# The Austrian Question: Or how I corrected some data I’ve been using on two-tier systems

In the previous planting, I presented a revised version of the extended Seat Product Model. I noted that in the process of attempting to improve on the logical model, I discovered some inconsistencies in the treatment of remainder pooling systems in the dataset used in Votes from Seats. Here I describe the problem and how I corrected it. The changes here may still require further refinement, but at least they make the treatment of the cases internally consistent.

This first began to bother me even before Votes from Seats had been published. Figure 17.2 in the book shows how well (or not) the extended seat product model accounts for the effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) over time in several two-tier PR systems (plus Japan, included despite not fitting the category for reasons explained in the book). It plots every election in the dataset for this set of countries, with the observed value of NS shown with the solid grey line in each country plot. The expectation from the extended Seat Product Model (Equation 15.2) is marked by the dashed line. This equation is:

NS = 2.5t(MSB)1/6,

where NS is the effective number of seat-winning parties (here, meaning the expected NS), M is the mean district magnitude of the basic tier, SB is the total number of seats in the basic tier, and t is the “tier ratio” defined as the share of the total number of assembly seats allocated in the compensatory tier.

For countries that changed from simple to complex, the plots also show the expectation in the era of the simple system with the solid dark line. The troublesome case here is Austria, but why? That is my “Austrian Question.” It led me down quite a rabbit hole, but I think I have it figured out, more or less.

It always seemed unlikely that the design of the Austrian electoral system was such that expected NS could have reached well over 6 in the latter part of the time series! But that is what our data showed, supposedly. When you get an absurd result, generally you should impeach the data, not the model.1

The problem turned out to be that for several remainder-pooling systems, including Austria, some seats were effectively counted twice in the derivation of the extended seat product. We drew most of our data from Bormann and Golder’s Democratic Electoral Systems Around the World. However, the manner in which we did so handled remainder-pooling systems poorly. With one important exception that I will note below, the error was not in the original data, but in our application of it.

In a remainder-pooling system there is no fixed upper tier. Most two-tier compensatory systems have a fixed number of seats which are allocated nationally (or regionally) to “correct” for distortions in votes-to-seats allocation produced by the lower district magnitude of the basic tier. An example would be the system of Denmark, with 139 basic-tier seats and 40 compensatory seats. Others have a fixed minimum, such as the MMP systems of Germany and New Zealand (where the upper tier can expand if needed due to “overhang” seats, but it has a fixed starting size). In a remainder-pooling system, on the other hand, the “upper tier” can be as large or as small as needed to generate compensation. In theory, all seats could be allocated in the basic tier, and it would end up no different from a simple system. Typically these systems work by stipulating that parties earn seats based on full quotas (usually Hare quota, sometimes Hagenbach-Bischoff) in the districts. Any seats not filled are then “pooled” in a supra-district tier where they are allocated based on pooled votes, rather than being filled within districts. The upper tier is thus whatever number of remainder seats there are from all of the districts, which can vary from election to election depending on how votes are distributed among the parties and across the basic-tier districts.

A particular challenge in the analysis of these systems is that all seats may be attached to districts, and national reporting agencies vary in whether they indicate that a given seat is actually based on supra-district allocation. Thus a district might have, say, five seats, and in the determination of quotas, two parties may have obtained a total of three seats through quotas in the district. The other two seats go to the remainder pool. Maybe, once all the national seat allocation is complete, one of those two remainder seats goes to the largest party (bringing it up to three) and one goes to a third party that was short of a quota in the initial allocation. The complication is that while all five seats are assigned to candidates who were on party lists in the district, only three were assigned based solely on votes cast in the district. The other two were assigned according to the compensation mechanism, drawing upon the pooled votes from across multiple districts. Where is the upper tier? It is sort of a phantom, and if we count the two seats in our hypothetical example as part of the upper tier, and we also count them as part of the district (basic tier), we have double counted them!

Here is where the Austrian case comes in. If we look at the 1990 election, we see an assembly size of 183, with 9 basic-tier districts, averaging 20.3 seats apiece. Bormann and Golder report that 25 seats were allocated as “upperseats”. In our Equation 15.2, the input parameters were MSB=20.3*(183–25)=3207 (rounding off) and t=(25/183)=0.137. That is, the basic-tier seat product is mean district magnitude multiplied by the size of the basic tier (which is total assembly size minus upper seats). But hold on! Those 25 upper-tier seats are taken out of the 20.3 seats per (average) district. Yet our original calculation takes them only out of the “S” part, but not out of the “M” part. They should not be counted in both tiers! Those 25 seats came from the 9 districts, so 25/9=2.8 remainder seats per district, on average. This gives us an adjusted basic-tier M=20.3–2.8=17.5. Now we have MSB=17.5*(183–25)=17.5*158=2765, and t=0.137. This changes the “expected” NS (based on Equation 15.2) from 4.35 to 4.25. Not a huge difference, but one that more accurately reflects how the system actually works.

Where things really went haywire was with the electoral reform that took place before the 1994 election. The Bormann and Golder dataset correctly notes that the number of basic-tier districts was increased to 43. With S=183 unchanged, this is a mean district magnitude of M=183/43=4.26, a figure which matches the description in Electoral System Change in Europe, maintained by Jean-Benoit Pilet and Alan Renwick. However, for some reason, the Bormann and Golder gives first-tier mean district magnitude for the post-1992 system as 17.2. The indicated values of “upper seats” range from 78 to 111 in the elections of 1994–2008. When we apply the same procedures of the preceding paragraph to elections in these years, we get a reduction in MSB from the 2669 we used in the book to a more accurate 196.7. That is quite a change! It comes from the reduction in district magnitude to 4.26, which in turn greatly pushes up the number of seats allocated in upper tiers.2 When we stop double counting the remainder seats, we actually have an adjusted basic-tier magnitude of less than 2, and an upper tier ratio, t=0.5. This changes that rather absurd “expected NS” depicted in Figure 17.2 as 6.3 for recent elections to a more reasonable 3.83. And, in fact actually observed NS in recent years has tended to be in the 3.4–4.2 range.

Here is the corrected version of the figure. (I left Japan off this one.) In addition to using the corrected data, as just explained, it also uses the revision of the extended Seat Product Model:

NS = (1–t)–2/3(MSB)1/6.

Austria is no longer shown as system that should be “expected” to have an effective number of parties around six! It still has an observed NS in most years that is smaller than expected, but that’s another story. We are not the first to observe that Austria used to have an unusually consolidated party system for its electoral system.3 In fact, in recent years it seems that the revamped design of the system and the increasingly fragmented party system have finally come into closer agreement–provided we use the revised SPM (as explained in the previous planting) and the corrected electoral-system data, and not the inconsistent data we were using before.

And, here for the first time, is a graph of largest party seat share in these systems, compared to expectations. This seemed worth including because, as noted in the previous planting, the s1 model for two-tier works a little better than the one for NS. Moreover, it was on s1 that the revised logic was based.

Note that the data plots show a light horizontal line at s1=0.5, given the importance of that level of party seat share for so much of parliamentary politics.

Notes

1. Assuming the model is on solid grounds, which was very much not the case of the original version of application to two-tier PR. I hope it is now, with the revision!

2. Plural because the 9 provincial districts still exist but are now an intermediate compensation tier, and there is a single national final compensation tier. This additional complication should not affect our estimation of the system’s impact on party-system outputs. (It principally affects which candidates from which of a given party’s lists earn the various compensation seats.)

3. This is not unique to Austria. Several European party systems used to have effective number of parties smaller than expected for their electoral system. In recent decades, many have become more fragmented, although the fragmenting trend is not significant, when compared to the SPM baseline). The trend implies that, in many cases, their electoral systems are shaping their party systems more as expected now than in the early post-war decades. In the past, the full electoral system effect may have been tamped down by the stronger role of the major party organizations in society. This is a very big question that it far beyond the scope of my current tasks.

Further note

In order to attempt a further validation of the procedure, I calculated the number of quota seats expected in each district based on my district-level dataset, derived originally from CLEA. I can then sum this up across districts in a given election, and subtract the result from the total assembly size to arrive at an indicator of what the upper-tier size should have been in that election. When I do this, I usually come close to the value for “upperseats”in Bormann & Golder, although not always precisely. I do not know what explains the deviations, but in all but one election they are so small that I would not fret. For the two elections used as examples from Austria above, I get 24 remainder-pooled seats in 1990 (vs. B&G 25) and 111 in 2008 (identical to B&G). Ideally, we would be able to estimate what upper-tier seats should be, on average, for a given design of a remainder-pooling system. Then we could estimate the parameters needed for the extended SPM even if data sources do not separate out the seats allocated on district votes from those allocated via supra-district pooling. This would introduce some unknown error, given that the actual number of remainder-pooled seats can vary depending on election results, for constant institutions. For instance, for the current Austrian system, it has ranged from 81 to 111 between 1995 and 2008. Perhaps there is some mathematical relationship that connects this average (92) to fixed parameters of the electoral system, and that works across remainder-pooling electoral systems. If there is, it has not revealed itself to me yet.

# Austria, 2017

Anyone care to comment on today’s general election in Austria? I really do not know enough about the country’s current politics to have anything of substance to say.

# Austria’s presidential re-run

The right-wing populist Norbert Hofer has conceded defeat in the Austrian presidential runoff, confirming in today’s re-vote the original razor-thin result.

Bullet dodged.

And, no, despite what BBC and others say, the Austrian presidency is not merely “ceremonial” in its formal powers.

Is the winner, Alexander Van der Bellen, the first Green ever elected to a presidency anywhere? (Running as an independent, but former head of that party.)

# Austrian presidential re-vote ordered

This is quite a big deal. One of the closest presidential elections anywhere, anytime will have to be re-run, due to irregularities. The Constitutional Court so ordered today.

How many other cases are there of re-votes of an entire national election in established democracies? I am unable to think of one.

(I should note that “entire” here means of the second round, thus with just the two candidates.)

# Austria’s presidency

Today Austrians voted in the runoff for their presidency. Latest reports suggest it is going to be a very close result. The candidates are Norbert Hofer from the populist/nationalist (“far right”) Freedom Party and Alexander Van der Bellen, of the Green Party although running as an independent.

The notion of a second round with a nationalist and a green as the two candidates is remarkable. I am sure there is no other runoff pairing like it in the annals of presidential elections.

That the establishment parties are in trouble is not news. In 2013 the Social Democrat and center-right People’s Party barely combined for half the votes and formed a not-so-grand coalition. In the first round of this year’s presidential election, on 24 April, their candidates could not even combine for a quarter of the votes! In fact, the Social Democrat got 11.3% and the People’s Party candidate managed 11.1%. Hofer led with 35.1%, and Van der Bellen trailed well behind at 21.3%–still nearly doubling what either of the establishment parties could manage. (An independent candidate finished third, with 18.9%.)

The BBC item (first link) says that Austria’s presidency “is a largely ceremonial post”. An earlier version followed up that statement by noting that the president can dismiss the government, and that Hofer has promised to do so if elected. One might question whether a president who can, on his or her political initiative, dismiss a government that has the confidence of parties controlling a majority of parliamentary seats, is “ceremonial”; in any case, the current version of the BBC story adds instead that:

a victory for Mr Hofer could be the springboard for Freedom Party success in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2018.

Yes indeed. Even weak presidencies, when elected, can have this effect (Samuels and Shugart, 2010). The first round already led to a leadership crisis within the coalition, as the Social Democratic leader and premier (Chancellor), Werner Faymann, resigned.

The Austrian presidency actually has quite significant constitutional powers. In fact, it would be a “president parliamentary” system, according to formal powers. This is the hybrid in which the popularly elected president does indeed have powers to dismiss a government. Presidents have not actually deployed these powers in the past, owing to the “establishment” consensus that the system should operate in a fundamentally parliamentary manner. However, a president from outside this consensus could certainly be expected to attempt to deploy the powers.

And, oh by the way, among the powers of initiative that the Austrian presidency has is the right to dissolve parliament. So that election “scheduled for 2018” may be coming a bit sooner.

# Austria’s not-so-grand coalition

If we should stop calling a German coalition of the old dominant parties of left and right “grand“, we should certainly stop calling its Austrian counterpart such. In fact, even if we do not stop using the term, grand, for Germany, we should banish the term for Austria, where Sunday’s election saw the two old parties barely scrape over 50% of the votes combined. It does not even meet the more literal definition (in German) of a “large” coalition. Yet a renewed SPO-OVP coalition appears the most likely outcome of the election.