Term limits for a prime minister?

Lots of presidents have term limits–either one term or two, typically (and with variations in whether an interim out of office permits a later return). But terms limits on prime ministers are rare. The only cases that come to mind are Botswana and South Africa. Just to confuse things, those countries call their chief executive “president”; however, they (together with their cabinets) are responsible to the majority in the assembly, and thus these are prime ministers in the sense of heads of government whose political survival depends on parliamentary confidence.

Given the small number of cases, there may not be much of a literature in political science or law about term-limiting prime ministers. I am wondering if readers are aware of anything that one should read to understand the implications and possible motivations for term limits on assembly-responsible executives.

The question of term-limiting the prime minister comes up now and then in Israel, including in the current campaign, where New Hope Party leader Gideon Saar has said the first bill he would advance if he becomes Prime Minister would set a term limit of eight years. The idea has come up also in the past. Once upon a time, apparently even none other than Benjamin Netanyahu thought it was a good idea; this was, of course, before serving 2009–21 (and perhaps beyond) in the position. The issue comes up at times elsewhere as well (such as Grenada and St. Kitts and such a measure was passed, controversially, in Iraq). (Edit: in a comment, JD notes that Belize and Thailand have term limits in their prime ministers.)

I would generally suspect that the logic of term limits (prevent one person for monopolizing power) fits poorly with the logic of parliamentarism (the head of government serves at the pleasure of the assembly majority). But apparently any such poor fit does not prevent the idea surfacing here and there. It would be especially challenging to formulate a workable term-limit provision in a country that often has early elections–sometimes very early and frequent ones–like Israel.

Czechia: Constitutional Court rules lower house electoral system not proportional enough

The Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that the country’s current electoral system does not adequately fulfil the constitution’s requirement of being in accordance with “the principles of proportional representation” (article 18 of the Czech constitution). The 200 members of the Chamber of Deputies are currently elected under Flexible List-PR in 14 districts ranging in magnitude from 5 to 26, with a nationwide threshold of 5% for parties and 10% for alliance lists. The Constitutional Court struck down the districting scheme on the grounds that it disadvantages small parties, as well as the 10% threshold for lists of more than one party.

As an election is scheduled for October, Parliament will have to agree fairly quickly on a new districting scheme to replace the one the Court has struck down. Unusually, since the Senate usually only has a suspensive veto the Chamber of Deputies can override immediately by absolute majority, article 40 of the constitution requires the electoral law to be approved by consent of both houses.

What is somewhat ironic is that the case was brought to the Supreme Court by a group of 21 members of the Senate, a house which is not required to be elected by PR and is instead elected by runoff in single-seat districts (with elections to the Senate being fairly low salience and *very* low turnout, it has seen some success by minor parties despite the system’s lack of proportionality).

In Memory of Gerhard Loewenberg

The following is the text of a memorial lecture I gave for Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg on the occasion of his first yarzheit. I delivered it remotely on behalf of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor; I explain how it came about in the lecture itself. The following text includes some paragraphs that I had to skip in the live session (viewable on YouTube) due to time constraints.

________

Comparative Legislatures: Or What America and Israel can learn from Germany

The legislature is the single most important institution of a democratic political system. Yet legislatures are puzzling in terms of how they are able to function, and they tend to be disliked, even reviled, by democratic publics everywhere. Professor Gerhard Loewenberg dedicated his professional life to advancing the comparative analysis of legislatures, and in his last book, published in 2011 (other than his highly engaging memoir from 2012), he wrote about how puzzling the legislative institution is.

On the one hand, he wrote, a legislature consists of technically equal representatives. Each one, upon being seated after having won an election, has the same status as any other. Every one has just one vote on any matter that comes before the chamber for decision. A legislature is a collective body, comprised of equal individual legislators. Yet, as we know from some of the most important studies of social science, collective decision-making is difficult and prone to failure—unless some institution or leader within the legislature is endowed with authority to set the agenda, control members’ speaking time, and otherwise manage the proceedings. Of course, as soon as someone has been given power to do these tasks, by definition the legislators are no longer equal. Some of them have been awarded additional power over the others, some will not be able to speak as much as they wish, and various rules will limit the admissibility of amendments to bills that legislators may hope to advance. 

Moreover, given the complexity of decision making for a modern society, no one legislator can possibly be knowledgeable about all the issues that come before the body demanding a decision. So, legislative chambers establish committees and other means of having some legislators specialize in one set of policies while others specialize in different topics. Again, this changes them from formally equal to at least potentially having outsized influence over specific policies. For instance, members of the agriculture committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage than their colleagues over policy related to food supply and farm subsidies, while members of the health committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage over policies in that topic. And so on.

These organizational questions—agenda control and committee structure—are among the topics that have fascinated researchers in comparative legislative studies. They are also presumably the key to why voters tend to hold legislative institutions in such disdain. Crafting legislation is something of a dark art, out of the view of most voters. And when they tune in to C-Span or equivalent elsewhere, they may like what they seen even less than they’d imagined. They will often see a mostly empty chamber, or an endless series of procedural measures that make no sense to outsiders. It is all quite “mystifying” as Jerry said in his book, On Legislatures: The Puzzle of Representation

Yet without an elected legislature, you have no democracy. Actual democracies vary in whether they have two legislative chambers or one, whether they have an elected presidency or a ceremonial one (or none at all or even a monarch), and in whether courts can overturn legislation on various grounds. But no country would be called a democracy without having at least one chamber of a legislature elected by the citizens. The legislature is the one political institution that has the greatest claim on being able to represent a microcosm of citizen preferences and interests, and advancing majority rule, the central democratic principle. How much an actual legislature fulfills this central mission is quite variable, as I shall get into in more detail later. But no one can deny the absolute centrality of a legislature, and its representative function, to democracy. 

Given the importance of legislatures to democracy, then understanding these institutions is central to understanding how democracy works, and how representation and democratic policy-making can be improved. It was for the purpose of advancing such understanding that Jerry Loewenberg not only devoted his own career, but also established an entire sub-field and an important journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, in political science devoted to the study of legislatures around the world. 

**

In my remarks this evening, I want to use the cases mentioned in my title—the USA, Israel, and Germany—as examples of what we can learn when we compare legislatures in different countries to one another. Because it is Chanukah, which celebrates an earlier recovery of Jewish national and cultural autonomy in our ancient homeland, this season is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the institutions that maintain the Jewish people’s newly recovered sovereignty in recent times. Moreover, Chanukah is all about bringing light into the darkest of times, as well as a season when Messianic yearnings have long been heightened in our tradition. It may seem strange to say so, especially to my political-scientist friends tuning in, but I see the study of democratic institutions, and especially the promotion of reforms to improve their performance on behalf of a nation, in quasi-Messianic terms. That is, democracy as a set of institutions for governance may be flawed, because they are human-devised. It may even be “the worst of all forms of government, except for all the others” than have been tried from time to time, as Churchill famously remarked. A major theme of Jewish tradition is establishing the Kingdom of Heaven—or more specifically, of offering a challenge to governments that fail to serve the broad interests of the community, including its cultural minorities, over which they claim the right to rule. Until the Kingdom of Heaven is established some day—and whether or not it is anyway meaningful to you that it might be some day—improving democracy is an essential task for our time. Democracy in Israel and the United States has been enduring some dark times of late. It is my hope that comparative legislative studies can shed some light on how democracy works, and how it can be improved. A tikkun, a repair, is in order for democracy. How can learning about different democracies help us think about making government work better? This is my rather lofty ambition for today’s remarks.

**

I will focus mainly on the comparison of the US and Israel, as the two counties’ legislative structures are about as different as any two can be. I will then ask if there might be a middle ground between the extremes represented by the American and Israeli cases. And the answer may be surprising—it is the German case. Or perhaps not so surprising, given that we are here to reflect on the contributions of Gerhard Loewenberg, who emigrated from Germany with his family before the Nazi takeover, and who returned to do research on the Bundestag in the decade-and-a-half following the establishment of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany.

But before I go into the substantive topic, I want to say a little about myself and specifically how I came to be honored with the invitation to give this memorial address.

My own field is indeed comparative legislatures, although until completing a book that will be out in the spring of 2021, most of my research has not been on the internal organization of legislatures, but rather on two aspects of how legislatures are related to the wider political system: (1) the electoral system, defined as the set of rules determining how candidates become legislators; and (2) how legislatures relate to the executive, i.e., either a prime minister or an elected president (or sometimes, as in France and Poland or the pre-war Weimar Republic of Germany, both) and the cabinet. 

My forthcoming book, entitled Party Personnel, is about committees of legislatures—the German and Israeli cases (but not the US) are among the cases included; the book also analyzes the committee systems of Portugal, Japan, Britain, and New Zealand. I am the lead author, and my coauthors and I ask how the electoral system shapes the ways in which individual legislators are assigned to one committee or another. The process of assigning legislators to specific committees is, in all these cases, managed by political party organizations within the legislature.

For instance, political parties might assign their legislators according to expertise developed in their pre-legislative careers (their occupational background). Or the assignments might be made according to their ability to draw votes from a district the party needs to win (assuming the electoral system consists of large number of districts where specific local candidates run, which is not always the case, as we’ll see). These two possible motivations for parties are often in tension! Those legislators who are best at winning additional votes beyond what some “generic” party nominee might win in a local district contest may be only loosely correlated—if at all—with those who have the policy expertise from their prior occupation (lawyer, healthcare worker, teacher, farmer, etc.). And the electoral system is one of the key things shaping which criteria loom largest in a party’s decision about committee assignments. Or so we say in Party Personnel.

Only recently did I purchase a used copy of Dr. Loewenberg’s first book, Parliament in the German System, published in 1967. I was amazed when I began reading it to see how much it foreshadows the kind of questions that motivate my forthcoming book. For instance, in Table 20 of the book we find a summary of the percentage of legislators who come from various occupational backgrounds—lawyers, teachers, business owners, etc.–and it is comparative. It shows not only the figures for the German Bundestag that had been elected in 1957, but also comparable summaries for the UK, France, and Italy. It tracks, for the Bundestag and by political party, the percentage who serve on occupationally related committees (i.e., where their parties are taking advantage of members’ policy expertise) and their tendency to speak in the Bundestag on matters in their speciality vs. as generalists. All this sort of thing is in our Party Personnel book, for more recent German election years and various elections in seven other countries—but we have it a lot easier, thanks to rather bigger computer data processing power than existed over fifty years ago! It is really amazing to me how far ahead of his time Jerry was in thinking about these issues of how different legislatures and political parties make use of expertise in the legislative process. Moreover, the table is itself such a work of art; I just love these fold-out pages. I normally see them in atlases or books with panoramic photos, but the presentation of statistics in this manner is such a sight to behold!

**

Table 20 of Gerhard Loewenberg, Parliament in the German Political System (Cornell University Press, 1967)

When my coauthors and I were finishing up the draft of our book to submit to a publisher for review, we got the news of Jerry’s passing. Because it is a book on comparative legislatures, and because the path the book seeks to advance is grounded firmly in Jerry’s contributions to the field, my coauthors and I immediately made the decision to dedicate our book to his memory.

**

But that still does not explain why I am here, speaking at a memorial hosted by Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, when I myself am in California. For that, I have Rabbi Nadav Caine to thank. And, strangely enough, the pandemic, or more precisely how the pandemic has changed Jewish community. Rabbi Caine was our rabbi back in San Diego; we have known each other for about a dozen years. One Friday night a few months ago, my wife and I played the YouTube recording of the Beth Israel Shabbat evening service, to reconnect with Rabbi Caine and his family, leading the Shabbat service from their home. And at the section where the Rabbi reads the names of those being remembered, I heard… Gerhard Loewenberg. Could it be? It must be. And so I emailed Rabbi Caine after Shabbat. And he told me about Jerry’s daughter, Deborah, being part of the Ann Arbor community. And so, here we are together, thanks to Zoom!

***

I now want to turn to the substantive application of some of the lessons of comparative legislative studies—the case-study section, so to speak. I want to start by sketching some of the key differences between the US and Israeli cases. Then I will bring in the German case a little later. I will mention a few other countries along the way. Hey, it is all about comparative legislatures, after all, so we need to compare, and try to learn from, the experiences of different countries! 

As I said at the start, there are few pairs of long-term democracies that illustrate the extreme poles of legislative and broader institutional design than do the US and Israel.

First of all, the US is, of course, a presidential system, whereas Israel is parliamentary. As the work of comparative legislative scholarship has long recognized, this basic difference in how the executive functions creates fundamental differences in the role of the legislature. Put simply, the most important role of a legislature in a parliamentary system is to produce—and maintain in office or dismiss—the executive. By definition, the prime minister and executive cabinet in a parliamentary system must have the support of a majority of legislators—or at least not the active opposition of a majority. If the majority wants a different prime minister and cabinet, it can act to replace them, or in most cases, an early election can be called.

(The Israeli case has recently taken this to yet greater extreme, having had three elections between April 2019, and March, 2020. As we speak, it seems likely there will be an election in March, 2021, or perhaps June. The term of a Knesset is nominally four years, but it’s looking like four elections in a period of about two years! While this is obviously not an ideal situation, I hope to convince you that it is not so bad. Instead of imposing a government supported by less than a majority of the voters—as the 2016 US presidential election did—it requires the politicians to have the backing of representatives of a majority of the voters and, when political conditions prevent smooth governance, to go back to the public to renew or revise their consent to govern.)

In contrast to the parliamentary model used in Israel and most of Europe, in a presidential system, by definition the head of the government is elected separately. Legislators in presidential systems have no role in choosing the head of government, and also are unable to depose the head before the end of the constitutional term, absent a process that requires more than a simple majority (as the Trump impeachment process served to demonstrate). 

So this—the executive type—is the first major difference between the American and Israeli legislatures.

A second fundamental difference is that the US Congress is, of course, bicameral. House and Senate. Not only are there these two chambers, but they are equally powerful and elected in very different manners. Israel is unicameral. Because it is unicameral and parliamentary, the only national voting choice Israeli voters make is when they are called to the polls to elect a new Knesset.

The third fundamental difference is in how the legislatures are elected—the electoral system. Here I will take the US House and the Israeli Knesset as the first point of comparison, and then bring in the US Senate afterwards. The electoral systems for the House and the Knesset are diametrically opposed in their institutional design: In the US House, every member is elected as the sole representative of his or her district. There are thus as many districts as there are members—435. (Which, by the way, is awfully small to represent a country this large, but I’ll leave that aside.)

However, in Israel there are no districts. Or more accurately, there is one district. All 120 members are elected nationwide. Whereas a US House member is the candidate who wins the most votes in a local district, the Knesset is elected according to proportional representation. Israeli voters do not vote for candidates at all. They vote for a party list. Each list is composed of candidates nominated by the party, and given a priority ranking—what political scientists call a “closed list.” (Other types of list–“open” or “flexible” allow voters to favor one or more candidates within a party’s list.)

So given the closed lists used in Israeli elections, suppose a given list has earned 10% of the votes, Then it will win approximately 12 of the 120 seats, and the winners will be the first 12 candidates on its list. There is a threshold, currently 3.25% of the votes. A list that gets less than that will have no seats. But any list that clears 3.25% will be represented. This is a system designed so as to make room for a lot of parties, and lo and behold, it does! 

In fact, based on predictive models developed in one of my earlier books, we should expect Israel’s Knesset to have about 11 lists with representation, and the largest one to have about 30% of the seats, which would be 36 seats. Thirty six happens to be just one more than the number the two most popular lists tied for in April, 2019. But in elections since then, and in many over the last two decades, the leading list has had even fewer seats—sometimes not even 30 seats (which is 25%). That’s a pretty small leading party—not even half the total number of seats needed to comprise a governing majority!

Note that I have been using “list” and “party” more or less interchangeably. Nonetheless, when talking about Israeli elections and Knesset politics, these terms are distinct. Often there are lists that are presented by alliances of two or more parties. For instance, the Joint List consists of four distinct parties representing Arab citizens of Israel, the Yamina is a list of various ultra-nationalist and Religious Zionist parties, and Blue and White contested the last several elections as an alliance of three distinct centrist parties.

The key is that the electoral system works by allocating seats proportionally to lists, and is designed so as to allow many such lists to win. The most recent election, for example, resulted in just 8 lists getting seats, somewhat lower than the typical 10-12. However, the number of parties is greater, and sometimes partners in elections break up and operate separately in the Knesset. In fact, this is what happened when Benny Gantz signed his coalition deal with Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz’s list from the election, Blue and White, split, and his election partner, Yair Lapid, became the leader of an opposition party while Gantz became part of the government. 

**

One of the most important things to understand of all this is that, (1) under the Israeli electoral system, a vote cast anywhere in the country has the same weight as a vote cast anywhere else, and (2), whatever percentage of votes a list gets, that is its (approximate) percentage of seats in the next Knesset. 

In the US, by stark contrast, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other. Thus only those voters who happen to live in districts that are closely contested really participate in determining whether control of the House will shift from one party to the other. In the US Senate, of course, there is even more variation across the country in the de-facto value of a vote. California gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, despite about a 70:1 difference in the states’ populations. And only a few states might determine whether control of this chamber of the national legislature might shift in an election—such as the flips of the seats in Arizona and Colorado this past November, and we’ll all be watching what voters in Georgia do in early January. 

So let’s pull it all together. In the US, voters elect a president and two chambers of congress separately. It is thus often the case that one of these three is held by a different party than at least one of the others, as has been the case since the 2018 election and was also the case for all but the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In the US, votes are aggregated only in local House districts or for the Senate in states of greatly varying population, rather than nationally. There are only two parties of any consequence, so one will have a majority in one or both chambers, and one will have the presidency, but again, no necessary partisan alignment across these institutions. And elections occur at fixed intervals, so if they can’t work together, we get gridlock instead of the Israeli recourse to an early election.

In Israel, there is only one national elected institution—the legislature. There are many parties, and the contest for votes and seats is fully nationwide. The prime minister and cabinet are products of bargaining among parties after an election to determine who can form a coalition capable of holding majority support in the Knesset. The cabinet might fall early, before the next scheduled election, if one or more parties decide not to continue working with their partners. And there can be an early election.

In the Israeli system, there is no local representation, except that a party might choose to place a former mayor or someone else with a local connection somewhere on their list (something they do rather rarely). Unlike in the US, Members of the Knesset have no local base in the sense of a place where voters have chosen them as an individual representative. 

***

For all the reasons just sketched, these two systems are as extreme as they can be in terms of what legislators represent and how they relate to the executive. The question thus might arise of whether it is possible to split the difference between these extremes. I will focus on just one dimension here—how the legislators are elected.

As I pointed out earlier, in the US, every legislator is elected in a unique district. That means, his or her election depends only on voters in one geographic subset of the country—435 different ones in the case of the House. (And each state in the case of the Senate.) By contrast, in Israel, they are elected in one national district, and on closed party or alliance lists.

Each of these has some basic advantages and some disadvantages. On the one hand, the US system makes life difficult for minor parties. Now, here I need to take a little excursus and interject something that even many of my political science colleagues get wrong! We have something called “Duverger’s law”, although calling it a “law” is a sure way to trigger me!!! 

I will try to spare you my long screed against it, but here is the short version. The famous French sociologist, Maurice Duverger, pointed out in the early 1950s that it is hard for parties other than two major ones to win seats when each member is elected by plurality (winner take all) in single-seat districts. This he called the “mechanical effect” because it concerns how the electoral system works to assign seats. And if it is hard for them to win seats, they don’t get many votes—voters don’t want to “waste” their votes on parties that can’t win. This is the so called psychological effect, also known as strategic voting or “lesser of two evils” voting.

The logic is sensible, but it is overstated. It certainly is not a law in the scientific sense (Duverger himself never claimed it was—he just said it was close to being a “true sociological law”). And it certainly is not a law in the sense of a binding constraint on voters or political elites. Nor should we expect it to be. In work that I have done with Rein Taagepera, we show that when there are a lot of districts—even ones electing just a single member, as in the US—there is a theoretical reason to expect parties beyond the top two to win some of those seats and to get significant vote percentages, even to the point of receiving votes in districts where they finish in a distant third place and thus are unable to win locally. And, empirically, this is true in other countries using the single-seat winner-take-all rules—Canada is multiparty, for instance. In the last Canadian election, the Liberal Party won only 33% of the votes and it was overrepresented, due to the non-proportional electoral system. But because it has 46% of the seats, short of a majority, it must take account of the views of other parties in order to govern.

The UK also has multiparty politics, albeit a lesser degree than in Canada. In 2010, a two-party coalition government formed, and after 2017, Theresa May’s government was in a minority in the House of Commons, because of the success of some smaller parties in winning seats.

So the US is a real outlier in having a rigid two-party system even given its electoral system, and even given Duverger’s so-called law. We should have more space in our congressional elections for Greens and Libertarians, and others, even without changing how members are elected. Nonetheless, it is true that it is much harder to get multiparty politics and minority representation using our electoral system than it would be if we used proportional representation.

Additionally, local representation really matters in US elections. It probably matters less than it used to, because voters are much more likely to vote straight party tickets nowadays than they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. (In those days, many districts had Democratic House members but the voters therein had favored Nixon or Reagan for president). Even with stronger party-line voting, we still see House members advertising what they have done on behalf of local communities and Senators emphasizing issues of concern to their states. They are local representatives even as they are also partisan actors. And this is a good thing! Local concerns that cross ideological and party lines need attention from policymakers as much as national policy challenges do.

So the US system makes it hard for minor parties to prosper, which is in many respects disadvantageous, particularly as the parties have become more distinct ideologically (“polarization”) in recent decades. But the US system offers local representation, which is in many respects advantageous.

In the Israeli case, there is certainly no problem with small parties getting seats! In fact, almost anyone—even a strong advocate for proportional representation and coalition governance like myself—would say in Israel the fragmentation of the choices into many small parties goes too far. It makes the formation of governments with a clear agenda for national policy challenges exceedingly difficult, and recently has resulted in three elections within eleven months because of the difficult interparty bargaining.

Yet a very big advantage of the Israeli system is that votes cast anywhere in the country contribute to the seat totals for their preferred parties (as long as they get at least 3.25% of the overall vote). So voters are equal, and the weight of my vote does not depend on the preferences of people who happen to live near me, as is the case in so much of the US where we might live in a safe state or district for one party and thus be essentially ignored at election time (even in presidential elections, given the electoral college). 

And a very big disadvantage of the Israeli system is the absence of local representation. Now, of course, Israel is a much smaller country than the US. But there are still are significant differences across the territory in terms of local infrastructural or other needs, and these do not get represented well in the legislative process for a very basic reason: no legislator in Israel is in any way accountable to local voters. The closed-list system means that they win solely based on their rank on the list, and how well their party performs in the nationwide vote.

So, I asked earlier whether it might be possible to combine the advantages of these two systems without taking in the disadvantages. Yes! Enter the German system.

In Germany, the members of the Bundestag are elected in what electoral-system terminology refers to as “two tiers”. There is one tier that consists of single-seat districts, thus resembling the American system (or those of Canada and Britain) in which a legislator is elected upon winning a plurality of votes in a geographically defined district. This election method comprises about half the seats in the Bundestag. 

The rest are elected in another tier from party lists, thus resembling the Israeli system. Each voters has two votes—one for a local representative (winner take all in their district) and one for a party list. The party list vote is more important for the overall composition of the legislature, but the separate district vote ensures candidates pay attention to a local area, have an incentive to become visible to voters and—crucially–that even a party that loses the local contest will tend to nurture support at the district level.

The way the two tiers are inter-related in the electoral law ensures that the overall balance of parties in the Bundestag is almost perfectly proportional to their nationwide vote shares—just as in Israel. There is a 5% threshold (thus somewhat higher than Israel’s). Under this arrangement, a party’s total number of seats is a mix of however many seats it won in the district tier, plus a number from its list needed to reach its proportional share of the total. Small parties often have only list seats, as they may not have any local wins. (I am glossing over some details here, but this is the general picture.)

The German system, often called mixed-member proportional (MMP), thus ensures that a vote cast anywhere in the territory is just as valuable as one cast anywhere else, in terms of contributing to the overall balance of partisan forces in the national legislature. In this sense, it is like Israel’s system and very unlike the US system. 

At the same time, it also ensures local representation, like the US system but very unlike Israel’s. 

(As an aside, I want to add that about 25 years ago New Zealand changed from single-seat plurality elections to MMP, modeled on Germany’s system. It has been a smashing success for their democracy. So electoral system reform is both possible, and beneficial. An example we could follow.)

Taking the two features together, Germany has coalition governments (as does New Zealand now), but not involving as many small and otherwise incompatible parties as we see in Israel’s coalitions. Germany also has local accountability that really matters. My own research and that of others confirms that members spend time in their districts, and often come from local roots including prior electoral offices or other ties to their communities. And, as we show in the Party Personnel book, committee assignments in the Bundestag are allocated according to a logic by which parties take advantage of expertise (occupational background), but crucially also to take advantage of local variations in party support and policy demands. (We also see this balance of representation criteria having emerged in NZ since they changed to a German-inspired MMP system.)

It has obviously worked quite well, in that Germany in the postwar period developed one of the most robust democracies and probably the strongest legislature in Europe. In fact, the development of that legislature was one of the recurring themes in Jerry’s career, from his very first book (in 1967, as I mentioned earlier) right up to his last publication, which was a remarkable essay published in a German journal (but in English) in 2018, reflecting on the choices made by both the Allied powers and the new German political class that laid the groundwork for the Bundestag’s development.

(Before I close out the section on Germany, I want to note that Germany is a federation of states, like the US, and it has a bicameral parliament. The other chamber, the Bundesrat, is a great model that Americans could learn from! Its members are chosen by state governments, and it has a veto on on legislation that directly affects the states, instead of on all national policy like the US Senate. It therefore deftly balances the state-interest and national-interest tensions inherent in federalism.)

****

Legislatures, as Gerhard Loewenberg showed us, are puzzling institutions. In democracies, they consist of formally equal individual representatives who somehow must organize themselves to make collective decisions on behalf of the citizens they represent. They are essential to democratic governance, yet the very procedures that they devise in order to function make them mysterious to the average voter, who is quite likely to associate the body with the worst features of politics.

We can learn a lot from comparing legislatures in different countries, as Gerhard Loewenberg’s long and distinguished career taught us. Both the US and Israel, as well as other countries, can learn from the German experience of how to balance seemingly contradictory goals of legislative and electoral institutional design. While there will never be a perfectly functioning democratic legislature for the simple reason that societies and the people who comprise them are complex, a process of scholarly and public enquiry into how different systems work can bring us towards a better understanding of how to make democracy work better, both in our own country and elsewhere.

Chag sameach; Chodesh tov. Happy Hanukkah, and a good new month. And may Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration. 

Italy assembly-size reduction: Cube root!

Based on the results of a referendum, Italy will be changing the size of its Chamber of Deputies from 630 to 400. By the cube root law (Taagepera, 1972) a country the size of Italy (around 60.5 million) should have about 392 seats in its first chamber. I’d say 400 is “about 392” and so this outcome is an obviously good thing.

Thanks to Matthew Bergman, Miroslav Nemčok, and Rein Taagepera for calling this to my attention. Rein also sent along an Italian newspaper article (PDF, a bit blurry) in which he was quoted.

The assembly reduction proposal was advanced by the Five Star Movement. As Rein said in personal communication, “sometimes populists get it right.”

Also, the Italian Senate is being reduced, to 200 (from 315, not counting appointed senators). I am not aware of any predictive model for how large a given second chamber “should be”, at least in unitary systems, but I note that in A Different Democracy, 2014, p. 214, we report that the mean second chamber in a unitary state is 0.53 times the size of the first chamber. So Italy is continuing to follow this pattern.

Tweaks to MMP in Germany?

I am aware that there have been ongoing efforts to introduce some small reforms in the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in Germany. The main challenge is to prevent the Bundestag from expanding so much in size, since a Constitutional Court ruling mandated full compensation.

The brief background is that the system has long had the potential for adding seats to cope with “overhangs”, which happen when a party in a state wins more districts than its party-list share would entitle it to. The Court ruled that the procedure in place over many elections still left the system unacceptably disproportional. (Manuel posted a good primer on the changes back in 2013; see also a long and interesting comment thread here on F&V.)

There are proposals currently being considered in the Bundestag that would attempt to limit the expansion in the chamber’s size that the current system allows. For instance, in 2017, the size went from the basic 598 (299 nominal and initially as many list) to 709 (401 list seats!).

The article I have is from AP, and (predictably) is thin on detail. All it says in the way of substance is:

The new proposal mainly involves keeping the number of constituencies unchanged in the 2021 election but slightly reducing the number of extra seats. By the time of the 2025 election, it calls for the number of constituencies to be cut to 280. A reform commission is supposed to produce a detailed plan.

The article also notes that opposition parties “weren’t impressed.”

I hope some readers might have more detail on what is being proposed.

Poland 2020: Presidential runoff

The second round of Poland’s presidential election is Sunday, 12 July. I really did not expect a close runoff. As I showed in a graph in 2017, both things that have to happen are relatively rare: (1) First round leader with >40% not getting 50% in runoff, and (2) First rounder runner-up with ~30% getting >50% in runoff.

In the first round on 28 June, incumbent Andrzej Duda earned 43.5% and the runner-up Rafal Trzaskowski earned 30.5%. (The third place candidate had 13.9%.) Yet several polls in the past week have shown the race for the second round too close to call.

It is worth noting, given my interest in electoral cycles, that whereas Duda benefitted from a honeymoon election in 2015 that helped his party (Law and Justice, PiS) get into strong enough position to win a parliamentary majority, Trzaskowski would have no such advantage. The PiS already narrowly held its majority in 2019 and another assembly election is not due until October, 2023. And while there is a procedure by which the president can call early assembly elections, the power is not unilateral and the parliamentary majority should be able to avert such recourse by the president (see Articles 145 and 155 of the Polish Constitution).

(The 2015 presidential and assembly elections demonstrate so many interesting effects of electoral rules that the sequence features prominently in the introductory chapter to Votes from Seats.)

“Instability” in Israeli politics?

I was asked to offer some remarks on current “instability” in Israeli politics.* Instead, I am going to argue that Israeli politics suffers from too much stability—at least at the level of party and electoral politics. The fact that Israel underwent three elections between April, 2019, and March, 2020, might seem to imply political instability. So might the government recently formed, with its unwieldy power-sharing provisions and the parties’ need to reform constitutional provisions (Basic Laws) in order, at last, to prevent what could have been a fourth election within two years.

However, if we go a little deeper, there are two aspects of fundamental stability that have led the country’s politics to this current situation. First is the fact that a right-wing nationalist bloc of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the two Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties, usually also joined by an ultra-nationalist and religious-Zionist party (currently Yamina), has been unwilling to break up in order to facilitate government-formation. Likud and the Haredi factions function almost like one party nowadays, even though they run as three separate ones in elections.

The second factor is the persistence of anti-Zionist ideology among the Arab parties, who in their alliance known as the Joint List, have emerged as a (potentially) powerful force able to command about 12% of the Knesset seats. One can hardly ask parties representing the Arab sector to be Zionist, but if they would cease being opposed to the very nature of the political system (or be replaced by more pragmatic parties), they could participate in governments and bring benefits back to their voters who polls show care much more about better public services and integration into Israeli society than about ideological goals or the wider Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Because of these two aspects of excessive political stability (or we might say stasis), it proved impossible after the two elections of 2019 and almost impossible after the 2020 election for a government spanning the political center to form. Yet consider that in three elections within eleven months, the right-Haredi bloc headed by Netanyahu failed to win a majority of seats. It did especially badly, relative to the 2015 election, in the second election of 2019, held in September. It recovered only slightly this past March. Yet at the same time, the Blue & White electoral alliance headed by Benny Gantz and its potential coalition partners also failed to win a majority for an alternative government. Blue & White could have formed a government only with the cooperation of the Joint List—or else it needed the Likud.

In most parliamentary democracies with complex multiparty systems, what happens when no bloc of ideologically similar parties wins a majority of seats is that a coalition of the center forms, leaving the extremist parties of both left and right out. But owing in part to Netanyahu’s preoccupation with his own legal problems, he was unwilling to break up his loyal bloc. Meanwhile, many of Gantz’s secular and left-leaning allies were unwilling to enter a government with the Haredi parties due to sharp differences over issues of religion and state.

Only with the unwillingness of the key parties to go to fourth elections, particularly in the context of the covid-19 crisis, did such a center-right coalition (which excludes the far right Yamina, as well as the most secular components that had been included within Blue & White) finally form. They could have arrived at a similar destination much sooner if the right-Haredi bloc had been more flexible, and alternative governance options would be more feasible if the Arab bloc could be part of a government or of its Knesset support base.

In other words, Israeli politics would benefit from just a little bit more instability.

Before concluding, I want to add two final points—one on the institutional context and one looking ahead:

(1) It is not the case, as some commentators claim, that Israeli politics would be more stable if it would change its highly proportional electoral system. The country has about the number and relative size of parties we expect from the electoral system it has (based on mathematical models I have contributed to developing and testing). But it does not follow that the country would be better served by changing the system to reduce the number of parties. The system suits the country’s social divisions well. A more disproportional system would create more, not less instability, by making it less transparent how popular support would be turned into baragaining power in the Knesset and government.

(2) Will the current government last? The constitutional reforms that were passed as a condition of its formation make it likely that it will, at least for a while, by instituting a rotation in the Prime Minister position and making it harder than usual for the leader of one bloc to depose the other and break up the government. However, by August, it must pass a budget. If Netanyahu wants to prevent a budget deal, he probably can, and this would force an early election. Polls consistently show that the right-Haredi-ultranationalist bloc would win a majority if an election were held now. However, it is not clear that he would want such an outcome even if he could engineer it. All of Netanyahu’s coalition governments but one have had at least one party of the center-left in them in order to balance out the ultranationalist parties (and the farther right of his own Likud). The exception was the one formed after the 2015 election, which was a narrow right-wing government. And it was precisely his small right-wing partners who maneuvered to bring that government down, precipitating the first of these three recent elections when no election actually would have been due until November, 2019. Netanyahu may be quite happy with the deal he has now while his legal process slowly plays out. In other words, Israeli politics may be a good deal more stable than it appears to many observers.


* At an on-line meeting of Davis Faculty, scheduled for 5 July. In addition to drawing on several earlier posts on Israel at this blog (some of which are linked in this post), I also draw on my teaching of Israeli Politics at UC Davis, as recently as this past spring quarter.

PM rotation in Ireland?

In the earlier planting on Israel’s new government, I asked if examples of rotating the position of prime minister existed outside of Israel. There is evidently a good chance we might be seeing one in Ireland!

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is expected to be taoiseach in the first half of a coalition government with Fine Gael and the Greens, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar going second. (Source: Irish Times; h/t to Steven Verbank.)

There was even some discussion of the Greens’ leader also being part of a possible rotation deal.

Senior Green sources had previously floated the idea of Mr [Eamon] Ryan also getting a year as taoiseach, although Mr Ryan ruled this out…

What a shame. I am pretty sure it would have been the first case of leaders of three different parties taking turns as prime minister under a coalition agreement!

(Taoiseach is the Irish term for the prime minister.)

The 35th Israeli government and Basic-Law revisions

Last week, Israel finally got a new government, after three elections in under a year, the most recent of which was March of this year.

And what a government it is! Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud will remain prime minister, with a planned rotation of the premiership to Benny Gantz in 18 months.

It is being referred to as a “unity government” but that is a strange term for a government, the formation of which led to the break-up of three of the multi-party alliances that contested the most recent election, most especially Gantz’s Blue and White list. Maybe just like with “grand coalition” in Germany and Austria, it is time to dispense with the term, “unity government,” for Israel.

The most recent Israeli governments to which the term applied were following the Knesset elections of 1984 and 1988. In these elections the two main parties (Likud and Labor) each had won around 40 or more seats and formed governments in which the two parties governed together. Unlike the European examples, the parties in the earlier Israeli examples also agreed to rotate the premiership (two years one party, two years the other), although this plan broke down during the second term of planned “unity”.

This new government has the rotation plan again, but in other respects, it is quite novel. For one thing, as alluded to already, one of the two main components of the agreement, Blue and White, split. The part headed by Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi has joined the government with Likud, but the part consisting of Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid) and Telem (led by Moshe Ya’alon) will go to opposition. Likud won 36 seats in the most recent elections and Blue and White 33. However, with the split, the governing portion of the latter brings only 18 seats to support the cabinet. Thus, unlike the previous “unity” governments, in this one the two main lists that are forming the cabinet and rotating the premiership do not have a majority of Knesset seats between them (they have 54, where a majority is 61.)

(Yesh Atid and Telem, who will be in opposition, have 16 seats; there were also two from B&W who split off and joined the government as a separate party and two from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance who joined the new rump B&W, while another effectively joined the Likud’s bloc… it gets complicated!)

Despite the imbalance now of the two main components, Likud and (rump) B&W, each has rough parity in the government. This is a sense in which it is still sort of a “unity” government. B&W currently has 13 ministers, while Likud has 14, even though the Likud caucus is twice the size of B&W’s. In addition, the B&W splinter joining the government, the 2-seat Derech Eretz, gets one minister. So does Gesher, which is just Orly Levi-Abekasis, who split from Labor-Gesher-Meretz to join the government. And Labor has two. In addition, there is Rafael Peretz, who split from the nationalist Yemina (the rest of which is going into opposition), plus one from United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and one from Shas. (The latter two, both haredi–or ultra-orthodox–parties, combine for 16 Knesset seats.)

Thus, strictly in portfolios, the remnant of Blue and White made off really well, getting 37% of the cabinet despite contributing only around 22% of the cabinet’s parliamentary basis. Likud gets 40% of the cabinet, with about 44% of the parliamentary basis.

Plus, of course, there is the rotation. Gantz gets a turn at the premiership after 18 months, if the agreement lasts. So, while critics on the leftish side of the political spectrum are calling Gantz a sell out for going into government with Netanyahu, he actually got a pretty good deal, in terms of the portfolios:legislators ratio. (I will not go into policy in this post, but my sense is he did decently well there, given the bargaining situation.)

In the end, both blocs failed to win three straight elections–even the first of which was called several months earlier than required. And so compromise was the only option. Well, no, actually it was not. A fourth election in just over a year’s time could have been called. In fact, under Israeli law, it would have happened automatically had a deal not been struck to form a government. Polling strongly suggested a new election would finally give the Nethanyahu-led bloc (Likud, Yemina, UTJ, and Shas) more than 61 seats.

The bargaining over government formation, when there is a looming return to elections, always takes place against the backdrop of what each side expects in the event of a new election. This only enhances the significance of the portfolio balance and rotation Gantz was able to extract. Likud and its allies certainly had no reason to fear the outcome of an election, and could have just run out the clock and let it happen, while blaming Gantz (and Lapid) for dragging voters to the polls yet again.

So Netanyahu and his allies struck a deal either because the ongoing coronavirus crisis made going back to the polls seem unappealing, or because Nethanyahu really preferred a coalition containing at least one party to his left over one formed around a narrow right-wing (nationalist-haredi) bloc. The reason need not be one or the other. Both factors probably matter.

But bear in mind that Nethanyahu has always had coalitions in which he had partners from the center-left as well as to his right, with the partial exception of the one formed after the 2015 election–the one that was ended early to kick off what would turn out to be a sequence of three elections. In that coalition, Kulanu (10 seats) was to Likud’s left, although firmly part of the “nationalist camp” in its self-definition (and merged with Likud after the first of the three 2019-20 elections). Thus it is entirely plausible that Nethanyahu preferred some sort of deal with Gantz, and could not get Gantz to back down from demands that his bloc get a large share of the cabinet even if he failed to bring his whole list with him. With the ulranationalist Yemina (6 seats) going into opposition, and the two haredi parties not really fitting on the left-right dimension (which, in Israel, is mostly about doves vs. hawks), Likud for the first time in the Netanyahu era will anchor the farthest right position in the cabinet. Had they gone back to elections that resulted in a majority for the right-haredi bloc, Likud would have anchored the farthest left position in the likely government.

(As an aside, I wonder how Lapid could possibly have been willing to go to another election, given polling suggesting only around 10% or so for his list. Or maybe he just really decided that being opposition leader was the least unattractive of all his options.)

On the question of whether the agreement can last, the coalition deal includes some creative constitution re-drafting. Before it was voted in as the government, the proto-coalition amended Basic Laws in order to attempt to secure its position, and thus not be vulnerable to a potential Nethanyahu decision to break it up early and precipitate elections. Here are the main points (thanks to JD Mussel for these):

  • There is now a new legal category of government called an “Alternation Government”. The following apply to such a government:
  • PM can’t fire ministers from other bloc without alternate PM’s consent.
  • If an election is called by the Knesset, with at least 12 members of the right bloc voting for it, Gantz automatically becomes PM (and vice versa after PM alternation).
  • The PM’s existing power to call an election (which is not exactly that, since a new government can be formed within 21 days) now requires the consent of the alternate PM.
  • Neither a sitting PM nor alternate PM can serve in a government installed as result of a constructive no-confidence vote (whereby 61 members of Knesset must elect a new government in order to oust the incumbent).
  • The Basic Law change contains an entrenchment clause: “This Basic Law [probably meaning specifically these amended clauses] may only be changed with the votes of 75 MKs,”

A strange beast Netanyahu and Gantz have created! But a political (and public-health) crisis required some creative bargaining and constitutional innovation.

A couple of final small thoughts:

  • Is this the first time in the annals of parliamentary government that a formateur (the one designated to attempt to form a government) had himself installed as Speaker to preserve his leverage while bargaining to install someone else as (initial) Prime Minister?
  • Is this the first case known to constitutional history of a 62.5% majority to amend?

Israel 2020a: Polling day

It is election day in Israel. Again. I probably have not followed an Israeli election so loosely since some time before the 1990s. If I am feeling this indifferent, I can only imagine how the average Israeli voter feels.

Polling throughout the period since the last election–only last September–shows little sign of any fundamental change in the political deadlock that has been a feature since the elections of last April. That is why I put “2020a” in the tile above. It is not inevitable that there will be a “2020b” election, but it is unclear how it will be avoided.

The potential governing scenarios are about the same now as they were when I last wrote, in November. Maybe one of these will happen this time, or maybe today’s results will surprise and the bargaining situation will be markedly different.

The lineup of parties is pretty much the same as last time. The main difference is yet another shift in the options on the Zionist left. The Democratic Union is defunct already, and the Labor-Gesher alliance has formed an alliance list with a third partner, Meretz. Cleverly, they are calling it Labor-Gesher-Meretz. The wider alliance was formed out of necessity, with the grave danger that one or both of the components could have fallen below the 3.25% threshold if running separately. The Greens are no longer in this partnership (or running at all), and Stav Shaffir failed to find a home, thereby depriving the left of one its star MKs (in my assessment).

There is also one candidate on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list–in a realistic slot (#7)–from an old splinter party called Democratic Choice: former Deputy Chief of the General Staff Yair Golan, who had been elected with Democratic Union in September. Issawi Frej, an Arab politician who was elected in the 4th rank on Meretz’s list last April, has been dropped all the way to a likely unrealistic 11th on this election’s list. (He was 7th on Democratic Union’s list, which included Meretz and Greens, in September; the list won 5 seats.)

The realignment on the right was minor, with Yamina back as the more nationalist and Religious Zionist flank to the right of Likud. Naftali Bennet of New Right is back to being #1 on this list, with Ayelet Shaked (who led the list in September) dropped to #3; in between them is Rafi Peretz of the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) group within the Yamina alliance. Otzma is again running separately, and no poll that I have seen has put it anywhere near the  threshold.

Yisrael Beiteinu is still claiming not to be willing to go back into the right-wing/Haredi bloc, and without their seats, there probably is still no majority for the right. YB leader Avigdor Liberman is also again saying that his backing a minority government with support from the Joint List (of predominantly Arab parties) is also out of the question.

Then there is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing legal problems–this time an actual trial set to begin on 17 March. The Attorney General and Supreme Court may have to rule on a question that they have so far dodged–can a leader on trial form a new government? I can’t claim to know, but the Basic Law on Government certainly does not say clearly that he could not. (Logically one might think he could not!)

If he were to be ruled ineligible, then a unity government (Likud and Blue and White) probably would form. But it would be very messy, to say the least, if it was the legal system that ultimately forced Netanyahu out.

The lists of Likud and Blue & White are not much different from September, but one potentially significant change is Gadi Yevarkan, a representative of the Ethiopian community. He was at #33 on the list of Blue & White in September, making him the list’s last winner. For this list he jumped to Likud, and with the 20th slot on the list, he is a sure winner.

As far as the polls are concerned, most of them showed Blue and White ahead until recent weeks, when Likud has pulled ahead. Quite a few polls have shown them tied, lately around 33 or 34 seats. More importantly, none that I know of has shown the current governing bloc at 61 seats, the number needed for a majority government. (This refers to the bloc without YB, which has shown no willingness to rejoin since walking out of the government in late 2018.)

The last polls to show Blue and White with a lead seem to have been published around 21 February. I will use one example to compare to the late-campaign averages. The Panels poll conducted on 19 February showed B&W on 36 seats and Likud on 32. This was one of the worst results for the right/Haredi bloc, showing it with 54 seats (it won 55 in September). It had YB on 8 seats (same as in September). The average of the last seven polls shows Likud at 34 and B&W at 33, with YB at 6. More importantly, this average has the right/Haredi bloc on 58. The Labor-Gesher-Meretz list has increased from 8 seats in that Panels poll of 21 Feb. to 9 in the late average. Overall, this suggests there has been some movement from B&W + Labor-led (44 then, 42 now) to the right. Of course, all such differences are within the polls’ margin of error. In any case, the main conclusion is that, if the polls are roughly accurate, there is still no majority for Netanyahu’s coalition. There is, of course, also no alternative majority that is viable without Likud or some part of that bloc, because B&W is not going to govern with the Joint List, and that (with Labor+) would still not be a majority without YB. So we are stuck, again.

Finally, on the Joint List, it is currently at 14 in the late-polls average, which would represent a one-seat gain on the last election. If it gets 14, it will elect three women; if it were to get 15, it would elect four (two are in safe seats). The parties in this alliance are trying to reach Bedouin voters and others who have not supported it in the previous elections. As always, it has to overcome calls by some in its community to boycott. If there is widespread abstention by Arab citizens, it will help the Likud and allies, though it still seems that the latter getting to 61 would be a stretch, unless the result diverges considerably from the consensus of the polls.

Oh, and really finally, it is my wish that the media stop calling this a “third round” of elections. Both the April and September elections of 2019 were fully complete, legitimate elections that produced a Knesset. The parties elected at those times simply failed to agree a government. This isn’t another round of one process, but a third discrete attempt to elect a Knesset that actually can sustain a government.

Ireland 2020

Ireland holds its general election on 8 February. I wish I could offer a good preview. But no time. However, given how much many of us enjoy elections under single transferable vote, it seems like the community might want to gather and do some fruitful plantings. So here’s the place for it.

One thing of note I am aware of is polling showing Sinn Féin doing well, possibly enough to break into the top two. In first preferences, that is. Given STV, of course, an important consideration will be if it picks up transfers (or where, if anywhere, its supporters go in districts where they have votes that don’t elect one of their own).

Apparently this is the first time Ireland has voted on a Saturday. Naturally, I am not a fan of that idea. (The link is to Charles Richardson’s blog, The World is Not Enough, which I just discovered thanks to a comment on another thread here by Tom.)

Thuringia: Leader of smallest party in state parliament elected premier, with AfD support

This is a strange development, and one to keep a concerned eye on. The German state of Thuringia, which held an election October, 2019, will now have a premier from the Free Democrats (FDP), who barely cleared the 5% threshold in the election. The FDP candidate for state premier, Thomas Kemmerich, was elected by one vote over the incumbent, Bodo Ramelow, of the Left Party. With the help of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), an extreme right party, Kemmerich defeated Ramelow in a third round of voting, 45-44.

The two largest parties in the state parliament since the 2019 election are the two most extreme parties in the German party system–The Left with 29 seats, and the AfD with 22. The Christian Democrats (CDU) came third with 21, then 8 for the Social Democrats (8), and 5 each for Greens and FDP (who really did just scrape over with 5.0%). The outgoing government was Linke-SPD-Green. But they fell to 42 seats out of the 90, compared to 46 in 2014. The 2014 outcome was also a little unusual–a three-party coalition excluding the largest party (CDU, which had 34, with Left second on 28). But not as unusual as whatever government Kemmerich will put together now.

I don’t know how common a government led by the sixth largest party in parliament is, but I am guessing pretty uncommon. (Answer in comments!) Kemmerich says he will not bring the AfD into a coalition, but he now owes his position to them. What does this mean for the cordon sanitaire the establishment parties (and the Left, which really can’t be called “establishment”) have been maintaining against the far right?

UPDATE: The premier-elect has resigned, and early elections will be proposed. A decision on early elections requires a vote in the state parliament. In fact, it requires a two-thirds majority, and at this point the state’s CDU leadership has been opposed to returning to the electorate.

Spain coalition agreement and possible electoral reform

The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP) have publicized an agreement on a program of coalition government. It is an ambitious “Progressive Coalition.” It is a minority coalition: out of the 350 seats, the PSOE won 120 and the UP 26, so together they have 41.7% of the seats, 30 seats short of a majority. Other agreements with regional parties for parliamentary support may be forthcoming; in fact an accord with the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV, with 7 seats) has already been published.

The PSOE-UP agreement has one provision of special interest to F&V: Section 5.7 concerns electoral reform, and states the parties will work to find “a consensus that would permit reforming the electoral formula to improve the proportionality of the system.”

Electoral reform is, of course, generally difficult. That the current system is relatively disproportional for an electoral system we would clearly classify as “proportional representation” (PR) is well established. The modest level of proportionality is due to the use of many districts, resulting in a mean magnitude around 7, and the D’Hondt formula. There is also substantial malapportionment. Consider the following advantage ratios (%seats/%votes) for several key parties; a value greater than one indicates the party is over-represented. These are from the most recent (“2019b“) election.

PP 1.22

PSOE 1.22

UP 0.78

C’s 0.42

Vox 0.98

ERC 1.03

JxCat 1.04

EAJ/PNV 1.10

The last three are among the larger regional parties. It is noteworthy that they are not significantly over-represented, despite the regionalized nature of the PR system.   On the other hand, both “large” parties are quite over-represented, while the new government’s junior partner is quite severely under-represented (not as bad as Ciudadanos, however). Some very small regional parties are significantly over-represented. For instance, Sum Navarre has an advantage ratio of 1.43. (It helps to win all of your votes in one rather low-magnitude (5) district in which you had the local plurality of votes.)

I have no information on what reforms the parties may have in mind. However, some combination of the following might be possible:

1. Readjusting magnitudes (long overdue!);

2. Small compensation tier;

3. Shift to (Modified?) Ste.-Laguë.

An interesting feature of the agreement with the PNV is its sixth provision, which states that the new government will make good on policy deals previously struck with the Partido Popular (PP), when it was in government. A PP minority government was replaced by a PSOE minority in a constructive vote of no confidence in June, 2018, which the PNV supported. This new agreement follows the second general election since that parliamentary vote.

Thanks to Bonnie Field (on Twitter) for the links to the two accords.


UPDATE:  There is now a further agreement, this one with the Republican Left of Catalunya (ERC). It is an agreement to abstain. I am not sure how common inter-party agreements over abstention on government formation are, but here we have one.

Field has a good rundown of where things standas of 3 January, the day before the parliamentary debates being.

Lithuania threshold reduction

The Lithuanian parliament has passed an amendment to the country’s electoral law. If it secures final passage, as expected, the threshold for party-list seats will be reduced from 5% to 4% for parties running alone and from 7% to 5% for electoral coalitions.

A proposal to reduce the assembly size from 141 to 121 was defeated in a referendum in May.

(Source: Linas Eriksonas, 2019)

Note that Lithuania has a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system: 70 of 141 legislators are elected in single-seat districts, the rest by list PR (nationwide, non-compensatory). The legal threshold affects only the list component.

Canada and UK 2019: District level fragmentation

With two of the big Westminster parliamentary democracies having had general elections in 2019, we have a good opportunity to assess the state of district-level competition in FPTP electoral systems.

(Caution: Deep nerd’s dive here!)

Before we turn to the district level, a short overview of what is expected at the national level is in order.

As noted previously, Canada’s election produced a nationwide seat balance that was extremely close to what we expect from the Seat Product Model (SPM), yet the nationwide votes were exceedingly fragmented (and, anomalously, the largest seat-winning party was second in votes). The UK election, on the other hand, was significantly less fragmented in the parliamentary outcome than we expect from the SPM, even if it was in key respects a “typical” FPTP outcome in terms of manufacturing a majority for a party with less than a majority of the vote.

In general, over decades, Canada tends to conform well to the SPM expectation for the shape of its parliamentary party system, whereas the UK is a more challenging case from the SPM’s perspective.

The SPM states that the effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) should be the seat product, raised to the power, 1/6. The seat product is the assembly size, times the mean district magnitude. The SPM predictions for NS explain around 60% of the variance in actual outcomes for elections around the world under a wide variety of electoral systems. SPM predictions for other output quantities also explain in the neighborhood of 60%. So the SPM is both successful at explaining the real world of seat and vote fragmentation, and leaves plenty of room for country-specific or election-specific “other factors” (i.e., the other 40%). The SPM is based on deductive logic, starting from the minimum and maximum possible outcomes for a given number of seats at stake (in a district or an assembly). The logic is spelled out in Votes from Seats.

In the case of a FPTP system, the SPM makes the bold claim that we can understand the shape of a party system by knowing only the assembly size. That is because with district magnitude, M=1, the seat product is fully described by the country’s total number of seats, S, which is also the number of districts in which the voting is carried out. Thus we expect NS=S1/6. Let’s call this “Equation 1.”

For Canada’s current assembly size (338), this means NS=2.64, as an average expectation. Actual elections have tended to come pretty close–again, on average. Of course, individual elections might vary in one direction or the other. (The assembly size was also formerly smaller, but in recent times, not by enough to concern ourselves too much for purposes of this analysis.) For the UK, the corresponding expectation would be 2.94 based on a seat product of 650.

The actual Canadian election of 2019 resulted in NS=2.79; for the UK it was 2.39. Thus for Canada, we have a result very close to the expectation (ratio of actual to expected is 1.0578). For the UK, the actual result was quite short (ratio of 0.8913). As I said, the UK is a challenging, even aberrant, case– at least at the national level.

What about the district level? A national outcome is obviously somehow an aggregation of all those separate district-level outcomes. The SPM, however, sees it differently. It says that the districts are just arenas in which the nationwide election plays out. That is, we have a logical grounding that says, given a national electoral system with some seat product, we know what the nationwide party system should look like. From that we can further deduce what the average district should look like, given that each district is “embedded” in the very same national electoral system. (The logic behind this is spelled out in Votes from Seats, Chapter 10).

The crazy claim of the SPM, district-level extension, is that under FPTP, assembly size alone shapes the effective number of votes-earning parties in the average district (N’V, where the prime mark reminds us that we are talking about the district-level quantity rather than the nationwide one). (Note that for FPTP, it must be the case that N’S=1, always and in every district).

The formula for expected N’V under FPTP is: N’V=1.59S1/12 (Equation 2). It has a strictly logical basis, but I am not going to take the space to spell it out here; I will come back to that “1.59” below, however. It is verified empirically on a wide set of elections, including those from large-assembly FPTP cases like Canada, India, and the UK. So what I want to do now is see how the elections of 2019 in Canada and UK compare to this expectation. (Some day I will do this for India’s 2019 election, too.)

If the effective number of seat-winning parties at the national level (NS) is off, relative to the SPM, then it should be expected that the average district-level effective number of vote-earning parties (N’V) would be off as well. They are, after all, derived from the same underlying factor–the number of single-seat districts, i.e., the assembly size (S). We already know that NS was close to expectation in Canada, but well off in the UK in 2019. So how about the districts? In addition to checking this against the expectation from S alone, we can also check one other way: from actual national NS. We can derive an expected connection of N’V to NS via basic algebra. We just substitute the value from one equation into the other (using Equations 1 and 2). If we have NS=S1/6 then it must be that S= NS6. So we can substitute:

N’V=1.59(NS6)1/12= 1.59√NS (Equation 3).

In a forthcoming book chapter, Cory L. Struthers and I show that this works not only algebraically, but also empirically. We also suggest a logical foundation to it, which would require further analysis before we would know if it is really on target. The short version suggested by the equation is that the voting in any given district tends to be some function of (1) the basic tendency of M=1 to yield two-candidate competition (yes, Duverger!) in isolation and (2) the extra-district viability of competing parties due to the district’s not being isolated, but rather embedded in the national system. The 1.59, which we already saw in Equation 2, is just 22/3; it is the expected N’V if there were exactly two vote-earning parties, because it is already established–by Taagepera (2007)–that the effective number tends to be the actual number, raised to the power, two thirds. And the square root of NS suggests that parties that win some share of seats (i.e., can contribute more or less to the value of NS) tend to attract votes even though they may have no chance of winning in any given district. By having some tendency to attract votes based on their overall parliamentary representation, they contribute to N’V because voters tend to vote based on the national (expected, given it is the same election) outcome rather than what is going on in their district (about which they may have poor information or simply not actually care about). If the parliamentary party system were fully replicated in each district, the exponent on NS would be 1. If it were not replicated at all, the exponent would be zero. On average, and in absence of any other information, it can be expected to be 0.5, i.e., the square root.

How does this hold up in the two elections we are looking at in 2019? Spoiler alert: quite well in the UK, and quite badly in Canada. Here are graphs, which are kernel density plots (basically, smoothed histograms). These plots show how actual districts in each election were distributed across the range of observed values of N’V, which in both elections ranged from around 1.35 to just short of 4.5. The curve peaks near the median, and I have marked the arithmetic mean with a thin gray line. The line of most interest, given the question of how the actual parliamentary outcome played out in each district is the long-dash line–the expected value of N’V based on actual NS. This corresponds to Equation 3. I also show the expectation based solely on assembly size (light dashed line); we already have no reason to expect this to be close in the UK, but maybe it would be in Canada, given that the actual nationwide NS was close to the SPM expectation, based on S (Equation 2).

Here is the UK, then Canada, 2019.

What we see here is interesting (OK, to me) and also a little unexpected. It is the UK in which the actual mean N’V is almost the same as the expectation from nationwide NS (i.e., Equation 3). We have actual mean N’V=2.485 compared to expected N’V from actual NS of 2.45; the ratio of actual to expected is 1.014. We can hardly ask for better than that! So, the nationwide party system (as measured by NS) itself may be well off the SPM expectation, but the vote fragmentation of the average district (N’V) closely tracks the logic that seems to stand behind Equation 3. Voters in the UK 2019 election tended to vote in the average district as if parties’ national viability mattered in their choice.

In Canada, on the other hand, even though national NS was very close to SPM expectation, the actual average district’s N’V (2.97) was really nowhere near either the expectation solely from S (the light dashed line, at 2.58) or the expectation from the actual NS (2.66). The average district was just so much more fragmented than it “should be” by either definition of how things ought to be! (The ratio of actual to that expected from Equation 3 is 1.116; the Equation 3 expectation is almost exactly the 25th percentile of the distribution.)

The Canadian outcome looks as if the exponent on actual NS in Equation 3 were around 0.64 instead of 0.5. Why? Who knows, but one implication is that the NDP (the third national party) performed far better in votes than the party’s contribution to NS implies that it should have. Such an overvaluing of a party’s “viability” would result if voters expected the party to do much better in terms of seats than it did. This is probably a good description of what happened, given that pre-election seat extrapolations implied the NDP would win many more seats than it did (and the Liberals fewer). The NDP also underperformed its polling aggregate in votes (while Liberals over-performed), but it held on to many more voters than it “should have” given its final seat-winning ability would imply. That is, the actual result in votes suggests a failure to update fully as the parties’ seat prospects shifted downward at the very end of the campaign. In fact, if we compare the final CBC poll tracker and seat projections to the ultimate result, we find that their actual votes dropped by 13.6% but their seats dropped by 31.7% (percent change, not percentage points!). In other words, this was just an unusually difficult context for voters to calibrate the expectations that Equation 3 implies they tend to make. (I am assuming the polls were “correct” at the time they were produced; however, if we assume they were wrong and the voters believed them anyway, I think the implications would be the same.)

It should be understood that the divergence from expectation is not caused by certain provinces, like Quebec, having a different party system due to a regional party, as some conventional expectations might point towards. While Quebec’s size is sufficient to exert a significant impact on the overall mean, it is not capable of shifting it from an expected 2.6 or 2.7 towards an observed 3.0! In fact, if we drop the Quebec observations, we still have a mean N’V=2.876 for the rest of Canada. The high fragmentation of the average district in the 2019 Canadian election is thus due to a Canada-wide phenomenon of voters voting for smaller parties at a greater rate than their actual viability would suggest they “should”. In other words, voters seem to have acted as if Trudeau’s promise that 2015 would be the last election under FPTP had actually come true! It did not, and the electoral system did its SPM-induced duty as it should, even if the voters were not playing along.

On the other hand, in the UK, voters played along just as they should. Their behavior produced a district-level mean vote fragmentation that logically fits the actual nationwide seat balance resulting from how their votes translated into seats under FPTP. There’s some solace in that, I suppose.