Did Greece just have a normal election?

The Greek general election of July, 2019, may have been about as “normal” as they get. After the country’s period of crisis–economic and political–things seem to have settled down. The incumbent party, Syriza (“Radical Left”), which saw the country through the crisis got booted out, and the old conservative New Democracy got voted in.

Of course, around here when we refer to an election as “normal” it means it conforms to the Seat Product Model (SPM). Applying the SPM to an electoral system as complex as that of Greece is not straightforward. However, based on some calculations I did from breaking the system down to its component parts (an approach I always advocate in the face of complexity), it seems we have a result that conforms to a plausible interpretation of its “expectation”.

The basics of the electoral system are as follows: there are 300 seats, of which 50 are an automatic bonus to the party with a plurality of the vote, while the remainder are allocated as if there were one nationwide district. The “as if” is key here. In fact, there are 59 districts. In other words, the district magnitudes in which the election plays out for voters and candidates are quite small. There are 12 seats in a nationwide compensatory tier [EDIT: see below], so we have 288 basic-tier seats for a mean district magnitude of around 4. (I am not going to go into all the further details of this very complex system, as these will suffice for present purposes; Election Resources has a great detailed summary of the oft-changed Greek electoral system.)

To check my understanding that the system is as if nationwide PR for 250 seats, plus 50 for the plurality party, I offer the following table based on the official results. Note that there are two columns for percent of seats, one based on 250 and the other based on the full 300. For the largest party, ND, the “% seats out of 250” is based on 108 seats, because we are not including the 50 bonus seats in this column.

Party % votes seats % seats out of 250 % seats out of 300
Nea Dimokratia 39.9 158 43.2 52.7
Syriza 31.5 86 34.4 28.7
Kin.Al 8.1 22 8.8 7.3
KKE 5.3 15 6.0 5.0
Elliniki Lysi 3.7 10 4.0 3.6
Mera25 3.4 9 3.6 3.0
14 others 8.1 0 0.0 0.0

We can see that the seat percentages out of 250 are close to the vote percentages, as we would expect if the system acts as if it were nationwide PR (not counting the bonus). More to the point, we would expect all parties, even the smallest that win seats, to be over-represented somewhat, due to the nationwide threshold. That is indeed what we see. Over 8% of the votes were wasted on parties that failed to clear the threshold. The largest of these, Laikos Syndesmos, had 2.93%. The threshold is 3%. No other party had even 1.5%.

It is clear that the system has worked in this election exactly as intended. The largest party has a majority of seats, due to the bonus, but even the percentages out of 300 are close to proportionality–far more than they would be if Greece tried to “manufacture” majorities via FPTP or two-round majority instead of “bonus-adjusted PR”.

The effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) is 2.70. It would have been 3.13 based on the indicated parties’ percentages of seats out of 250. So the bonus provision has reduced NS by 13.7%. (The effective number of vote-earning parties, NV, is 3.68, calculated on all the separate parties’ actual vote shares.)

But what about the SPM? With 288 seats in districts and 12 nationwide, we technically have a basic-tier seat product of 288 x 4 (total seats in the basic tier, times the mean magnitude). However, this includes the 50 bonus seats, which are actually assigned to districts, but clearly not allocated according to the rules that the SPM works on: they are just cream on top, not a product of seat allocation rules in the basic tier and certainly not due to compensation. So, what percentage of seats, excluding the bonus, are allocated in districts? That would be 288/300=0.96, which out of 250 yields a “shadow” basic-tier size of 240 (96% of 250). So our adjusted basic-tier seat product is 240 x 4=960.

In a “simple” system (no compensatory tier as well as no bonus), we would expect, based on the Seat Product Model formula, that the effective number of seat-winning parties would be NS=9601/6=3.14. We would expect the size of the largest party to be s1=960–1/8=0.424. Note that these are already really close to the values we see in the table for the 250-seats, pre-bonus, allocation, which are 3.13 and 0.432. I mean, really, we could hardly get more “normal”.

[Added, 14 July: The following paragraph and calculations are based on a misunderstanding. However, they do not greatly affect the substantive conclusions, as best I can tell. The system is two-tier PR, of the “remainder-pooling” variety. However, the 12 seats referred to as a nationwide tier are not the full number of compensatory seats. With remainder-pooling systems it is not always straightforward to know the precise number of seats that were allocated above the level of the basic tier. Nonetheless, the definition here of the basic tier seems correct to me, even if I got the nationwide portion wrong. Thanks to comments by JD and Manuel for calling my attention to this.]

Nonetheless, there is a nationwide compensation tier, and if we take that into account through the “extended” SPM, we would multiply the above expected values by 2.50.04=1.037, according to the formula explained in Votes from Seats. (The 0.04 is the share of seats in the upper, compensatory, tier; 100–0.96). This is obviously a minor detail in this system, because the upper tier is so small (again, not yet counting the bonus seats). Anyway, with this we get expected values of NS=1.037 x 3.14=3.26. We do not have a formula for the largest seat winning party (s1) in two-tier PR, but one can be determined arithmetically to lead to the following adjustment: s1=0.973 x 0.424=0.413. (This is based on applying to the extended SPM for Nthe formula, s1=NS–3/4, as documented in Votes from Seats [and its online appendix] as well as Taagepera (2007).) I believe these are the “right” figures for what we should expect the outputs of this system to be, on average and without taking election-specific politics into account, given this is not a “simple” (single-tier PR) system even before the bonus seats are taken into account.

Out of 250 seats, 41.3% is 103. The ND actually won 108 pre-bonus seats. The 50 bonus seats then would get the party to an expected 153, which would be 51.0%. It actually got 52.7%.

So, as we deconstruct the electoral system into its relatively simpler components, we get an impact on the party system that is expected to result in a bare-majority party. As for NS, values are generally around s1–4/3, which with s1=0.51, would be 2.45, which is somewhat lower than the actually observed 2.70. But perhaps the actual relationship of s1 to NS should be something between a “typical” party system with a largest party on 51% of the seats (2.45) and the party system we expect from 250 seats with Greece’s pre-bonus two-tier PR system (3.26). The geometric average of these two figures would be 2.82. The actual election yielded NS=2.70, which is pretty close. OK, so maybe the similarly of this value of NS to our “expectation” came out via luck. But it sure looks like as normal a result as we could expect from this electoral system.

Of course, in 2015, when there were two elections, the country was in crisis and the outcome was rather more fragmented than this. I am not sure when the 50-seat bonus was implemented; it used to be 40. So I am reluctant to go back to the pre-crisis elections and see if outcomes were “normal” before, or if this 2019 result is just a one-off.

For the record, in September, 2015, the largest party had 48.3% and NS=3.24; in January, 2015, the figures were 49.7% and 3.09. These are hardly dramatic differences from the expectations I derived above (51.0% and 2.82), but they are more fragmented (particularly in terms of higher NS albeit only marginally in terms of a lower s1). So, all in all, maybe the Greek electoral system is not as complex as I think it is, and all its elections fall within the range of normal for such a system. But this 2019 election seems normaler than most.

Electoral reform’s comeback in the United Kingdom

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog in which I argued that the increased vote shares for the two major parties in the United Kingdom at the 2017 election, and the relatively low levels of disproportionality that this had created, meant that no political party would be able to have both the incentive and ability to change the electoral system.

Since then, things have changed somewhat.

The inability of Theresa May’s government to propose a Brexit deal which would satisfy parliament and the reluctance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to express its full-throated opposition to Brexit has led to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage forming the new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens making considerable headway. At European Parliament elections held in May of this year, the Conservatives and Labour won just 22% of the vote between them, with the Brexit Party finishing in a comfortable first and the Liberal Democrats coming second. Since then, the Conservatives and Labour have also plummeted in polling for Commons elections, with only a few percentage points seperating them and the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats.

Now, the Brexit Party have joined the Liberal Democrats, regionalist parties, and Greens, long advocates for the cause of electoral reform, in calling for the replacement of first-past-the-post with an as-yet unspecified proportional electoral system. While it may seem slightly unusual for Farage’s party to be promoting an idea that is more often associated with the left wing of politics in the United Kingdom, it can be explained with reference to the potential uncertainty that the party has about the number of seats they could win under FPTP given that current estimates of their support are around 20%. While all such predictions should be taken with a grain of salt given the dramatic changes in party support, one analysis of opinion polling suggests that 20% of the vote for the Brexit Party could translate into just 68 seats, while the Conservatives’ 23% would translate into 193 seats and Labour’s 25% would secure them 257 seats.

In such circumstances, the Brexit Party may well see it as wiser to argue for an electoral system that guarantees them a stable share of seats, rather than entering into the potential lottery of a near four-way tie under FPTP. However, does this logic apply to the ‘major’ Labour and Conservative parties? After all, they lead the Brexit and Liberal Democrats only narrowly, and this lead could be erased by a weak campaign, leaving them with a potentially disastrous seat haul.

Would either of these two major parties be willing to change their positions on electoral reform? Labour may appear to have a more substantial ideological committment to electoral reform: after all, then-leader Ed Miliband backed the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum and a Labour government introduced list PR for European elections, MMP for devolved assemblies, and the Supplementary Vote for directly elected mayoralties. The Conservatives opposed AV, and promised to roll back MMP for the London assembly and the Supplementary Vote in their 2017 manifesto.

However, in this case the political logic of the electoral system may run the other way. The histograms below show the share of the vote cast for the Labour and Conservative parties at the 2017 election, in seats where each party won. As can be seen, Labour have more winners with higher majorities than the Conservatives, who won virtually all of their seats with less than 62.5% of the vote.


(data from Constituency Level Election Archive)

This suggests that the Conservative seat total may be more vulnerable to a dramatic drop in the party’s vote share than Labour, which has more seats in which they can afford to lose a large share of their vote. This is reflected in the aforementioned Electoral Calculus analysis, which gives the Conservatives 64 fewer seats than Labour for a vote share slightly less than two percentage points lower. As such, a switch to PR may make more political sense for the Conservatives, despite their long ideological committment to FPTP.

At this stage, talk of electoral reform is somewhat theoretical: as wrangling over Brexit continues, Parliament is unlikely to be able to find time to dedicate to the complicated exercise of changing the electoral systen, and the currently pro-PR parties have only derisory representation in this Parliament. However, if the next Prime Minister is unable to deal with their slim majority in this Parliament, a new election may bring these issues to a head, and bring the problems of the FPTP system in a four-party system out of the realm of the theoretical.

Open-list PR and the definition of antisemitism

Here’s an unexpected convergence of my interests. Open-list PR has helped lead to a Finnish organization’s adoption of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism.

Via JPost:

The recently elected Finnish MP Hussein al-Taee, a supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was embroiled in an antisemitism, racism and homophobia scandal in May. After revelations in the Israeli and Finnish media about his antisemitic Facebook posts CMI [Crisis Management Initiative] scrubbed him from its website…

Alas he’s still in parliament. His preference votes placed him sixth on the SDP list, which won 7 seats In Uusimaa district; he was a mere 63 votes ahead of the list’s first loser.

It is possible that his views may have helped him edge out other candidates and win a seat. But on the positive side, his election evidently helped increase sensitivity of the CMI to anti-semitism.

Is there going to be an Israel 2019b?

Today, the Knesset of Israel took the first step towards passing a bill to dissolve itself and set an early election, probably in early September. This came after Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman said he would not join an emerging government coalition that he claimed would be a halakha government. He was referring to the demands in such a coalition of the two Haredi Knesset factions, Shas and United Torah Judaism. (Halakha is Jewish law.)

It is still possible that this is all an elaborate ploy by PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his various allies to pressure Liberman into backing down. However, Liberman himself has said he welcomes new elections, and the preliminary reading of the elections bill passed with 65 votes, or exactly the number that the putative right/Haredi coalition would have if Yisrael Beitenu’s five seats are included.

In the 2019(a?) election in April, Netanyahu’s Likud won 35 seats, and the two Haredi lists 8 each. Add to those the seats of “soft right” Kulanu (4) and ultranationalist Union of Right Parties (5) and you get 60, exactly half the Knesset. These 60 seats could be sufficient to form and maintain a government, as long as Liberman and his YB do not vote against its investiture. Would they really vote with the left and Arab parties to stop its formation? It seems unlikely. Given the constructive vote of no confidence now in place in Israeli Basic Law, it would take at 61 seats to elect an alternative government in order to oust an already in-place minority government. It is even harder to imagine YB voting for any actual alternative at some future point in the life of the government. Nonetheless, Netanyahu clearly wants a majority coalition, even though pleasing all those small and essential partners would not make such a government notably more stable than a minority one.

It is also possible to imagine a flexible coalition deal in which YB is allowed to vote against the version of the Haredi conscription bill that Liberman objects to. However, the Knesset is under a Supreme Court deadline (oft-extended) to pass something to replace the current law, and it is not clear if any majority can be found for one. Yet the Haredi parties insist that the law be “fixed” to protect their constituencies from being drafted, because the reversion point is a law they dislike even more (i.e., there would suddenly be a requirement for many more enlistments from the ultra-orthodox constituencies, which is something that even the army is not exactly clamoring for).

So, unless a compromise can be struck by Wednesday, it seems the train is in motion for Israel to have two general elections in the same year for the first time in its history.

And I guess that means I’d be asked by the editors to update my chapter on the electoral system for the almost in-press Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society yet again.

Ukraine will have an early election

Well, it did not take long to learn the answer to my question. Yes, Ukraine will have an early election, as President Volodomyr Zelenskyy announced on 19 May in his inaugural address. And thus, no, the current electoral system will not be replaced just yet.

The election is expected to be in July, a scenario I already discussed in the earlier post.

In the context of all this, today (20 May) the Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman, announced his resignation.

There had been a report last week that a dissolution of the coalition in the assembly would prevent the new president from calling an early election (because it would buy the assembly time to attempt to find, under terms of the constitution, an alternative premier they can agree on). But evidently not.

Ukraine: Possible early election and electoral reform (again?)

According to Hromadske (15 May), newly elected Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy is considering dissolving parliament. Moreover, there is also consideration of electoral reform in a country that seems almost never to hold more than an election or two under the same rules.

Currently, an election to the national assembly is scheduled for 27 October. At about six months out from the presidential election, that timing is clearly a “honeymoon” election, and we know the impact those have. But waiting that long is not ideal for Zelenskyy, given he has almost no partisan support in the current assembly, having cobbled together his own campaign vehicle for his presidential run. His newly formed party is named after the TV show that made him famous, Servant of the People.

In the first round of the presidential election, on 31 March, Zelenskyy placed first with 30.2%, nearly doubling the runner-up, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. In third place was perennial candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, with 13.4%. Four others had between 5% and 12%. There were thirty nine candidates in total! In the second round (21 April), Zelenskyy crushed Poroshenko, with nearly 75% of the valid votes cast. (I wonder if it would have been closer if Tymoshenko had made the runoff, or more competitive if ranked-choice voting had moved her or another candidate up into the final two.)

If the election goes ahead in late October as planned, it would be held with about 10% of the presidential inter-electoral period elapsed. The equation reported in Votes from Seats would imply that the Servant of the People party could expect around a third of the vote. (See my entry immediately after Macron’s win in France for the equation, graph of data from many countries, and discussion; note that our equation is based on first-round votes, and any fit to actual data would be much worse if runoff votes were used.)

One might understand why he thinks that is not enough. It is not clear to me what the date of the election might be if it is moved up. But let’s say it was 28 July instead. That would mean about 5% of the inter-electoral period elapsed, which would lead to an estimated vote share for the president’s party of… 34.5%. In other words, it is hardly worth the trouble!

Of course, the actual figure could be above these estimates–or below. One poll alluded to in Hromadske said that Servant of the People was the choice of only 25% of the people, a figure that would be a pretty disappointing honeymoon result. The more important point is that a three-month difference in timing does not really matter much for the honeymoon effect. Further, with no existing party to speak of, it might even be smart to allow more time to build the party and recruit candidates. And here is where the question of electoral system choice comes in.

Some electoral systems would be more demanding for candidate recruitment by a fledgling party than others. The current system is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) and consists of 225 single-seat districts (plurality) and 225 closed-list seats (single nationwide district). Finding viable candidates to be personal representatives of the party in 225 districts is more of a challenge than filling out a closed list.

In fact, this challenge is mentioned in the Hromadske article, which states, correctly in my view, that “Returning to the closed list proportional electoral system would be most beneficial to the president-elect and his team.”  The “return” referred to here would be to the system used in 2006 and 2007 that used a single nationwide district for all 450 seats, and a closed list.

Other systems that are under consideration in the current parliament are a regionalization of the list component, and an “open list”. (I am not sure they really mean an open list, as that term has been applied misleadingly to a current local electoral system that is more along the lines of district-ordered list.) Regarding the latter option, Hromadske notes, “For Zelenskyy, it is easier to handpick a list of candidates [for a closed list], than to look for people, known locally in the regions, who could potentially win in an open list system.”

If the election is called early, of course the current system will prevail. Whether Zelenskyy can get the election earlier depended on precisely when he would be inaugurated (Hromadske explains). The date for the inauguration was just set in a vote on 16 May to take place on 20 May. This seems to allow time for an early dissolution, as the Hromadske article states that Zelenskyy and his team figured the last date for making such a decision was 27 May (though one loophole could allow that to be extended into June, perhaps).

Ukraine has developed a record of consistent changes of government and legislative majorities through elections, yet it has been anything but consistent with its electoral rules, or election timing.

Spain 2019

Spain’s general election was on 28 April, the third one since December of 2015. For the third time in a row, the largest party will have under 40% of the seats. This time it is the Socialists (PSOE) in first place, with just 35.1% (123 of 350 seats) on only 28.7% of the nationwide vote. The last two times it had been the Popular Party (PP), but this time that party lost 69 seats to end up at 66, or 18.9% (on 16.7% of the votes). Two newer parties, whose breakthrough in 2015 had so much to do with the sharp decline in the two big parties’ votes and seats, are Ciudadanos (C’s) and Podemos. The C’s also gained, up 25 seats for a total of 57 (16.3% on 15.7% of the votes), while Podemos slipped considerably, down 24 seats to 42 (12.0% on 14.3% of the votes).

Then there’s Vox, the new nationalist party, which won 24 seats, which is 6.9%, on 10.3% of the vote. Note how significantly underrepresented Vox is, signifying its strength in rural areas which, under Spain’s electoral system, have low magnitudes (although with malapportionment, not as low as they would be if district magnitudes were redistributed to match current population shares).

The rest of the seats, as is typical, were mostly won by regional parties, with the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) being the largest, with 15 seats (4.3% on 3.9% of the total national vote). This is an increase of 6 seats over the last election.

Overall, the parties of the left did well. But the PSOE and Podemos remain short of a majority, unless they accept the support of the ERC. Which, of course, might only feed the strength of the right for next time, including Vox.

In some ways, it was actually a pretty typical Spanish result. The districted PR system, in which there are 52 districts for the 350 seats, once again allowed the two largest parties to be significantly over-represented (at least by the standards of the PR family of systems), and some smaller ones to be under-represented, except if they are regionally based. Of course, many of them are, and several of the smaller regional parties tend to be over-represented, due to having all their votes concentrated in a few districts (which often have moderate-low district magnitude). Of course, in the past–up to 2011 when the PP won a majority of seats–the two biggest parties were much more dominant in votes and therefore in seats than they have been in these past three elections. (The PP’s vote in 2011 was 44.6%; yes, manufactured majorities can happen under PR, such as when average district magnitude is on the low side.)

Note that, despite having had only 85 seats at the last election, the PSOE was the governing party going into this election, as a result of the constructive vote of no-confidence in the PP minority government in June, 2018.