MMP weekend: Germany and New Zealand 2017

We are entering days of convergences. Over the next two days, the Jewish and Islamic new years and the first day of Autumn coincide. Then, on the weekend, we have the convergence of elections in the two countries that offer our best examples of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation electoral systems: Germany and New Zealand. (Lest I be accused of hemispherism, let me hasten to note that in one of those countries, the election will be the day after the start of spring.)

In the case of Germany, which votes Sunday, there really has been no doubt for some time that the CDU/CSU alliance would place first, but it will be down from its 2013 result. There is also little doubt that the two parties that missed the 5% party-vote threshold in 2013 will clear it this time: the center-right FDP and the far-right AfD. The SPD, which briefly flirted with the lead in the polls some months after changing its leadership, looks like it may struggle to break 25% of the vote. The real question is what the coalition will be, after the election results are known.

I would expect the SPD to want a period of opposition to recollect itself after what looks sure to be another disappointing result for the party. Thus it may not be willing to renew the current CDU/CSU+SPD big coalition (what we should stop calling a grand coalition; my more direct translation of the German term is more apt). If the FDP has enough seats to combine with the CDU/CSU, we might see a return to the center-right combo that governed from 2009 to 2013, as well as in many past terms. There is just enough error in the projections from polling to allow for the possibility that this could be a viable combine. (Mouse over the numbers in the table at that link for the range of vote and seat projections for each party.)

However, the most likely result seems to me to be Jamaica! I will admit to rooting for this: CDU/CSU + FDP + Green. (The name refers to the parties’ colors.)

In New Zealand, the contest for Saturday’s election is much more uncertain. For months it seemed National, which heads the current multi-party governing arrangement, was cruising to another win. Then Labour changed its leader and surged (similar to the German pattern). By a few weeks ago, the two largest parties were running neck and neck, while the Greens stumbled badly and looked at risk of failing to clear the 5% party-vote threshold. This scenario was posing a potential difficult challenge for center-left voters: Do you vote Labour to bolster its formateur status (as the largest party, although there is no formal right of first attempt to the largest in New Zealand)? Or do you vote Green to ensure there is a viable partner for Labour other than Winston Peters and his New Zealand First (NZF) party? Given that the electoral system is MMP, you can do both: vote for Labour in your district (electorate) and vote Green on the list. However, while that might be a voter’s way of making a statement of preferred coalition, only the party vote affects the overall balance of seats in parliament. (Some exceptions to that statement, as I will get to below, but none likely relevant to the Labour-Green situation discussed here.)

In recent days, some polling suggests that National might be pulling ahead again. The result could be very close, and it could be a situation in which NZF is pivotal (although that may be less likely than it seemed some weeks ago). That is, assuming NZF makes it. The party has been tending downward and is hovering near 5%, as are the Greens . Here is where the electorate (district/nominal) vote comes in. The threshold provision for a party to participate in nationwide proportional allocation is 5% of party-list votes or one electorate. (Additional MPs elected beyond the electorate candidate are what I have termed “piggyback MPs“, not to be confused with that other MMP creature, the “shadow MP“.) The Greens do not have an electorate where they are viable, but NZF does.

Peters, the NZF leader, currently holds an electorate seat, Northland, having won it in a by-election in 2015. He is the party’s candidate again for the seat. If he retains it, his party would qualify for additional list seats, even if it fell below the 5% party-vote threshold.

The other electorate contests that matter include the one in Epsom, although it is not really a contest. The seat is safe for the one Act MP, David Seymour, who is quite certain to return. It is probably not likely that the Act party vote will be sufficient to earn the party a second seat, although I saw one projection a week or so ago that suggested it was possible. Act has been a governing partner with National since 2008.

Then there is Waiariki, one of the Maori set-aside seats. (Voters who claim Maori descent can choose to vote in their special Maori electorate or in the general electorate seat in which the reside.) Te Ururoa Flavell is fighting to hold the seat, which is the only way his party will retain a presence in parliament. That is quite a change for the party, which has been a National governing partner since 2008. In the past it has won as many as five electorate seats (in 2008) and in 2014 it had sufficient party votes to win a list seat for the first time, in addition to its win in Waiariki electorate. This time, it may end up with just one seat–or zero.

One electorate we know will not matter this time is Ohariu. United Future leader Peter Dunne resigned in August, after a 33-year career as an MP. This effectively kills the party, which has been a support partner to every government, whether led by Labour or National, since 2002. Only in 2002 did the party clear the party-vote threshold, and since 2008, Dunne has been its only member.

In an interesting twist on the Ohariu story, the Greens had initially decided not to contest the seat, in order to give the Labour candidate a chance to defeat Dunne and thereby knock a National partner out of the government-formation equation. When Dunne resigned, the Greens announced a candidate for the seat. With Dunne not running, there is no scenario in which this electorate will matter for the parliamentary balance, so there was no reason for the Greens not to have “local face” on the party (even though many of its voters will split their vote and give their electorate vote to the Labour candidate anyway). Running a candidate is thus another example of what I have called green contamination.

Two MMP elections in one weekend. Now that will be something to watch!

 

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More parliamentarism in Central Asia

The Venice Commission has published an generally positive opinion on the Georgian government’s proposal for constitutional reforms. The reforms were proposed after the governing Georgian Dream party won 115 seats in the 150 member legislature in elections, slightly more than the three-quarters majority required to amend the document.

Specifically, the amendments propose repealing direct elections to the Presidency, replacing it with election by a 300-member electoral college composed of members of the national legislature and local councillors. In addition, most of the powers of the Presidency are stripped. This creates a parliamentary system, with a Prime Minister only removable through a constructive vote of no confidence.

The previously unicameral legislature will be replaced, nominally, with a bicameral legislature, comprised of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. However, the Senate specifically includes members elected from Abkhazia, currently under the control of a separatist government, and is only to be created after “appropriate conditions have been created throughout the territory of Georgia”. This would seem to imply that the chamber can only be created when Abkhazia returns to government control, and the Venice Commission’s report confirms that they understand its creation will be delayed.

In addition, there are changes to the electoral law. The existing mixed-member majoritarian system with a roughly even split between single-member constituencies elected using the two-round system and party-list PR with a 5% threshold will be replaced with a system of list PR only, still with a 5% threshold. While there is little elaboration, the document does specify that seats shall be allocated by the Hare quota, but instead of allocating seats by largest remainders, all remaining seats are allocated to the largest party (a method used in Greece in one of their endless electoral system changes).

The change bears some resemblance to the relatively recent amendments in Armenia. Like Georgia, a semi-presidential system with a legislature elected with a mixed-member system transitioned into a parliamentary one with a legislature elected under a list system with a bonus (though Armenia’s bonus is somewhat more elaborate, and guarantees a majority government in one form or another). While drawing broad conclusions off two examples is obviously bound to be, these two results may suggest that there is a shift away from politics centred around an all-powerful directly elected presidency, and towards more party-based politics.

A more tenuous argument along these lines could be made in relation to the electoral system. In both cases (along with Kyrgyzstan, which actually moved from single-member districts to MMM to party list), a system in which individual candidates were an important part of legislative elections (especially in the years shortly after independence) has been replaced by a system in which parties are the dominant actors. On the other hand, the pendulum has moved the other way elsewhere in the region, in Russia and the Ukraine.

The President, though endorsed by the Georgian Dream party at the 2013 election, does not appear to have been overly enthusiastic about the landslide victory. The Venice Commission did express some concerns about the power of a government with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, but that seems less likely in Georgia than in Armenia, owing to the more proportional system.

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

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

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

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

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

Should New Zealand do away with by-elections?

In New Zealand’s MMP system, there are by-elections if there is a vacancy between general elections in a single-seat district. This is not a mandatory feature of MMP systems; Germany, for example, has no by-elections. A vacancy in a district is filled off the list of the party of the vacating member.

Nigel Roberts, a leading New Zealand expert on elections and electoral systems, writes in the Dominion Post that New Zealand should end the practice of by-elections. In making the case, he refers to a by-election in the constituency of Mt Albert, which is a safe Labour seat. The Labour Party’s candidate in the by-election, Jacinda Ardern, already is an MP, via the party list. Thus the effect of her winning (which she did) is simply to shift the type of mandate she has*, and have her replaced as a list MP by the next available candidate on the Labour list from the preceding election.

Roberts suggests adding a regional component to the lists in order to ensure that the replacement is from the same region as the district in which the vacancy has occurred.

A potential problem with the proposal is the fact that sometimes a by-election really does shift who controls a district and sometimes can even change the nationwide balance between parties (as happened in a recent case in Northland district). Roberts takes the position that this is better avoided, so as not to change potentially the majority for the government. “Party votes cast in general elections should make or break governments – not electorate votes cast in by-elections,” he says.

I am curious to know what readers think of the proposal.

* As well as, sadly, deprive us of my favorite case of a list MP “shadowing” the district-elected MP.

No, the allies did not “impose” MMP on Germany

An entry on the Whoa! Canada blog claims that the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system Germany uses was an imposition of the allied occupational authorities.

For those who don’t know, at the end of Second World War the victorious Allies governments imposed Mixed Member Proportional Representation on West Germany.

They did this specifically to prevent the rise of another Hitler.

Further on, it makes a specific claim about the then British Prime Minister, in a bold subheading of a section that actually does not even try to elaborate on its claim:

Winston Churchill knew Proportional Representation was a defence against fascism.

This is all very fanciful. The allied occupation authorities did not “impose” MMP on Germany, and the British in particular favored reverting to Germany’s pre-Weimar majoritarian system, as did the Americans. MMP was a product of compromise among the various German parties and the American, British, and French occupation governments.

The (unsourced) claim that Churchill saw PR as a bulwark against fascism is especially creative. At the time, PR was widely (if inaccurately) seen as responsible for the rise of the Nazis. If anything in the German system was adopted to be a bulwark against fascism, it was the 5% threshold–the very most non-proportional feature of the system to this day.


For a good overview of the adoption of MMP in Germany, see Susan E. Scarrow, “Germany: The Mixed-Member System as a Political Compromise,” in Matthew S. Shugart and Martin P. Wattengerg, eds., Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford University Press, 2001.

Colombia electoral reform video

If you understand Spanish, you should watch John Sudarsky’s video criticizing the current electoral system of Colombia (which is open-list* PR, including in the 100-seat nationwide district of the Senate), and advocating MMP.**

I offer for your viewing pleasure, not necessarily as an endorsement.

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* Mostly. Parties have the option to present a closed list, and there are always some members of each house elected this way. But most come from open lists.


** The video and website only call it “mixed”, but it seems pretty clear from the examples given that it is intended to be MMP.