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).

Constructive vote proposal in Czech Republic

The Czech government is proposing to amend the country’s constitution to make the vote of no-confidence “constructive”:

If the opposition wants to propose a no-confidence vote, it must agree on the name of the future prime minister and have this agreement signed by at least 50 lower house deputies, according to the government’s draft amendment.

If a no-confidence vote fails, the opposition may not propose a new vote sooner than after six months or when 80 deputies support its proposal. (Prague Monitor)

The Czech proposal is more restrictive (constrictive?) than the other two longest-existing provisions for constructive votes. For example, under Article 67 of the German constitution, there is neither a stipulated minimum number of legislators who must propose a no-confidence vote nor a limitation on future motions if a motion fails. In Spain’s constitution, Article 113 requires a minimum one-tenth of the chamber to propose a motion against the government, compared to one-fourth in the Czech proposal. There is in Spain a prohibition on the same signers of a failed motion proposing another one in the same parliamentary session.

While a constructive-vote provision along the lines of Germany’s seems like a good idea to me, I am very skeptical of provisions that make it considerably more difficult for a parliamentary majority to remove a government. The more restrictions there are on parliament’s rights in this area, the more the system shades towards separate survival in power of the executive and legislature–thereby undermining the critical accountability feature that makes a democracy parliamentary.

To pass, the Czech proposal would need support from the leftist opposition, as the government is well short of the necessary three-fifths majority for constitutional changes.

UPDATE: As Robert Elgie notes in a comment, the Czech Republic is already moving to direct election of the president. Thus the country will join Poland in having the unusual combination of both semi-presidentialism and constructive vote of no confidence.

Czech elections

Following general elections Saturday, the Czech Republic should have “the strongest government in years” (Deutsche Welle). It will be a government of the center-right, notwithstanding a NY Times headline that might lead one to believe otherwise: “Left Wins Czech Vote, but Right Makes Gains.”

To be clear, the Social Democrats did win the highest vote total, but it was just 22.1%. The combined parties of the right won a majority of seats, with the largest among them being the Civic Democrats, with 20%. Two new parties of the right, TOP 09, with 16.7%, and Public Affairs, with 10.9%, will form the next government in coalition with the Civic Democrats.

So we have here a case in which the largest party in a parliamentary democracy will not form a government, because it lacks allies. There was a clear shift to the right in the electorate’s preferences–the three parties of the right will have 118 of the 200 parliamentary seats, aided by the 5% threshold–despite a center-left party being the single largest.

On the intra-party dimension of the country’s “flexible list” system, Roman Chytilek, a specialist on Czech parties, informs me that this time 48 legislators were elected purely on preference votes (i.e. their party-given rank would have been too low for them to win without preference votes). Only 86 incumbents were reelected (down from 115 in 2006). In addition, 44 women were elected (up from 31 in 2006); fourteen of them due to preference votes.

In this election, voters were allowed to cast four preference votes, up from two in 2006.

The Greens and Christian Democrats, both of which were allies of the Civic Democrats at the last election, failed to cross the 5% threshold.

Early Czech elections called off

Via the Prague Post:

Early parliamentary elections, already once delayed, will now not take place at all.

Any further legislative action to push for November elections was doomed to failure in the form of another challenge before the Constitutional Court, say leaders from political parties who reversed course Sept. 15 and declined to support dissolving the Chamber of Deputies and calling new elections. […]

The result is that the technocratic government of Prime Minister Jan Fischer – appointed as a caretaker in May – would most likely be left governing until June of next year, when the current Chamber of Deputies’ mandate runs out and regular elections are already scheduled.

The dominoes fell starting with the Social Democrats (SSD) just hours before debate was to begin Sept. 15 in the Chamber of Deputies; the Green Party (DZ) and the Communists (KSM) followed suit. Until the announcement, the widespread consensus was that the lower house would be dissolved and that authorities would push forward with a plan for elections in November.

Already, elections that were being considered for October had been delayed:

After independent Deputy Miloš Melcak filed a challenge with the Constitutional Court over early elections originally slated for October, the court ruled in his favor Sept. 10, striking down the mechanisms used to call elections. To bypass this ruling, both houses of Parliament passed a constitutional amendment with the necessary three-fifths majority Sept. 11, which allowed the Chamber of Deputies to dissolve itself. At the same time, MPs passed a law shortening the period from 60 to 50 days that the president has to call for new elections. This was all meant to pave the way for elections in early November, but the process itself again appeared open to challenge in the Constitutional Court, and constitutional experts agree it easily could have been.

Many more juicy details at the Prague Post!

The Czech Republic system is “pure” parliamentary; the (unelected) presidency is (mostly) ceremonial.

Czech government narrowly survives

As noted previously in the Czech Republic block here at F&V, the previous Czech parliamentary election resulted a tied result between the two pre-election alliances.

Last week, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek’s three-party center-right ((Despite the Greens’ being one of those three. Topolanek heads the Civic Democratic Party, and the Christian Democrats are the other partner.)) government survived a no-confidence vote. The Prague Post news item, excerpted below, hints at (in the part I put in bold) how it is that a bloc of parties with exactly 50% of the seats is able to govern: some defectors from the opposition. ((Survival is a different matter: It takes a majority to oust the cabinet, and obviously the opposition does not have a majority either. But without the independent support, the cabinet could not pass legislation if the opposition united to, well, oppose.))

It was the opposition’s third attempt to topple the coalition government and despite its fragile majority in the lower house it was fairly clear from the start that the opposition’s chances of success were slim, largely thanks to three independents – former Social Democrat rebels who were expected to support the government. In the end only two of them did, but it was enough. The opposition fell three votes short of achieving its goal and, having done his mathematics, the prime minister looked supremely confident as he listened to criticism from the opposition benches. In fact he even made a point of leafing through the morning papers during the vote itself to show just how unconcerned he was.

Just another day in parliament…

Another excerpt from the article is a reminder that parliamentary governments can tolerate dissent on policy votes, but once it comes to survival, the dissidents’ calculation can change quite dramatically:

Thwarted by three of his own MPs during a Parliament debate on church restitutions on Tuesday, Mr. Topolánek was smarting from his unexpected defeat. Tuesday’s show of coalition unity in the lower house could not have come at a better time for him.

Just another week in parliamentarism.

Preference vote shares

Now corrected from its original version (which contained some errors in the Czech data reported). Originally planted 18 July.

In discussing the proposed threshold of 5% of party preference votes to guarantee election from “flexible” lists in Catalonia, I expressed skepticism that this would result in many members being elected by their own votes.

Well, I just happen to have some data that might shed a little ray of light on this question, for those few of you who actually find this kind of stuff interesting. I opened up my merged data set of legislators from several open list systems, and restricting the analysis to districts that are about the size proposed for Catalonia (specifically, districts of 10 to 25 seats), I find that the mean preference vote share (preference votes divided by list votes in the district) of the elected members is .174. That is a lot more than .05, but the standard deviation is almost as big as the mean: .162. The median share is .115, and about 15% of elected candidates in these districts won with under .05.

So, perhaps I turned the old skepticism meter a bit too high when I expressed doubt that many candidates would be elected on their preference votes under a 5% threshold. Still, if the legislators in my data set had needed 5% to be elected, 15% of them would not have been–unless they had a high enough list rank provided by the party to be elected anyway. (Remember, in a flexible list system, seats not filled by preference votes default to the list rank, unlike in an open list, where there is no list rank and thus preference votes alone determine election.)

For larger parties, those that win at least the mean for this set of districts, which is 5 seats, the result is more favorable to my skepticism: Mean prefshare of .097, standard deviation of .10; median of .068; and around 28% elected with less than 5%. Not surprisingly, larger parties divide their votes among more candidates, successful or otherwise, while smaller parties are somewhat more likely to have a single vote-puller.*

However, all the above may overestimate the number of members who would be elected on preference votes if lists were flexible rather than fully open. My (more limited) information on existing flexible-list systems suggests that a very high share of total preference votes in such systems are given to the list head or one of the other top-ranked candidates (in other words to those who would win easily anyway). Of course, the more that voters do that, the smaller the pool of preference votes left to go around for other candidates with lower ranks, and thus the fewer candidates win on “their own” efforts and the more that are elected as if the list were closed.

To probe this further, we can look at data that I have from one flexible-list case in which many legislators are elected in districts of magnitudes ranging from 10 to 25: The Czech Republic (2002 and 2006). There, for winning legislators in these districts, the mean prefshare is only .017, the standard deviation is .022, and the median is .028. How many of those elected had preference shares under 5% of their list’s vote? 71.4%!

A quick check of the data appears to show only 17 of the 374 members elected on their preference votes who would not have been elected based on their party-provided rank. Thus the lists do not prove to be very “flexible” in practice.

The Czech rules in 2002 and 2006 allow the voter to cast up to two candidate preferences and require a 7% threshold of list votes for the candidate to be assured of election (i.e. even if the party has not given a high enough pre-election rank to the candidate).

Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Czech voters do not appear to concentrate their preference votes on a few top-ranked candidates. Even the winners who had the first rank on their list average less than 9% of their list’s votes. Nonetheless, the result is the same as what I expected–lots of candidates getting less than 5% of their list’s votes–even if the way that result came about is quite different from what I expected. (Looks like some research into flexible lists is in order!)

Is any of this relevant to Catalonia? Well, if Catalonian voters vote like Czech voters when it comes to using the preference vote, not very many candidates are going to clear the 5% preference-vote threshold.

Roman Chytilek, a political scientist at the Masarykova University of Brno, reports that for the next Czech elections the intraparty threshold will be reduced to 5% and a voter will be allowed up to four preference votes. (Before 2002, the rules provided for four preference votes and a 10% intraparty threshold.)

*In fact, each additional seat won by a party reduces the estimated prefshare of its winning candidates by .02, and the relationship is highly significant and the R-squared is more than 20%.

Data sample sizes: N=767 for the open-list sample; N=374 for the Czech Republic.

Another data note: In the Czech data, there is a much smaller relationship between the number elected off the list and the prefshare of those who are elected. It is “significant,” but barely more than zero anyway (-.003) and the R–squared is only around 7%.

I thank Joel Johnson for correcting my misreading of the data output and Roman Chytilek for his help in data acquisition as well as interpretation (including his comments in this thread since its original 18 July “plant” date.)

Could the anti-missile system doom the Czech government?

Could the Czech government, which rests on a thin reed after taking more than seven months to form in the evenly divided parliament, be threatened by the prospect of being one of the hosts to a controversial proposed US missile defense system?

&#268eské Noviny, as noted at the blog Greens for Greens, reports that one of the coalition partners, the Czech Green party, might vote against the proposal. The deputy chairman Ondrej Liska said that this would not have to mean an end to the government coalition.

Whatever the deputy leader might say, it is hard for me to see how the government could survive one of its partners voting against such a major foreign policy issue. The Czech Green party is more liberal (in the strictly economic sense, and as that term is understood outside the USA) than most of its counterparts in other counties (as discussed at F&V previously). Indeed it is in coalition with center-right parties. Nonetheless, they are greens, and I have wondered how they would finesse an issue like this one.

The largest governing party (Civic Democratic Party of PM Mirek Topolanek) is in favor of the radar, while the main opposition party (the Social Democratic) is calling for a referendum. According to a recent STEM poll, 70 percent of Czechs reject the radar.

This looks to be a big political test for this government. And for the Czech Greens.

Czech government wins confidence vote

In a follow-up to a story I have covered since the tied-result election (just click on “Czech Republic” above to see the previous plantings), the center-right coalition finally was able to win a confidence vote. Two abstaining dissenters from the Social Democratic party made it possible. What deals were they offered? Stay tuned.

I hope someone can finally explain to me how it is that the Czech “Green” party, a pre-election partner with the main conservative parties in this government, is a right-wing party. (Thanks to Antiquated Tory for doing so in a comment; I hope to weigh in at some point.)

Czech mate?

Note: updated below from original planting.

Further update: See the comment below by Roman Chytilek, who notes how recent electoral-system changes affected the results.

The Czech election has ended in a “deadlock” with the Civic Democratic Party winning a plurality of seats, but lacking a majority, even after accounting for its preferred coalition partners, according to full preliminary results:

    Civic Democrats, 81 seats (+23 on 2002 result)
    *Social Democrats, 74 (+4)
    Communists, 26 (–15)
    *Christian Democrats, 13 (–18)
    Green, 6 (+6)

    (* In outgoing government, which also includes the Freedom Union. The FU appears to have been part of a joint list with the Christian Democrats in both elections.)

Six percent of votes were cast for parties that failed to cross the threshold, down from 12.5% in 2002, with most of the decline attributable to the success of the Greens this time. Still, I wonder if that 6% is skewed either towards left or right. If so, its exclusion would have contributed to the “deadlock.”

The Greens are an ally of the Civic Democrats, as are the Christian Democrats, despite their current participation in government with the Social Democrats (which appears to have cost them). Thus the Civic+Christian+Green bloc has half the seats. The two left parties hold the other half. (This would not happen with an odd number of seats in parliament!)

This will be interesting. The Communists are proposing a “government of national agreement” (thanks to RAC for the tip.) I was thinking the same thing, although I was imagining one without the Communists: Civic Democrats and Social Democrats. In contrast with next-door Germany, this would be a grand coalition consisting of two parties that each gained, compared to the previous election.

See also my election preview and discussion of the Green party’s list

Czech elections

General parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic will be held 2-3 June. Despite the fact that the Czech Republic (and its pedecessor, Czecho-Slovakia) is a country I have visited more frequently than almost any other, I don’t know a great deal about its politics. You see, I generally visit for other reasons.

So, check out the BBC’s Q&A on the elections. The BBC notes that the current government is comprised of a coalition of the Social Democrats (70 seats), the Christian Democrats (21), and the Freedom Union (10), which hold the absolute barest of majority in the 200-seat parliament.

The campaign at one time was being led by the main opposition Civic Democrats (58 seats), but the Social Democrats have been gaining on them. The result between the top two parties is expected to be close, and the Green Party–recently endorsed by ex-president Vaclav Havel–is expected to get 10% and thus could be pivotal in coalition bargaining.

Alas, the Friends of Beer Party is not a factor. As I have lamented before, the threshold is simply too high.

Speaking of the threshold, it is indeed high, yet there are many smaller parties winning votes, resulting in one of Central or West Europe’s more disproportional proportional systems. The Social Democrats in the 2002 election won their 35% of the seats on just 30.2% of the votes. The runner-up Civic Democrats won their 29% on 24.5% of the votes, and 12.5% of the votes were cast for various parties that failed to win any seats. In none of the Czech districts did a party win a seat with less than 7.8%, and in many the smallest party to earn a seat had 12% or so–despite rather high district magnitudes (averaging 14.3 and ranging from 5 to 25). It thus appears (though I do not know for certain) that the threshold (5%, but higher for joint lists of two or more parties) is applied at the district level. Yet, it is also clear from the results that overall allocation is determined nationally, despite there not being a nationwide compensation district. In other words, all seats are assigned to districts, but a smaller party’s seats in a district may be won on the strength of votes cast in other districts in addition to the district where the seat is won. (Yes, it is complex, though not terribly unusual.)

Of the unrepresented “other” parties in 2002, the Greens amounted to less than three percent. If no other “other” besides the Greens were to cross the threshold, and the Greens won 10% of the vote, they should have around eleven seats.

Last year at this time, I was planning our summer trip to the Czech Republic and beyond.* Alas, not this year, so I will have to be content to brush up on Czech politics from afar and settle for the locally available versions of some of my favorite things Czech. Alas, some of the best require that one travel.

(Wouldn’t you know: A post on Czech elections turns into a post on other things Czech.)

* Some day I will get around to creating a Czech page at the Ladera Frutal travel pages, including some from underground. Stay tuned.

Do parties and voters care who is low on party lists?

A question I often have regarding proportional electoral systems in which parties present ranked lists is whether or not anyone really cares about the candidates that receive very low ranks. In systems in which lists are party-ranked–i.e. any list-PR system that is not fully open–for all but a locally dominant party, the large majority of candidates nominated are certain not to win a seat, regardless of how well the party performs.

Given that so many candidates will not be elected anyway, would parties take care in the composition of their lists below the slots from which they may elect candidates, and would voters even be aware of who is on the list?

From the Czech Republic comes a story that suggests “yes.”

The Green party has asked the election commissioner to delete two candidates from one of its lists for the upcoming (2-3 June) general election. One of these candidates was ranked last on the list in the district, and the other fifth. The district in question is Moravsko-Slezsky (in which the main city is Ostrava), and its district magnitude is 23. However, the Green party is very small in the Czech Republic, having won no seats at the last, 2002, election. Thus, even in such a large district, a Green nominated at the fifth position is surely not a “serious” candidate.

The party wants the candidates removed because one publicly reported a brawl between the other candidate and the husband of another party official, brining a whole new dimension to the idea of intra-party conflict. [Read full story]

I should note that in the Czech Republic, voters can cast intraparty preference votes. So it is not a closed list. However, the quota of preference votes required to change the party-provided rank order is quite high, and very rarely do candidates vault over other candidates ranked higher by the party. Thus it is not an open list, either, as that term should be reserved for systems in which preference votes are the sole determinant of the final list order. The Czech system is in the category of the “flexible” list, though in practice it is not very flexible in any meaningful sense.

Does the mere existence of preference votes even in the Czech (in)flexble list make parties more sensitive than would be the case in a fully closed list to the personal reputations of candidates (such as those who get into brawls)? I wish I knew the answer.

The problem with high thresholds in PR

The Beer Lovers Party, which got representation in Poland’s 1991 election, has never returned since the threshold was raised. Thanks for Alan at the Good Beer Blog for the reminder of this overlooked dimension of electoral systems. Given the awful selection of parties in last week’s election, the Beer Lovers Party is needed more than ever!

Their Czech counterpart never did make into parliament (those pesky high thresholds again), but at least they rehabilitated one of Prague’s finest pubs. From As Think Magazine describes it:

At no. 2, right at the bottom of the street, is U Kocoura (House at The Cat). A rarity in this area, this pub makes no attempts to make itself into a magnet for passers-by. No tri-lingual menus, no welcoming hostess, no nothing. Just a few tables covered with dirty table cloths, 22,5Kc for a half litre of Budvar, and a big picture of Garfield on the right hand wall.

The double doors are opened when it’s warm, and the atmosphere is airy and relaxed. It used to be (and maybe still is) owned by (Pratele piva) The Friends of Beer, a former political party…

Yes, former political party. Sigh. And they still own the pub, as far as I know. But I have to admit I have not been to U Kocoura in my last two visits to Prague, having been just a little disappointed that the Friends of Beer changed their pub’s tie from Pilsner Urquell to Budvar and prettied the place up a little too much for a real Czech pub experience. Oh, a topic for a future post…