Ukraine honeymoon election today

Ukrainians are voting today in an assembly election. It is a relatively extreme “honeymoon” election, as the new president, Volodomyr Zelensky, was just elected in March-April of this year (two rounds). There was already an assembly election scheduled for October of this year, which certainly would have qualified as a honeymoon election. But in his inauguration, Zelensky announced he would dissolve the Verkhovna Rada and call an election even earlier.

And why not? Based on much experience in presidential and semi-presidential systems, we know that there is a strong tendency for the party of a newly elected president to gain a large boost in votes the earlier it is held following the presidential election. This topic of the impact of election timing has been a theme of my research ever since my dissertation (1988), an early APSR article of mine (1995), and most recently in a whole chapter of Votes from Seats (2017).

At the time Zelensky was elected, various news commentary had the all-too-typical concern that the new president would be weak, because he is an “outsider” with no established political party. We got similar useless punditry when Emannuel Macron was elected in France in 2017. And we know how that turned out–his formed-on-the-fly party did slightly better than the 29% of votes I projected, based on an equation in Votes from Seats, prior to Macron’s own runoff win. (The electoral system helped turn that into a strong majority in the assembly.)

In May of this year, I projected that Zelensky’s Servant of the People party could get around 34.5% of the votes in an election held on 28 July. (One week earlier obviously does not change anything of substance.)

Early polling had him short of this (not even 25% just before the presidential first round), but predictably, SoP has been rising in the polls ever since Zelensky took office. The party almost certainly will beat this projection, and may even have an electoral majority. If short of 50% of votes, the party still looks likely to win a parliamentary majority, given the electoral system (discussed below).

A bigger boost than average (where the average across systems with nonconcurrent elections is what my projections are based on) is to be expected in a context like Ukraine, in which the party system is so weak. That is, poorly institutionalized party systems would tend to exaggerate the normal electoral cycle effect. The effect will be only further enhanced by low turnout, as opponents of the new president have little left in the way of viable political parties to rally behind. Thus a performance in the range of the mid-40s to over 50% of the vote would not be a surprise.

As for the electoral system and election itself, Ukraine is using again (for now, at least) its mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system. It consists of 225 single-seat districts, decided by plurality, and 225 closed-list proportional representation seats, in a single nationwide district. The two components are in “parallel”, meaning seats won by any given party in districts and seats won from party lists are simply summed; there is no compensatory process (as with MMP). There is a 5% threshold on the list component; quite a few small opposition parties may waste votes below this bar. Due to parts of the country being under Russian occupation, only 199 single-seat contests will take place.

In some past MMM elections in Ukraine, a large share of the single-seat districts have been won by independents or minor parties, whereas the national parties (such as they are) have, obviously, dominated the nationwide list seats. It is probably quite likely that this rather extreme honeymoon election will result in most of the seats in both components being won by “Servants.”

On that theme, a tweet by Bermet Talant makes the following points (and also has some nice polling-place photos) based on conversations with voters in Kyiv:

• Ppl vote for leaders. Few know other candidates on party lists, even top5

• Servant of the People = Zelensky. Bscly, ppl vote for him again

• In single-member districts, ppl vote for a party too, not candidate

This is, of course, as expected. It is a completely new party. Many voters will be wanting to support the new president who created the party. The identity of candidates will not matter, either on party lists (where at least the top ones might be known in a more conventional party) or in the districts (where the vote is cast for a candidate). The single-seat districts themselves are referred to as the “twilight zone” of Ukrainian elections in a fascinating overview of the candidates and contests in the district component published in the Kyiv Post. These contests attract “shady candidates” many of whom are “largely unknown”. If a given election lacks a strong national focal point, it would tend to favor independents and local notables. In an election with an exceptionally strong focal point–as in a honeymoon election, more or less by definition–that will benefit whoever has the “Servant of the People” endorsement.

The timing of the election, and the likely dominance of an entirely new pro-Zelenskyy party, really is presidentialization at its very “finest”.

I am just going to quote myself, in the final paragraph of an earlier post about Macron’s honeymoon election, as it totally applies here, too: “All of the above should serve as a reminder of two things: (1) the purpose of the upcoming election is to ratify the new executive’s direction, not to be a second chance for an alternative vision; (2) the honeymoon electoral cycle matters.”

Expect the new Verkhovna Rada to be Servants of Zelenskyy.

Nationwide PR in a big country

Ukraine and the Russian Federation have represented, at various times, the only two examples I know of using a single-nationwide district with a magnitude greater than the 150 used in the Netherlands* and Slovakia. (Israel’s single district has M=120, Namibia’s M=72.) [But see JD’s comment for an intermediate example.]

As it happens, both Ukraine and Russia have used the same magnitude, 450, with closed lists, when they have had the single-national district. For Ukraine, such a system was used in 2006 and 2007; for Russia, 2007 and 2011. By contrast, in 1998, 2002, and 2012, Ukraine used a mixed-member majoritarian system (225 M=1 districts, and a nationwide non-compensatory M=225 district), as did the Russian Federation in post-Soviet elections before 2007.

Nationwide closed lists could have the effect of biasing representation towards the capital and other major cities, given the (potential) control of the lists by the central party leadership, and the absence of institutional imperative to offer regional or personalized representation. On the other hand, they could encourage parties to present candidates from even those regions where they are not strong, because a vote anywhere counts towards the party’s overall seat total, and because even in closed lists the presence of candidates from a region might signal to voters in the region that the party is responsive to their needs. In the only study I know of in the political science literature to address such questions, Latner and McGann find some bias towards the most important cities, but also an over-representation of peripheral regions in Israel and the Netherlands.

What about Ukraine? The pattern could be different in a much larger country, with clear regional divides in its politics. A blog post by Erik Herron, Univ. of Kansas, and one of my “Party Personnel” collaborators, offers interesting data on candidate and MP residency in the 2007 election.

Key point regarding 2007 winners:

Kyiv residency is dominant, accounting for more than half of all elected deputies. The Party of Regions is better represented through the reported residency of its elected deputies in some eastern areas (e.g., Donetsk) and the opposition is better represented in western areas (e.g., BYuT in Galicia). But, parties can also claim elected deputies who report residency in “enemy” territory.

Meanwhile, Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin today signed into law a return of his country’s electoral system to the mixed-member system. While the article is not explicit about the relation of the two tiers, I assume it will again be MMM (non-compensatory). Given the decline in the standing of the ruling United Russia, it makes sense that Putin would prefer a move towards a system that is both disproportional and favorable to “independents” who have local bases of support that exceed the popularity of the ruling party’s label. In this respect, it would be identical to the change in Ukraine prior to the 2012 election. That change worked strongly in favor of the Putinist forces of that country, buying them time to acquire the finest in home furnishings.

Now that Russia is moving back to MMM, and Ukraine is moving on from the Yanukovych/Party of Regions era, maybe Ukraine will go back to the pure PR system. If they ask me, I certainly would not recommend the single national district, however. Either districted PR, without too much variation in magnitude, or MMP would be my advice.

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* In a very technical sense, the Netherlands has districts for nomination purposes. But for all practical purposes, it is a single district. It also allows preference voting for candidates on the list (though list ranks are more important), as does Slovakia, and as Israel does not. Russian and Ukrainian lists have always been closed, as are Namibia’s, to the best of my knowledge.

“Why threaten to drop out of a presidential election you are likely to win?”

Bret Barrowman, writing at The Monkey Cage, asks a good question about Georgian Dream presidential candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili.

It is an even better question when the presidency is about to become an essentially ceremonial position. Georgia is completing a long, multi-step, process of conversion from (effectively) a pure presidential system, to a president-parliamentary system, to premier-presidentialism, to a variant of the latter that might be almost parliamentary.

Georgia’s presidential election–the first round, that is–will be 27 October.

MMM returning to Russia?

A return of the Russian Federation electoral system to mixed-member majoritarian (MMM, also known as a “parallel” system) is underway. Essentially, it would return the county to the system used until ten years ago, when it was replaced by a single national district (450 seats), closed lists. Under the new-old MMM system, half the seats would continue to be elected in a nationwide closed-list contest, while the other half would consist of single-seat districts (plurality rule).

As noted in the Boston Globe:

But while the prospect of individual candidacies suggests a liberalizing of a political system often criticized as heavily tilted in favor of Putin and the governing authorities, history shows that they can actually have the opposite effect.

This is because individuals endorsed by the majority party tend to have an advantage in name recognition and resources in local races, and because candidates who run as independents can often be enticed to join the majority party when the new Parliament is formed, using perks offered by the presidential administration.

The article cites the similar experience of Ukraine, which also has followed the path of MMM > nationwide PR > MMM:

In 2007, under a system of proportional voting for party lists, the Party of Regions won 175 seats with 34.4 percent of the vote. In 2012, the Party of Regions won only 30 percent in proportional voting but now holds 209 seats thanks to victories in individual districts by its own nominees or by independents who joined the faction later.

Finally, the article quotes a Russian election monitor, Arkady Lubaryev, saying his organization would have preferred a “mixed closed system” like that of Germany, rather than the “mixed open” system being proposed. I have never seen this terminology, and it makes no sense to me (raising the risk of confusing open/closed with the type of party list used). I will stick to MMP and MMM, or compensatory and not respectively.

While I still think MMM has its uses, the more I follow developments concerning that system, the more I think it is generally the worst of both worlds. ((I might add that my co-edited book on mixed-member systems (2001) has an oft-overlooked question mark on its “best of both worlds” subtitle, and that I always thought the affirmative answer to that question was more plausible with MMP than with MMM.)) It allows establishment parties to over-perform their party label popularity, while also complicating the strategy of opposition forces, which face the contradictory pulls of incentives to coordinate in the single-seat districts with incentives to run separately due to the proportional tier. The 2012 election in Japan suggests that country may be headed down a similar path after a brief period of two-bloc competition and alternation.

Campaigning in Georgia’s mixed-member system

The Republic of Georgia goes to the polls in parliamentary elections on 1 October. The electoral system is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM; also known as a parallel system). There are 73 legislators elected in single-seat districts, and 77 from party lists.

The following is excerpted from Civil.ge Daily News Online, 26 August. It is an interesting example of campaigning to try to prevent a party’s supporters from splitting their vote.

Leader of opposition Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is campaigning in Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti region on August 26-27, called on supporters not to differentiate between supporting Georgian Dream in party-list and majoritarian contests when casting ballot in the October 1 parliamentary elections. …

“We’ve been hearing from many regions: ‘We’ll vote for the Georgian Dream [in party-list contest], but there is a very good majoritarian [MP candidate from other party], like Gegenava or someone else’; don’t trust such [approach]; if Gegenava supports the current government he too is responsible for the authorities’ each and every step,” Ivanishvili said, apparently referring to an incumbent ruling party lawmaker Archil Gegenava, who is running in the October 1 parliamentary elections to retain his majoritarian MP seat in Tbilisi’s Mtatsminda single-mandate constituency.

The constitutional system is semi-presidential. (President-parliamentaty subtype, I believe.)

Ukraine constitution becomes more presidential

Following the “Orange Revolution” at the end of 2004, Ukraine’s parliament passed a package of constitutional reforms that stripped the presidency of the power to appoint and dismiss the premier and cabinet. Under the reforms, following a parliamentary election, a majority coalition had to form before a prime minister could be appointed; the president had to accept the choice of this coalition, and the government depended on the exclusive confidence of the parliamentary majority.

These reforms have now been reversed by a ruling of the constitutional court (CSM, DW). So Ukraine will again be a president-parliamentary system, instead of the premier-presidential system under which it has functioned in recent years.

The court has ruled that constitutional procedures were violated in the passage of the reforms. This is an awfully long time after the changes came into effect to be finding their enactment to be inadmissible!

The practical political effect is that the President Viktor Yanukovych, the very candidate that the “old regime” tried to install through the fraud that sparked the Orange Revolution and who won the presidency earlier this year, is now strengthened. He won the presidential election earlier this year, after one term of the pro-Western Orange candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.

At the time of the Orange Revolution, it was the people around Yanukovych who insisted on weakening the presidency and empowering the parliamentary majority. The parliament at the time had been elected in 2002, and was dominated by old-regime loyalists. Now Yanukovych has not only the office of the presidency, but also the restored power of the pre-Orange institution.