Elected prime ministerial government in Kiribati

This post was inspired by JD’s comment on a recent post, which said that “There is an executive type (which to my knowledge has only ever existed in Israel, from 1996 to 2002), which allows the assembly to remove both the *elected* chief executive and his cabinet, by majority vote, which automatically triggers an election – elected prime-ministerial.” However, this is not the case. There is one country that not only uses this form of government, and has done so since independence: the small Pacific island of Kiribati.

Under the Kiribati Constitution, the office of Beretiteni (President) is directly elected, using first-past-the-post. The President appoints ministers from the unicameral legislature (elected using the two-round system), which does not require parliamentary approval. Not unusually for the Pacific Islands, the Attorney-General has a specifically defined role in the Constitution, and I believe holds a legislative seat automatically because of his office.

However, section 2 of article 33 states 

(2) The Beretitenti shall cease to be Beretitenti-

(a) if he resigns his office, by notice in writing addressed to the Speaker; 

(b) if a motion of no confidence in the Beretitenti or the Government is supported in the Maneaba ni Maungatabu by the votes of a majority of all the members of the Maneaba; 

(c) if, in respect of any matter before the Maneaba, the Beretitenti notifies the Speaker that a vote on that matter raises an issue of confidence, and in a subsequent vote on that matter it is rejected by a majority of all the members of the Maneaba;

 (d) if he ceases to be a member of the Maneaba otherwise than by reason of a dissolution of the Maneaba

If, under the provisions of 2a, the Beretiteni is removed from office, the Council of State (a body consisting of the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, the Speaker of the legislature, and the Chief Justice) takes office. 

This is where article 78 kicks in.
78. (1) The Maneaba ni Maungatabu (legislature) shall stand dissolved- 

(a) if a motion of no confidence in the Beretitenti or the Government is supported in the Maneaba by the votes of a majority of all the members of the Maneaba; or

(b) if, in respect of any matter before the Maneaba, the Beretitenti notifies the Speaker that a vote on that matter raises an issue of confidence, and in a subsequent vote on that matter it is rejected by a majority of all the members of the Maneaba. 

As I read it, this would rule out a change in government as a result of a no-confidence vote, as such a vote would automatically dissolve the legislature.

Following a general election, a ballot for Beretiteni is automatically scheduled. The Constitution stipulates that

The Maneaba (legislature) shall after the election of the Speaker nominate, from among members of the Maneaba, not less than 3 nor more than 4 candidates for election as Beretitenti, and no other person may be a candidate

Ordinary legislation is used to govern this election. As far as I can tell, the Borda count was used up to 2002, with voters being allowed to number only four candidates. However, in 2002, the legislation was amended (due to Borda being “complicated” and easy to manipulate)  to have a rather unusual variant of the two-round system. In the first round, the two candidates with the most votes are declared nominated for the Presidency, while in the second round all other candidates are voted on; the top two of these are also declared nominated.

Kiribati is unusually stable for a Pacific Island country. Since independence in 1979, there have been only five Beretitenis (excluding leaders of the Council of State who took an interim role in government) compared to eleven Prime Ministers of Vanuatu since 1980 and eight Prime Ministers of Fiji since 1983.

It also has a party system, though it is fairly weak. The Elections Ordinance makes no mention of political parties (except in a section prohibiting advertising from parties in a perimeter around the polling station); however, election results suggest that a substantial number of MPs are affiliated with political parties, as are Presidential candidates. What is confusing about the parties is that the literature I have read suggests that they nominated multiple candidates for the Presidency, which seems like very odd behaviour for a political party.

The first President to lose the confidence of the legislature was Ieremia Tabai. He was re-elected as President in 1982, but without a legislative majority aligned to him. By making a minor bill a matter of confidence, he was able to dissolve the legislature, with opposition MPs apparently going along unsure of the consequences. The result was Tabai’s re-election, and a much more compliant legislature.

Tabai’s successors, Teato Teannaki, was removed by a vote of no-confidence, and did not run in the 1994 election. His successor, Teburoto Tito, lasted longer, winning three elections, but a poor result by his party in the legislative elections of 2002 meant that his narrow 2003 victory was swiftly followed by a no-confidence vote. In the elections held later in 2003, the Pillars of Truth party won 16 out of 41 seats, to 14 for the Protect the Maneaba. The remaining seats were won by candidates not affiliated to one of the parties. The following Presidential elections saw Pillars of Truth candidate Anote Tong win, narrowly.

Tong was elected two more times, serving his full term both times. His Pillars of Truth party was the largest party in both elections, though without a majority. However, the fairly fluid party system meant that he was able to avoid no-confidence votes.

At the last election, Tong was term-limited (only three terms are allowed), and he was replaced by Taneti Maamau. He is a member of the Tobwaan Kiribati Party. I am not sure how the legislative seats were distributed; the Inter-Parliamentary Union site gives this group 19 seats to 26 for Pillars of Truth; however, this figure looks like it redistributed independents to the two parties. Either way, the figure suggests that Maamau does not have especially strong support in the legislature.

So, where does this odd constitutional arrangement come from? Well, in preparation for independence, the colonial governor of Kiribati arranged a Constitutional Convention, comprised of 165 members from different parts of the county which he appointed, in order to design a more appropriate constitution. While this was met with protest within certain circles of the British colonial administration, most of the decisions of the convention were adapted in the constitution.

The goal of having an elected President appears to have been to create a figure above parochial local politics, a worthy aim, especially in the Pacific. No-confidence votes leading to elections also might give MPs pause for thought, and lead them to consider negotiation before toppling the President. While I am unsure to what extent Kiribati’s constitutional model has led to its relative stability, it is certainly worth a look for other Pacific states.

Note: Information for this post was sourced from the second volume of Nohlen’s Elections in Asia and the Pacific as well as Atoll Politics: The Republic  of Kiribati edited by Howard Van Trease and Politics in Kiribati edited by Taomati Iuta.

Myanmar: from Assembly-Independent to Parliamentary?

Myanmar’s new President, Htin Kyaw, was sworn in at the end of last month, a milestone in the country’s gradual transition period. This is the first transfer of power under the current regime, coming after elections handed the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) majorities in both houses of parliament in November of last year.

Of course, it remains to be seen how successful this changeover will be, and how far democratisation will go. Under the current Constitution, written by the Junta, the military retains a great deal of power, retaining responsibility for appointing a number of ministers (home, defence, border affairs) as well as one-quarter of each house of parliament as well as in the regional assemblies. As a result of the military-backed USD Party’s poor showing in November, this means the military appointees currently form Parliament’s biggest opposition group.

In the media, however, a different restriction on the NLD’s ambitions seems to have gained somewhat more publicity: the strict requirement that the President not only must be a natural-born citizen, but must have no direct relatives with foreign nationalities either. This provision has widely been seen as specifically targeting Aung San Suu Kyi, the longstanding leader of the NLD, whose two sons have UK citizenship, legally preventing her from becoming President. This has often been portrayed as a big obstacle to Kyi’s assumption of the country’s leadership, and Kyi herself gave a similar impression by seeking, for a while, to change the country’s constitution so that she would be allowed to become president – something the military were always going to veto, and even launch a coup if the NLD simply ignored the constitution.

However, there is one very significant detail here: Myanmar’s President, though very much the country’s chief executive and in possession of ample constitutional power, is not elected directlyInstead, the President is elected by a joint sitting of both houses of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (parliament)[1]. The President then serves a fixed five-year term, without being removable by Parliament other than by an impeachment process requiring supermajorities for removal[2]. This makes this a case of assembly-independent, a system whereby the (chief) executive is elected by the legislature but not subsequently responsible to it.

This makes another option – nominating a loyal ally to the presidency instead as a proxy and leading the government from the cabinet – much more feasible than if the President were elected directly, as is far more common in newly-democratised countries and, indeed, in the world: assembly-independent is very rare these days. Such a President would not only be apt to claim a democratic mandate to himself, but his selection as candidate might also be more dictated by questions of electability than by the question of future loyalty to the party (i.e. presidentialisation).

With NLD holding a majority in parliament, it can select someone to the presidency with an eye towards their functioning in the office itself, i.e. with an eye towards loyalty towards the party in the future. Htin Kyaw, the party’s ultimate nominee, fits the bill, being known as “a party loyalist with strong personal ties to Suu Kyi”. The setup still presents a (principal-agent) problem, to be sure, but probably a lesser one than under presidentialism, which might have seriously complicated things for the party.

After the presidential inauguration, Htin Kyaw appointed his ministers, with Suu Kyi as Foreign Affairs and President’s Office minister. There is officially no ‘prime minister’, but Kyaw also made Suu Kyi ‘State Counsellor’ after the NLD passed an act creating that position as the President’s chief advisor – ignoring protests from the military. The position is a ministerial one, so is only responsible to the President. But could that change at some point in the future through a gradual process establishing responsibility to parliament? As I mentioned, assembly-independent regimes have not been too common over the years, especially in recent times – so I don’t know what kind of precedents there are. But a common speculation (it even appears in this blog’s mission statement) is that had the Philadelphia Convention endowed the US with a presidency elected by Congress, the US government could have become parliamentary through the same evolution that established cabinet responsibility in the UK.

Could this happen in Myanmar? Unless the NLD persists – and succeeds – in demanding a repeal of the provisions excluding Suu Kyi from the presidency, it seems likely the current setup, with Suu Kyi effectively leading the government as State Counsellor, will continue until she retires. If, in the coming years, there is no major conflict with the President, I think it likely that she will find this works well enough. The longer this goes on, the more a convention will develop putting the State Counsellor at the centre of power instead of the President – this, I would think, is the first step. Whether the process will then continue probably depends more on Suu Kyi’s successor.

In any case, Myanmar should certainly be interesting to watch in the coming years.


[1] By plurality from three nominations: one by each house’s elected members and one made by the military’s representatives.

[2] Either detail would disqualify this as parliamentarism, but the supermajority requirement does so more definitively.

Australia’s impending double dissolution

The latest news from Australia:

Electoral reform abolishing Group Voting Tickets and establishing partially optional preferential voting ‘above’ and ‘below’ the line was passed in both houses last week, and barring an unlikely High Court decision to the contrary, it will go into effect at the next election. Now that the electoral system is no longer an obstacle (and perhaps due to the electoral reform, which aroused the ire of most Senate crossbenchers), Prime Minister Turnbull has all but called the expected double dissolution election, threatening to do so if controversial industrial relations bills do not pass the Senate at the next session, scheduled to start on April 19th.

A double dissolution is the deadlock-breaking mechanism provided by Australia’s Constitution. Though half the Senate is usually elected alongside elections to the House of Representatives, the Senate has a fixed six-year term. This can only be shortened by a double dissolution election where all seats of both houses are up for election. A double dissolution can only be brought about by the government when triggered by a disagreement between the houses, as spelled out by section 57 of the Constitution; if the disagreement with regards to a bill continues after the double dissolution election, those bills can be put to a joint sitting of the houses, where the government is likely to prevail due to the houses’ relative numbers.

Although section 57 gives the government the power to threaten to dissolve the Senate if it does not pass its legislation, there are various factors that complicate this procedure, making it rather cumbersome for the government. There is, of course, also the risk of losing the election. The procedure has only ever been used six times, and the last double dissolution election took place in 1987.

Vanuatu and vote management

The following entry is contributed by 

The small island nation of Vanuatu held an election for the Parliament on 22 January. The election was called after fourteen MPs, including the Deputy Prime Minister and a number of other cabinet ministers, were sentenced to prison terms between 3 and 4 years for bribery. Despite an attempt by the Speaker (who is acting president when the President is out of the country, and is also one of those found guilty of bribery) to pardon himself and the other MPs accused, the sentences stood. Following this, President Baldwin Lonsdale (on the advice of Prime Minister Sato Kilman, who knew that he would likely face defeat in Parliament when it was recalled) called an early election.

I have written more extensively on Vanuatu’s political history here, but that’s quite a long story. It was initially a colony, governed by both the United Kingdom and France (with two entirely seperate systems of government, justice and law enforcement). At independence in 1980, Vanuatu’s politics was dominated by two parties; the anglophone, socialist Vanuaku Party, and the more conservative, Francophone Union of Moderate Parties.

However, over the years, this two-party system has totally disintegrated. In 1991, two new parties split from the Vanuaku Party, and this has started a trend of both party splits and new parties. At the first post-independence election, the effective number of parties in terms of seats was 2.1; at this election, it was 11.36 (and even that number is an understatement, as it treats independents as one party). This has led to very unstable governments; in the 2012-2016 parliament, there were four Prime Ministers, and in the 2008-2012 term, there were six.

While personality clashes within parties have lead to some of this instability, the electoral system is also a factor. Vanuatu is one of the few countries to still use the single non-transferable vote (introduced before the 1975 colonial elections by colonial officials who were not provided with any information on alternatives). As many of you will know, this system is linked with factionalised parties, and Vanuatu is no exception. However, unlike Japan and Taiwan, the factionalised parties at the start have not stayed together, and have split. Under SNTV, there is relatively little incentive for parties not to split, at least from an electoral perspective.

I was in the country up until polling day, for unrelated reasons, and had a look at some of the campaigning (for images of posters, see my Twitter account). In terms of political reform (and with the caveat that I don’t speak the language, though Bislama is not too hard to understand) I noticed little discussion, other than from the Vanuatu Presidential Party (whose position should be obvious). There was vague talk about ending corruption and supporting decentralisation, but nothing, as far as I could tell, about the electoral system.

Vote distribution is an important part of the single non-transferable vote. If a party nominates too many candidates, their vote will be too split to elect many MPs; if they nominate too few they risk winning not enough seats. The vote also needs to be spread equally amongst the candidates, so as to ensure the maximum number of candidates are elected. You would think that a nation like Vanuatu, which has used the single non-transferable vote for a long time, would be doing this well. This is not the case.

For example, in the seven-member district of Santo, the Union of Moderate Parties was the largest party in terms of votes, winning 14.34% (yes, that makes them the largest). However, they ran five candidates. Each one got no more than 4%, and they won no seats. In the two-member district of Epi, the Vanuatu National Development Party was the largest party, with 20.78% of the vote. However, they ran two candidates, and each one got about 10%. The two seats were won by one independent and one UMP candidate, who was the only UMP candidate.

These sort of errors were widespread in Vanuatu, and the incompetent attempts for the larger parties to divide their vote only compounded the fragmentation, as they allowed small parties with only one candidate to win seats easier. The below chart shows how the seats were distributed, and how they would have been distributed under the D’Hondt system (applied only in areas where it would have made a difference).

As you can see, the new system would be a boost to the largest parties (the VP and UMP), while it would remove some of the smaller parties and independents. This would likely be an advantage for government stability.

One other thing I am interested in comparing is the equation outlined in Shugart, Bergman and Watt (2013), for estimating the vote share for the first candidate under the single non-transferable vote to the results in Vanuatu (this equation being ‘P1=C-.75, where P is the vote share within the party of the highest polling candidate and C is the number of candidates).

The below chart shows the correlation between the expected and the actual vote shares within parties is fairly strong.

The exact correlation coefficient is 0.687, which seems to me to be quite good given the very odd circumstances in Vanuatu. Bear in mind that this includes losers, which Shugart has advised me are not neccesarily applicable to the equation. If they are removed, the coefficient jumps to 0.76.

One final interesting point; the below graph plots the difference from the expected vote share for the highest polling candidate against the advantage ratio for the party in that district.

It’s worth noting that the linear trendline (as well as the correlation coefficient of 0.288) in this graph is relatively meaningless; the graph is dramatically skewed by the single data point in the top right. If removed, the coefficient drops dramatically, to -0.03. However, I don’t have anything to compare this against, and I am curious as to whether the high number of independents and single-candidate parties means that parties where the highest polling candidate polls higher than expected do better. I intend to look into this further.

New Zealand flag finalist…

The first of the two rounds of deciding on a potential new flag for New Zealand has been completed. The winner is Silver Fern (Black, White, and Blue). It will go head-to-head (hoist-to-hoist?) against the current flag in a second postal ballot next March. The proposed alternative shares with the current flag the stars of the Southern Cross.

This round selected from five alternatives, using a preferential (ranked-choice) ballot. The winning option did not lead on first preferences. That leader was ” Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue)”, which had 41.76%, against 40.16% for the eventual winner. The leader in first preferences was the only one of the five designs without black in its color scheme. Apparently, via the sequential elimination and then transfer of preferences, the consensus was fern and stars with some black.

This first round originally was to be among four alternatives, but a social-media campaign of especially passionate supporters managed to get a fifth design, Red Peak, included. Red Peak, however, did not fare so well, coming in a distant third with 8.69%. Another silver fern option, which was all black and white, and a black-and-white Koru design ended up way back.

The preferences round by round suggest the Red Peak was by far the second choice for Koru supporters. When black and white fern was eliminated, its ballots put the black-white-and-blue fern design in the lead, narrowly, for the first time. This made Red Peak the swing bloc, and those ballots split 54.34%-45.66% for–perhaps a little ironically–the option with no red on it–but with that consensus black. The final count was a vote division of 50.53%-49.47% between the two fern-and-stars design.

The long list from which the five ballot contenders were selected by a panel had 39 options. The panel had 10,292 designs to sift through.

Myanmar 2015

The ruling party of Myanmar (Burma), the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has conceded that it lost this past Sunday’s election to the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Apparently the NLD has won over 70% of the elected seats. It needed over two thirds to ensure a majority in the chambers, where the military has dedicated a quarter of seats for itself. Now it can elect the country’s next president, although the current constitution bars the NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from holding the position. Several days ago she stated that she would be “above” the president, implying that the president will be a figurehead. (There is no prime minister.) As leader of the majority party, and with no independent electoral mandate for the head of government, it is indeed plausible that she could wind up as the de facto leader of the country and its government.

I have not seen any estimates of vote percentages, and a final accounting may be a while off. The electoral system is first past the post, so the 70% of seats could have come on a substantially lower percentage of votes. I am also unsure of the extent to which there were other parties running. If it was just the USDP and NLD, then the latter probably won a clear majority of the vote. In any case, the term “landslide” is being used, and is probably appropriate.

The outcome does not by any means guarantee smooth democratization. The military and the new legislature will be bargaining over the scope of each other’s powers–assuming the military doesn’t stage a coup to stop it all, as it did in 1990. I do not know enough about the country to make any predictions, other than that full democracy is not here. But if it arrives, this will have been an obviously critical juncture in the process.

NZ Greens first block bar-opening, then relent

There was an interesting little tussle between the ACT New Zealand and the Greens this past week. The matter concerned a private member’s bill that would allow the opening of bars in the wee hours of the morning so that New Zealanders could gather to watch live matches at the next Rugby World Cup (which will be played in Britain next month).

The bill was sponsored by the sole ACT MP, David Seymour. As I understand the parliamentary procedure (with the help of some New Zealand friends), if a private member’s bill does not win the regular lottery for consideration by the House, it is possible for an MP to introduce it directly. However, this requires unanimous consent to proceed. The Greens turned down this request.

RNZ:

ACT leader David Seymour said, under his bill, licensed premises would have been able to open for an hour before a match started, and an hour after it had finished.
But the Greens’ health spokesperson, Kevin Hague, said the party could not support the bill as it had the potential to cause real harm to communities.
He said the move was a ham-fisted attempt by Mr Seymour to be a ‘man of the people’ but it actually had the potential to cause real harm to communities.
“Under David Seymour’s bill, boozed-up people will be spilling out of bars just as parents are dropping their children at school or are on their way to kids’ weekend rugby and netball games.”
Mr Seymour called the Greens “party poopers” after they blocked the bill.

However, the very next day, the Greens changed course and allowed the bill to go ahead. RNZ again:

Mr Seymour told Parliament ACT had offered to make changes to the bill to get the Greens’ support.
“Politics is often the art of compromise and if this bill emerges with at least the All Black games and finals applied to then that, I believe, will be a great victory,” he said.

The article has some brief overview of the concessions (which seem minor to me).

I have to wonder if the Greens really wanted to garner a reputation as the party that is against World Cup viewing in bars. One further report that I heard on RNZ suggested that the party took a great deal of criticism for the initial veto.

The bill seems now set to go ahead with National Party support and Labour declaring it a personal (free) vote.

New South Wales election

Today the state of new South Wales has a general election.

All of the legislative assembly and half the legislative council face election. The assembly is SMDs, the council is elected by STV with the whole state as a single electorate. The LNP government is very likely to be re-elected, but a hung parliament or a an LNP defeat would almost certainly have repercussions.

As the opposition leader expressed it, if Premier Baird goes on Saturday night then Prime Minister Abbot goes on Monday morning.

__________
The text above was written by Alan at a comment on an earlier Australia thread. But we might as well give the election its own space.

By-election in New Zealand

Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First Party, has won a by-election in the electorate of Northland.

In the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in New Zealand, unlike the generally similar one in Germany, by elections are held to fill vacancies in single-seat districts. In this case, the winner is a sitting list MP. So what happens next? There is no party vote in a by election, nor is the compensation mechanism engaged in any way. So when Peters relinquishes his list seat to take up the electorate, his party would be entitled to a fill the list seat with the next candidate on its own list. In other words, the party can gain a seat by this mechanism!

As it happens, NZF may not exercise its right to claim a new seat; it may simply leave the seat vacant. (Updated: It looks like NZF just might take the additional seat to which it is entitled after all.)

Peters won with a little indirect assist from the Labour Party, whose leader admitted in the days before this election that its candidate had no chance. He said that Northland voters “are going to look around and they have to make the decision about what’s best. If they want to say they are sick and tired of being neglected, they are going to have to decide how they do that and vote accordingly,” said Andrew Little.

Peters held an electorate seat as recently as 2005, Tauranga, which is rather far from Northland. He is, however, originally from Northland.

Below is a comparison the results, showing only those parties that won at least 5% of the votes in either the 2014 general election or this by election; “–” indicates the party did not run a candidate in the given election.

Party 2014 list 2014 nominal 2015 (nominal)
National 17,412 18,269 11,347
NZF 4,546 15,359
Labour 5,913 8,969 1,315
Green 3,855 3,639
Conservative 2,243 1,555
Total 35,707 35,056 28,468

Thailand political reforms (yes, again)

The current Thai political reform process, underway since the military coup of 2014, is churning out some significant changes. Already, decisions appear to have been made to move to mixed-member proportional (MMP), with the list-tier seats allocated via open party lists.

Thailand in the past has used mixed-member majoritarian (MMM or “parallel”). It has used multiple nontransferable votes (MNTV, also misleadingly known as “block vote”). It has used MMM and MNTV together. But MMP with open lists would be new, and not only to Thailand.*

The Bangkok Post, on 25 February, refers to various other matters under consideration, although it is vague on specifics.

To prevent the executive branch from being placed in a weakened position by squabbling coalition partners, it was decided that if the opposition wins a no-confidence vote, the House of Representatives would be automatically dissolved.

Constitution Drafting Committee spokesman Khamnoon Sitthisamarn is quoted as saying that under the new electoral system, coalition governments are expected to be the norm, and so they are seeking to make it more costly to change governments between elections.

The CDC spokesman said this would cause the opposition to think carefully about filing a no-confidence motion and only do so if it was really necessary and the government had made serious mistakes.

There could be more measures aimed at making governments stable:

Mr Khamnoon said there will be other measures to prevent parties in the coalition threatening to leave purely in order to obtain benefits from the core parties leading the coalition. These measures would be decided later, he said.

The new constitution will bar independent candidates from running. Given MMP, one would expect few incentives for independents in any case. There will also be a provision that appears to undermine the very idea of open lists:

Another requirement is that in order to be declared a winner, an elected candidate must have received more votes than the total “no votes” cast by those who do not wish to vote for any candidate on the list.

This is not very clear. On the one hand, an open list system in which voters can vote for the party rather than a candidate is unremarkable. However, if it is genuinely an open list, votes solely for the list do not affect who is elected from that list, and in what order; this still depends only on candidates’ ranks in preference votes. If a candidate needs more preference votes than there were list-only votes, then this is not an open list, as presumably few will cross such a threshold, implying that a pre-election list order would have to be a default. That would be a “flexible” (semi-open) list, and probably not a very flexible one in practice.

Clearly there are details to be worked out.

________
* I know of no such case at the national level. The German state of Bavaria is sometimes said to be MMP with a tier of open lists. However, I remain uncertain whether that characterization is precise. Years ago I proposed a hybrid MMP/OLPR system before knowing of the Bavarian system. It seems Bavaria uses a system similar to what I proposed, although perhaps different in key details.

The most dysfunctional and undemocratic parliament in the Commonwealth?

On ipolitics.ca, Frances Russell reviews Democratizing the Constitution — Reforming Responsible Government, by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull.

Russell begins the review by declaring that “Canada has the most dysfunctional and undemocratic parliament in the British Commonwealth.” She subsequently indicates that the book’s proposal is that:

Canada should follow the lead of its sister Commonwealth countries Britain, Australia and New Zealand and codify the principles of parliamentary democracy to ensure the players — voters and politicians — understand the playbook and stay within the rules.

Because themes of this sort are a frequent topic of discussion around here, I thought I would open up a new thread.

Thanks to Wilf Day for the link.

The ways a cabinet can be terminated

There is a literature in political science on government (cabinet) termination in parliamentary democracies. This is not a review of that literature. Rather, it is an accounting of three recent cases that illustrate different ways that a government in a parliamentary democracy can end.

We can have a party based on an electoral majority that seeks a fresh mandate. That is, a party–or bloc of parties running together in the election– that has won a majority of seats, but, for strategic reasons, decides to hold an early election. Exhibit: Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Liberal Democratic Party) announced a snap election on 18 November, despite about two years remaining on the term and a comfortable majority won in the 2012 election. The election will be 14 December.

We can have a coalition government, formed by bargaining among multiple parties after an election, which holds a majority of seats. The parties might have a falling out over one or more policy issues, and the parties break up the government rather than resolve their differences within it. Exhibit: Israel. On 2 December, Prme Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two ministers, each of whom heads a party that was in his coalition: Finance Minister Yair Lapid (of the Yesh Atid party) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (of HaTnua). The firing, which meant the breakup of the coalition, followed weeks of rancor over the budget and a bill backed particularly by another coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, that critics (including the ceremonial president) said would elevate the state’s Jewish character over its democratic character. New elections will be 17 March.

We can have a minority cabinet, in which the party or parties holding ministerial positions do not hold a majority of parliamentary seats, with no available backing from among the non-governmental parties in parliament, and which fails to get the support needed to pass its budget. Exhibit: Sweden. On 3 December, the minority center-left government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven lost a budget vote, 153-182, and announced there would be a snap election. The wild card here was the Sweden Democrats, a far-right or “populist” party that neither Lofven nor the center-right opposition wanted to be seen to deal with following elections that were held less than three months ago. When the center-right would not back the budget, the government effectively lost its right to continue governing. A new election is expected to be set for 22 March.

One could say that these were listed not only in chronological order, but in reverse order of “necessity”. There was no reason why Japan needed an early election–its government has a solid majority. The Israeli election call is also not exactly necessary–the parties whose leaders Netanyahu fired were not in anything like open rebellion even if they were in policy disagreement (which is, after all, natural in coalitions). It was, however, a coalition that the PM himself clearly never wanted, and was forced upon him by the election results in early 2013 and the bargaining stances of other parties (specifically, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home). Polls show the potential of a much stronger right-wing bloc in a new election. So, it is an opportunistic call, but arguably less unnecessary than Japan’s. The Swedish situation, on the other hand, is one of real deadlock.

Of all these countries, the one that has the lowest tendency towards early elections is Sweden, even though minority governments are quite common there. Usually, however, they have had a fairly reliable “outside” party to back them on budgets or other confidence matters. Israel has frequent early elections–although this one will be earlier than any in years–and usually has oversized governments (meaning containing more parties than actually needed to have a parliamentary majority–such as the just-collapsed one). Japan usually has electoral-majority governments, but has had many early elections, including the famous one of 2005, also called by a government that had a secure election-based majority, but wanted (and got) a bigger one to push through reforms blocked by intra-party resistance.

All these great examples of early elections in parliamentary systems, and it wasn’t even my teaching quarter for any of my comparative democracy courses.

Vexing vexillological questions

New Zealand will go ahead with a referendum on its flag. In fact, two referenda, following a similar process to the electoral-system referenda that the country has held in 1992-93 and again in 2011: an initial selection from several choices, followed by a later binary choice between the status quo and the proposed change.* Both would be held in 2016. From ABC:

The first, at the end of next year, would ask the public to choose a preferred design from those selected by a panel of notable New Zealanders.

The second referendum would pit the winning new design against the current flag in 2016.

Stuff NZ has an image of one possible alternative, which retains the Southern Cross in addition to a fern. Another that is a silver fern on black has been widely discussed.**

The political parties will recommend members of “a cross-party panel”, and public consultations will follow, to select the options to be put to voters.

Questions for readers: Aside from the obvious (and, by all accounts, wildly successful) Canadian case, are there other democratic countries that have undertaken a major flag re-design?

There are, of course, numerous cases of authoritarian governments that have changed their country’s flag unilaterally. And, new democratic states have needed to adopt a flag (India, Israel, etc.). But ongoing democracies do not change their flags often. I can’t think of another case aside from Canada, but maybe someone else can.

An aside: is there any notable debate about the flag in Australia? Or other long-term democracies that anyone can report?

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* But apparently without the first referendum having a simple “keep or change” option in addition to a set of “change” possibilities. In the 2011 electoral-system referendum, the “keep MMP” option passed, rendering the choice among alternatives moot. Thus the second-stage referendum was not held, unlike 1992-93.

** Which, to me, looks too much like the national rugby team’s banner. Or that of ISIS.

Electoral reform debate in Burma

Burma’s parliament is currently debating electoral reform ahead of next year’s election, as part of a wider constitutional debate.

Burma, which had been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962, has recently embarked on a path of democratisation. Since a new constitution was passed in 2008, a lot of progress has been made, including the freeing of most political prisoners and expansion of civil liberties: people have become far freer to criticise the government and some public demonstrations are being permitted, something completely unknown just ten years ago.

Burma’s current constitution came into force in a 2008 referendum. Consequently, legislative elections were held in 2010 for three-quarters of each house, the other one-quarter being appointed by the military. In the House of Nationalities, the upper house, each state or region* elects twelve members, with the lower house representing by population, for a total of 168/224 and 330/440 seats respectively (elected/total); all elections were by single seat plurality. The election was not considered free and fair, and was boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy, whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was still under house arrest at the time. The military government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) captured an outright majority in both houses (over two-thirds of all elected seats).

Under the new constitution, the president is elected indirectly, with the military and both houses of parliament each having one vote. After the 2010 election, USDP leader and incumbent premier in the military government, Thein Sein, was elected president, taking office in 2011 and forming the country’s first fully civilian government under the new constitution. Though many expected the new government to act as a proxy for the military and for the new parliament to act as a rubber stamp, both have shown surprising independence and commitment to democratisation; even military-appointed MPs aren’t always voting as a bloc.

In 2012, more than forty by-elections were held (on a single day), mostly to fill seats vacated by MPs appointed to Sein’s cabinet. With Suu Kyi having been released, the NLD decided to take part. Despite continuing irregularities, the by-elections were regarded as freer than the general election two years prior. Almost all seats were won by the NLD, with Suu Kyi winning a huge majority in her own constituency. The NLD has confirmed that it will contest the next general election, scheduled for October next year.

A few months ago, an electoral reform proposal introducing PR was passed in the upper house, and it has been debated in the lower house since then. Unsurprisingly, the proposal is backed by the USDP, which can expect a near-wipeout next year if first-past-the-post is kept, as indicated by the by-elections. This would replicate the result of the 1990 election (ultimately rejected by the junta) where the NLD won just shy of 80% of seats on 53% of the vote.

The NLD, probably for the very same reason, strongly opposes PR, at times offering arguments as silly as that PR favours large parties while suppressing small ones. At best, they’ve called for a referendum on the topic. Many from ethnic minorities are also opposed, with some taking to the streets to demonstrate against the proposal. The opposition of minorities is perhaps surprising considering the nature of PR, but in Burma most ethnic minorities are geographically concentrated and so benefit from FPTP.

The exact reform on the table is not yet clear, as the the lower house seems to have abandoned the original proposal, appointing a special commission, which came up with a number of alternatives. Besides PR, the commission put forward a number of hybrids, some of which envisage different systems for different regions of the country, with the ethnic states to retain a more majoritarian system. Either way, considering the USDP’s parliamentary majority and the assured support of military appointees, it seems all but certain that some change will be made by the time of next year’s election.


* Burma has 7 ‘states’, where ethnic minorities, such as the Shan and Karen, form majorities, and 7 ‘regions’, where the Bamar majority is dominant.