Remember: Honeymoon elections matter

On 23 April, when many commentators were lamenting how weak (then-expected) President Emmannuel Macron’s support might be in the National Assembly, I offered an estimate of 29% of the vote for his newly formed party. I based this solely on the mean surge that presidents’ parties tend to have when an assembly election occurs early in their terms–a honeymoon election.

Maybe that was an underestimate. While one poll (OpinionWay/ORPI) has Macron’s party, La République en marche! (LRM), on 27%, Harris Interactive sees it on 32%. Both agree this will be the biggest party (Reuters). Given the electoral system, such a share puts Macron well within reach of having a majority in the Assembly.

And what a party it is!

Half of the LRM preliminary list of 428 candidates for the 577-member National Assembly are women and 52 percent are civil society figures.

Better yet, 95% are not current MPs and one of them is a “rockstar mathematician”! (France24)

Macron has also named his cabinet. The premier will be Edouard Philippe, mayor of Le Havre and a member of the Les Republicans (the party of defeated and discredited presidential candidate François Fillon). Reuters reports:

A leading French conservative accused President Emmanuel Macron of “dynamiting” the political landscape on Tuesday as he put together a government that is expected to include former rivals on both left and right.

In other words, he is being “accused” of doing precisely what he won nearly two thirds of the vote (in the runoff) saying he would do.

Furthermore,

over 20 LR members of parliament, including some party heavyweights and former ministers, issued a joint statement on Monday urging the party to positively respond to the “hand extended by the president”.

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.

Turkey: referendum post-mortem

As most are undoubtedly aware by now, the package of constitutional amendments proposed by Turkey’s government passed narrowly in the referendum two weeks ago.

I feel like my first post on the subject did not adequately cover the already deeply authoritarian background in which the referendum took place. Freedom of speech and the press have never been fully established in Turkey, and their suppression has worsened over the last decade. Moreover, since AKP rose to power in 2002, the public sector has been subjected to repeated purges, and not just since last year’s failed coup. The referendum campaign itself was strongly affected by this, and the legitimacy of the outcome should certainly be questioned. Claire Berlinski writes[1]:

“The poll took place under a state of emergency. A third of the judiciary has been fired; some are still in jail. Three members of the Supreme Election Board are in prison, too. It’s possible that they’re mostly Gülenist coup-plotters as charged, and possible that jail is exactly where they ought to be, but this doesn’t obviate the point: Nothing like an independent judiciary buttressed this referendum. In some cases, authorities prevented “no” campaigners from holding rallies and events; those opposing the motion were tear-gassed (of course), and prohibited from carrying signs or assembling, or even beaten or shot at. The “yes” campaign received vastly more publicity; its supporters were given hundreds of hours on television stations. Opponents, almost none…

Hundreds of election observers were barred from doing their jobs, and at the last minute, the election board changed the standards required to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing. Many instances of voter fraud appear to have been captured clearly on camera. [my link]”

It is clear that many of these democratic deficits have existed for years now. Not just in terms of democratic rights or process, but also the constitutional checks and balances. As Berlinski argues, the referendum “merely legally formalized the longstanding de facto state of affairs”. Dissolution power, extensive decree powers, emergency powers – all existed already. The only difference was that they were mostly vested in the government. Under semi-presidentialism, president’s Erdogan’s position was already secure[2], but his power depended largely on being able to control the government.

In theory, under the semi-presidential system, AKP MPs (including the Prime Minister) could use their position to check the president’s power by scrutinizing the government and holding it to account. In practice, of course, they have little reason to do so. Therefore, the only situation in which the president (and the government) might be subject to meaningful check would be if the government ever lacked a majority in the Grand National Assembly – in extremis, this could have resulted in cohabitation, depriving Erdogan of control over the executive entirely.

My current theory is that AKP’s loss of its assembly majority in 2015a is what motivated Erdogan to seek a fully presidential system – completely eliminating the assembly’s confidence power over the government and vesting all executive power (plus decree powers) in the president and his agents. Now Erdogan will be secure in his position as president, as before, but his control over the executive will be secure too.

Therefore, despite this change to presidentialism (and earlier, semi-presidentialism), this democratic breakdown comes in the ‘parliamentarism’ column. Was it something inherent in parliamentarism that made, or allowed it to happen? Probably not. All else being equal, things could have easily followed much the same path.

What probably did make a difference, I think, is the electoral system – specifically the 10% threshold, which has a strong tendency to manufacture majorities[3]. At the 2002 election, the AKP came to power with a single-party majority gained off a mere 34.3% of the vote. Admittedly, at every election since (except 2015a), the AKP received more than 46% of the vote, vote shares which would have granted it majorities even in most proportional systems. But I wonder whether, under a truly proportional system for the assembly[4]:

  1. Fewer voters would have voted strategically for AKP (at the 2007, 2011, and 2015b elections), instead voting for other parties which would have been viable as a result of the lower threshold; and/or
  2. Lacking a majority from 2002 through 2007 would have prevented AKP from accruing an incumbency advantage (of any kind – democratic or not) at the 2007 election (assuming it would still have managed to form the government).

If either were true (and both seem likely to me), it is considerably more difficult to see how the party would have managed to undermine democracy and usurp power in the way it has. Without a majority, the other parties would have been able to check AKP’s consolidation of power, it would have been much more difficult for the party to change the constitution to introduce direct presidential elections (2007) or undermine the independence of the judiciary (2010), and it would have been difficult for it to force through its own choice of president in 2007. Even if the above propositions were not true, proportional representation and a multi-party legislature[5] would undoubtedly have delayed the erosion.


[1] I strongly recommend Berlinski’s account of the decline of Turkey’s democracy since 2002 (and the atrocious western response), Guilty Men: How Democracies Die.

[2] Meaning, he cannot be removed by majority vote in the assembly or by his party.

[3] Though I do not think this feature is inherently undemocratic, majoritarianism is problematic (especially in young democracies). If it is included in a system, it should always be balanced out by countervailing checks such as strong bicameralism and a well-entrenched constitution.

[4] At a minimum, this would mean a threshold reduction from the current 10% to 5%, ceteris paribus.

[5] Or a powerful upper house elected by proportional representation, especially with non-concurrent and/or staggered elections.

UK 2017: Green Party won’t stand in Ealing constituency

Here is something we do not see in First-Past-the-Post elections* as much as the Duvergerianists seem to think we should: one party agreeing not to have a candidate in order to avoid vote-splitting in a district.

The Green Party has pulled out of a crucial election seat in a bid to help the Labour Party beat the Tories – the first tactical withdrawal of its kind ahead of the general election.

The decision is expected to allow more votes to go to Labour MP Rupa Huq, who beat the Conservatives with a majority of just 274 votes in 2015, when no other party managed to attract more than seven per cent of the vote.

Green Party members in Ealing — where the party won 1,841 votes in the 2015 election — voted not to field a candidate last week, after Ms Huq promised to campaign for voting reform and the environment.

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* Except in India!

France: what to expect for the assembly?

I am going to assume the polls are right and Emmanuel Macron will squeak past Marine Le Pen and be elected president in the runoff in France’s presidential election. (The polls actually suggest he will win at least 60% of the vote.) Let’s think ahead to the assembly elections, which come in June (also in two rounds).

I have seen various references to a likelihood of “cohabitation”. This is nonsense, if we define that term properly to mean cases in which the president and premier are from opposing parties and the president’s party is not in the cabinet. But let’s give people saying this the benefit of the doubt, and assume they mean the presumptive President Macron will have a difficult coalition-building task ahead of him with the assembly he will face. This is not unreasonable to assume, given that Macron has no existing party to start with.

Even this weaker prediction of a challenging assembly environment for the young “outsider” president is probably wrong. Honeymoon elections really matter, and France has had, since 2002, an extreme version of a honeymoon cycle, with the assembly election only about a month after the presidential.

This first graph is from the forthcoming Votes from Seats by Rein Taagepera and Matthew Shugart (yes, me). Unlike most graphs in this book, this is not a logical model. That is, it is not based on deductive logic for the specific equation plotted. The equation is an empirical regression result. However, the basic idea of a honeymoon surge is itself well documented (as explained in Chapter 12 of the book, citing earlier work by me and others).

The plot is of the “presidential vote ratio” against “elapsed time”. The presidential vote ratio, or Rp, is the vote share of the president’s party in the assembly election, divided by the president’s own votes (in the first round, if two-round system). Elapsed time is the number of months into the presidential inter-electoral period in which the assembly election took place, so 0 means a concurrent election (same day) and the more closely elapsed time approaches 1.0, the closer it is to the next presidential election (but before it).

The upcoming French assembly election will be about 1/60=0.0167 on elapsed time, E. Macron has won, according to initial results, about 24% of the first-round vote for president. So, doing the math in the (empirical) equation, we get:

Rp=1.20–0.725*0.017=1.19.

In other words, if the pattern holds for France, 2017, we should expect Macron’s new party, En Marche!, to get around 29% of the vote (24*1.19=28.6). Is that even possible, given En Marche! did not even exist prior to Macron’s campaign? I do not know, and I will not call this a “prediction” given it is just an empirical pattern and not a logical model. But there you have it, for what it is worth–in the absence of any other information, I am going with around 29% of the vote.

Note that there is only one non-concurrent election with E<0.1 for which Rp<1. Even with an untested party, I like Macron's party's chances of getting over 25% of the vote.

For comparison purposes, note that a largest vote-earning party in this range would not be unprecedentedly low for France. In 2012, the Socialist Party of just-elected Francois Hollande won 29.4%, and this was the largest percentage for any party in the election by a margin of 2.3 percentage points. Hollande himself had won 28.6%, so his party had only a small honeymoon boost. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP did better, at 39.5%. Sarkozy himself had won 31.2%, yielding a boost about in line with that implied by the Rp equation.

Of course, what matters more is seats. Does the French electoral system tend to boost seat shares? Yes, we might say that it does. Despite the low shares for the largest party, the use of two-round majority-plurality in single-seat districts means that the largest party can expect quite a further boost indeed.

The second graph has plots of the seat share of the largest party (s1, left panel) and the effective number of seat-winning parties (NS, right panel) since 1958. The “expected” line is based on the Seat Product Model predictions. As explained in Votes from Seats (and also in Taagepera’s 2007 Predicting Party Sizes), these are based on logical models (deductive quantitative reasoning). They are not merely empirical regressions, but regression confirm them on a large dataset of national elections. They are:

s1=(MS)-.125 and NS=(MS)1/6.

MS=mean district magnitude times the assembly size

It might be noted that the previous honeymoon elections depicted here are 1981, 1988, 2002, 2007, and 2012. All show s1 above and NS below the expectation. In other words a less fragmented party system due to the honeymoon boost for the just-elected (or, in 1988, reelected) president.

Even in 2012, with his party on only 29.4% of the votes, Hollande almost had a co-partisan majority. His Socialists had 48.5% of the seats, thanks to the electoral system; with allies, he had a large working majority of over 57%.

The models assume a “simple” system–one with a single tier of allocation in one round using a basic PR formula. FPTP counts (any PR formula when M=1 is the same as plurality), but obviously majority-plurality does not, because it is not a one-round system. Even so, the worst we can say is that in some elections we get an actual seat-winning party that is bigger than predicted (for a simple system of the same number of single-seat districts) and an effective number of seat-wing parties that is lower than expected. The major exceptions to this generalization are from the 1970s. (Note the abrupt change in expected value in 1986; this was the one PR election of the Fifth Republic.)

Of course, the reason why we might expect s1 to be higher than predicted and NS to be lower is the the largest party benefits from alliance deals in the districts between rounds. But the expectation on seats–based, again, on the incorrect assumption that this is a plurality system–is not too far off, despite the fact that the votes are so fragmented that a party with just 30% in the first round is sometimes the biggest party.

We can assume that Macron and En Marche! will benefit from alliances against the National Front. It is harder to predict what the patterns will be with respect to the traditional right and left.

The bottom line is that I would expect En Marche! to emerge as the biggest party, based on the honeymoon cycle, with somewhere between 24% and 30% (maybe more!) of the vote, and somewhere between 40% and over 50% of the seats. I would further expect Macron to have no difficulty appointing a premier of his choice, and to have a ruling coalition that will be dependent on him for its very existence. Of course, I can’t say how effective this coalition will be at governing, or whether it will last Macron’s term, or even if my expectations will be proven totally wrong. But at the very least, let’s not wring our hands over prospects of a president hobbled from the start.

The electoral cycle (honeymoon elections) and the electoral system (majority-plurality) work very much in the incoming president’s favor, and these patterns may well hold even for a president from a new and untested party.

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(I corrected a really bad mistake in the paragraph starting “Note that…”; the point of the post is not being changed, it is just being made more accurately.)

So much for fixed terms

Barring a further unexpected turn of events, it seems the UK government has an answer to the question of whether an early election can be called, despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. [Update: the measure to call the election has passed.]

Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated that she wants a snap election. In May, of course–Alas, no, it is actually on 8 June.

Under the FTPA, parliament can be dissolved early only if (1) the government loses confidence and a resolution of confidence in a government (whether the original or a new one) is not passed within 14 days, or (2) the House of Commons votes by two-thirds of its total number to dissolve itself.

May is seeking the latter, and with opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying he “welcomes” an election, the vote is likely to go ahead.

May’s Conservatives have a narrow majority in the current Commons. The snap election is likely to give the party a much bigger one. This may not do much to strengthen the government’s hand with the EU in Brexit negotiations (the ostensible justification), but it should strengthen its hand against its own back-benchers.

Recommended: Alan Renwick’s take.

France 2017 presidential scenarios

The graphic at this link shows a wide range of scenarios for potential runoff pairings for the French presidential contest. It comes from a recent Les Echos poll.

The most likely overall scenario remains Emanuel Macron (independent center-left) beating Marine Le Pen (National Front) in the second round. He also beats François Fillon (Republican) by the same margin, 65-35.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Left Front, does better than I would have expected against various potential runoff opponents, beating Le Pen, 63-37, and Fillon, 59-41. While the idea of Mélenchon making it to the runoff is still a stretch, various recent polls have shown him having surged to within a few percentage points of second place in the first round.

The potential runoff pairing of Le Pen and Fillon is the most worrisome. While Le Pen still loses, it is closer, at 58-42.

Macron beats Mélenchon in the closest (and probably least likely) of these scenarios, 54-46.

Macron has been slipping in first-round polls. What once seemed certain–that he would make the top two and then easily win the runoff–now looks somewhat less so. His position as a runoff contender has become more precarious, with a crowd of three (Macron, Fillon, Mélenchon) along with Le Pen (who is almost certainly going to finish first, or at worst second if Macron recovers).

These results are what always trouble me about two-round majority systems. It is not unusual for the main contest to be for the second slot, and for two or more candidates to be vying for it. And sometimes the runoff pairing can make quite a difference. Fortunately, there is no very likely scenario in which Le Pen draws such a weak opponent that she wins.

Yet the pairing with the scandal-plagued Fillon should give voters pause. Behind whom to coordinate to block him? The obvious choice is, of course, Macron. But Mélenchon may be more competitive than even recent polls suggest, if still more left-wing voters dessert Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate with no realistic chance of making it to the runoff. Fortunately, as noted, even Mélenchon looks to beat Le Pen, though I’d take a scenario that voters may not have really digested yet with a grain of salt.

The first round is on 23 April.