouhani might have been closer to the preferences of the more conservative sectors of the elite, it was perhaps better for these sectors to permit a broadly supported less-conservative candidate to win rather than risk a repeat of 2009. If this interpretation is correct, then elections matter. ((And so do post-election protests, at least once the immediate events being protested–in this case, the second term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–are over.))

I often argue we can learn a lot about a country by just looking at its election results. Of course, I am usually referring to democracies. Can we do the same even when the country in question is not a democracy? This graph points out some potentially significant trends in the internal competition within Iran’s narrow, mostly conservative, revolutionary elite.

Click the image to open a larger version.

Taking the official statistics at face value, ((With the possible–likely?–exception of 2009, I do not think this is too much of a stretch.)) the graph shows the winning and runner-up candidates’ vote percentages in every election since 1985. ((I could not find 1981, when Ali Khamenei began his first term as president, two years after the revolution. It is possible that he was unopposed. Khamenei is now the Supreme Leader.)) It shows the first round and the decisive round; these are the same in every election but the sixth one, in 2005, which is the only time a runoff was required. Elections in which an incumbent was running (and elected–at least officially–to a second term, are circled in red. Mohammad Khatami, in 2001 (the fifth election) is the only incumbent to be credited with a substantial uptick in votes (from 69.6% to 78.3%), while Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has by far the biggest decline in a reelection bid (from 96.1% to 64%).

Among the noteworthy things are the general downward trend in the winner’s share during this time, focusing here on the decisive round. Of course, the one election that looks especially aberrant is the one that produced the presidency of the now-outgoing incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That election saw a clear lack of coordination on the part of the elites, with five candidates obtaining from 13% to 21% of the votes, and the eventual winner having finished second in the first round (note how the “winning candidate, first round” line drops below that of the runner-up). Ahmadinejad, whose tenure would be marked by several conflicts with the Supreme Leader, was clearly an accidental president.

In some respects, the 2005 election might have been at least as big a challenge to the regime insiders as 2009 would prove to be: they had no clear favorite, and almost got stuck with Rafsanjani again. (I assume here that the 30 percentage-point decline in the latter’s vote from his first to second election is an indicator of his having fallen seriously out of favor with the clerical establishment, although he has remained in various key posts ever since.) They could even have found themselves stuck with Mehdi Karroubi, one of the other reformist leaders under house arrest since 2009. ((Why did the Supreme Leader and regime insiders stick with Ahmadinejad in the crisis of 2009 if he was an “accidental” president, the product of a crisis of leadership coordination four years earlier? I suspect it is for the reason I posited at the time: an authoritarian regime typically can’t see the defeat of an incumbent president and still remain authoritarian. I suspect it also is not feasible to deny an authoritarian president a chance to run for a second term when he is eligible under the rules of the regime, and when all previous presidents have served two consecutive terms. To deny him a second term might have produced its own crisis within the regime. Of course, we will never actually know.))

The other thing that jumps out in the graph is that while the second candidate’s share has tended to trend upward over most of this sequence, it trended significantly downward in 2013. This of course shows the lack of coordination on a conservative alternative to Rouhani. In their article, Farhi and Loftian suggest that if the conservatives had managed to coordinate on a single candidate, they might have at least forced the race into a runoff. That may be so; while Rouhani did win (just) over 50%, it is possible that with a single dominant candidate for the more-conservative forces in the race, Rouhani might not have made it to 50%. Besides, we can certainly take the precise vote share with some grains of salt. Had there been a conservative push to coordinate on one candidate, it could have turned into a polarizing race. Had there been a runoff, there surely would have been a polarizing race–perhaps worse than 2009. It would not surprise me if some of Khamenei’s inner circle simply decided to assure Rouhani won the votes–whether cast by actual voters or by electoral alchemists–to push him over the 50% threshold and thereby prevent a runoff, given Rouhani’s broadly acceptable profile.

Whether my specific interpretations are correct–I know next-to-nothing about Iranian clerical politics, after all!–the picture given by the graph is one of a declining ability of the revolutionary leadership to locate a single candidate who can unite the regime’s factions sufficiently to produce the large margins that are more typical of electoral authoritarian regimes. An authoritarian leader endorsed by barely half the electorate is unusual. When situated in the context of the other, quite different, electoral challenges indicated by the results of the 2005 and 2009 elections, Rouhani’s narrow clearance of the majority mark may signal a gradual unravelling of the revolutionary coalition. Of course, whether that results in eventual democratization or some sort of bigger crackdown, or rebellion, is impossible to say.

Data are from Wikipedia, which in turn cites the Iranian Interior Ministry as its source.

Iran’s security forces

An anonymous guest post at The Reaction by someone described as “a Truman National Security Project fellow [who] travels regularly to Iran” sketches the complex of security forces and wonders if they can remain loyal to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

The conclusion, in part: “It is difficult to predict how these mercenaries will operate when their “enemies” are unarmed citizens supported by respectable national leaders.”

The key, it seems to me, really is whether the more pragmatic elements within the leadership feel sufficiently threatened by the hardliners to test the loyalty of these forces to the latter.

Are Experts preparing to test institutionalization?

There is a report this morning from Al Arabiya that Iran’s Assembly of Experts could be preparing to assert its institutional role of holding the Supreme Leader to accounts for the first time (seen at PoliBlog):

Iran’s religious clerics in Qom and members of the Assembly of Experts, headed by Ayatollah Rafsanjani, are mulling the formation of an alternative collective leadership to replace that of the supreme leader, sources in Qom told Al Arabiya on condition of anonymity.

I might note that by citing Steven’s PoliBlog here, I am engaging in a little blogger reciprocity: Earlier today Steven was kind enough to post an excerpt and extensive comment on my December, 2006, discussion of the last Assembly of Experts election in the context of considerations of how “institutionalized” Iran’s regime is. (I also had a follow-up on the theme of institutionalization a few days later.)

So they are one now?

As I have noted at various times over the last two and a half years of occasional analysis of Iranian elections and other developments, it has been clear that the Supreme Leader and the incumbent President are not exactly allies. There have even been signs that each might be trying to use the various elected and non-elected institutions established in the wake of the Islamic revolution to get rid of, or clip the powers of, the other.

However, it seems even more clear that in recent days, in reaction (and that is certainly the correct word here) to the protests against the suspicious ‘reelection’ of the president that the Supreme Leader has thrown his fate in with that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yesterday, the Supreme Leader’s attempt to appear above the fray, as a mediator among the clerics’ factions, evidently collapsed, when opposition candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi declined to attend what was hailed as a reconciliation meeting (seen at Juan Cole, but his link to the story no longer works).

The Iranian regime, with its odd combination of a narrow self-appointed ruling clique of clerics and relatively open (albeit restricted) elections, could regulate the significant divisions within the elite via elections so long as the electorate accepted the limited choices offered and the official results. Obviously, that equilibrium (if it can said ever to have been one) has now broken. As I noted a few days ago, it is rare for an authoritarian regime to tolerate the defeat of an incumbent president in elections and yet remain authoritarian. It seems as though the Supreme Leader himself understands that basic political-science fact, and probably has all along.

Now, mostly likely, either the ‘supreme leader’ and ‘president’ (inverted commas now because clearly their legitimacy is gone) either go out together (in which case Iran has a chance to become a democracy) or they stay (in which case the Islamic Republic survives, but in a much narrower and more openly authoritarian form). I have to agree with my colleague in Sociology, Gershon Shafir, that the latter is more likely now. However, writing at the same site, Augustus Norton is not so sure that the forces of repression can maintain the upper hand, if protests continue, and given the continued open divisions within the broader clergy.

How this might end is still uncertain, and may remain so for a time. But a solution within the framework of the Islamic Republic as we have known it looks increasingly out of reach.

Technology of resistance

Juan Cole:

The telegraph was important to the 1890-92 revolt against a tobacco monopoly granted by Nasir al-Din Shah to a British freebooter, which harmed Iranian merchants and farmers. The 1979 revolution was fueled by cassette tapes of the sermons and speeches of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. And now we have twitter.

I am not on Twitter myself (and will admit that I don’t quite “get” it), but for those who are and want to help, Jack (in the comments) points us to some evidently useful advice.