More for the charge sheet: a pivotal special senate election

I can’t claim to know who will win the special election for the US Senate seat from Massachusetts formerly held by Ted Kennedy. However, I do know one thing: It is yet another item in the “charge sheet” against the American way of politics and policy-making that a government that, along with its legislative majorities, was endorsed by substantial majorities of the electorate could have its entire agenda pivot on the outcome of a special election for one seat in one house in one state just one year into its tenure.

It is worth noting that the current government is the first government in the USA to have popular majorities backing both it and its legislative majorities in quite some time (since 1976, I believe; no Republican Senate majority in at least five decades has been backed by a popular majority and Clinton never won over 50% of the vote). But that does not matter. One might think that elections should matter–that is, national elections–and that governments endorsed by majorities might be generally able to implement their programs. Well, at least that is what one might think if one were a committed small-d democrat.

That the Democratic Party is in such a fight for this seat–in Massachusetts!–is also a new item for the charge sheet against the party. How can it have missed the boat so badly with its policy agenda that it is struggling to hold a Senate seat in a state so reliably Democratic, till now, in Senate elections?

One item from the Globe and Mail suggests one reason why Republican Scott Brown is putting up such a challenge: He says that health care is a state issue. That is a defensible position–personally, I think it’s wrong, but it is defensible. The interesting twist is that various elements of the Democratic proposals resemble the healthcare policy put in place already in Massachusetts. That healthcare program was signed by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney, and that fact won’t help him with the national Republican primary electorate in 2012). So, in a sense, at least some swing voters in Massachusetts may be voting to protect what they already have from feared federal intrusion by a national policy. Ironically, that is how the Senate is supposed to work: as a forum for protecting state interests. Here we have a state that is seriously under-represented in terms of population per Senator, given that severe malapportionment of the institution. But in this one election, it will be seriously over-represented, as a relative few swing voters in one state essentially decide the fate of the governing party program, by bringing its majority below 60% in one house.

On the contest itself, Republicans chose for themselves about as good a candidate as they could have: Brown is very liberal for a Republican–even in the context of Massachusetts, where Republicans are in general about as liberal as they can be and still be Republicans. (Both points are made by Boris Shor, in a graph posted by Andrew Gelman at 538.)

On the other hand, evidently Democrat Martha Coakley is no exactly an exciting candidate, or one in touch with her voters–she evidently does not even know that Curt Schiling is something of a Massachusetts legend, suggesting he was a Yankees fan. If Coakley loses, there will be debate about how much candidate effects mattered and how much it really was a referendum on Obama’s policies, especially healthcare. But there is little doubting the impact. And, whatever one’s opinion of the policies or the current government, that just shows what an odd way we run this system known as American democracy.

Holding-together federalism in action: New Indian state of Telangana to be created

India is the classic case of what Alfred Stepan refers to as a “holding together” federation. In contrast to “coming together” federations, where (more or less) sovereign states band together to create a common central government to which the states surrender some of their sovereignty,* in a holding-together federation, a larger polity is subdivided into various sub-units that enjoy sovereignty over certain policy areas. Typically holding together is a strategy used to cope with ethnic divisions, by giving groups that are minorities in the larger polity their own states in which they constitute a majority.

India is a classic holding together federation because many of its current states did not exist when the country became independent in 1947, but rather have been created over the years in efforts to resolve various conflicts.

Such is the setting in which Telangana is about to be created, from within the existing borders of the very large southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In fact, the current capital of Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad, is to be included in the new state. As the Hindustan Times reports:

After nearly four decades of struggle for a separate state, the Telangana issue has reached a flashpoint. Under the leadership of K Chandrasekhar Rao, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) has pressurised the Centre government to set a deadline for the formation of a separate Telangana state.

The TRS is a regional party that is currently a component of the National Democratic Alliance, in which the large national party is the BJP. This alliance has been in opposition since the 2004 election and lost rather badly in federal elections earlier this year. However, the TRS was formerly part of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (led by the Congress Party, and currently in power).

In 2004, the Congress party and the TRS had an electoral alliance in the Telangana region with the promise of a separate Telangana state. TRS joined the coalition government in 2004 and was successful in making a separate Telangana state a part of the common minimum program (CMP). In September 2006, TRS withdrew support from the Congress-led coalition government.

Protests and violence finally have led the UPA to accept the demands to divide Andhra Pradesh, a state that has existed since 1956.

The Hindustan Times story has some interesting detail on the history of the region. Another article discusses the political crisis that has now erupted in Andhra: 92 state legislators and several MPs are resigning in protest.

* The classic coming-together federation is, of course, the USA. Switzerland is another case. One of Stepan’s key points is that most federations are “holding together,” and thus theories of federalism based on the assumption that the units, rather than the central polity, are the original source of sovereignty (such as the classic work of William Riker) are inadequate to explain most federal countries in the world today, including newly federalizing cases such as Belgium, Iraq, and perhaps now Bolivia.

Jamaica premiere!

Yes, the long awaited debut of the Jamaica coalition: Saarland’s government has been formed.

Meanwhile, in the comment thread to the linked post, there is an interesting note about Schleswig-Holstein:

It is to have a CDU+FDP government too (unless a Left Party challenge of the state’s seat allocation rules leads to a ruling correcting the situation that black-yellow have a majority of seats with a minority of the vote).

Bolivian electoral-system changes

Miguel Centellas notes that the new Bolivian constitution makes a few changes in the country’s legislative electoral system. [link removed]

The legislature is renamed the Plurinational Legislative Assembly and, presumably to put that into action, the first chamber electoral system will be required to have seats set aside for indigenous representation. However, Miguel notes that this is not very significant in practice:

The indigenous seats must come from the 130 total, are limited to “rural” districts […Moreover, ] Rural SMDs were already de facto “indigenous” seats; now that is merely recognized officially.

The MMP system, in which about half the seats are elected from single-seat districts, remains. This is in spite of earlier proposals from the ruling MAS to move to a system of exclusively single-seat districts.

MAS also previously advocated abolishing the Senate. Instead, it will be retained, but with a non-trivial change: the number of seats per department will go from 3 to 4. Currently, these are elected by that Latin American oddity that I refer to as “limited slate” or “limited nominations.” A party may nominate two candidates on a closed list, and the party with the plurality elects both, while the first runner-up elects its first-ranked candidate. (Similar systems are used in the second chambers of Argentina and Mexico.) Miguel notes that the electoral system for the new 4-seat districts is undetermined, but is supposed to be “proportional.”

Bolivia’s Senate is really an anomaly: it just might be the most malapportioned chamber in any unitary state. It is not surprising that, politically, it could not be abolished or even that its malapportionment could not be reduced, given conflicts over regional autonomy. Still, as Miguel says, this reform actually makes the small departments more over-represented. The move to 4-seat districts, however, should counteract that to some degree, as far as partisan representation is concerned, as long as the formula actually is PR and not some continued form of list plurality. Under PR, the second and even third largest party in a department would be better represented than is now the case, which potentially nationalizes the highly regionalized party system a bit more.

As for whether Bolivia retains a unitary state, I believe so. An earlier post by Miguel refers to a new federacy,” a term I understand as within the confines of a unitary state, but with special autonomy status for one or more of several sub-jurisdictions of the state.

In short, these changes seem like small improvements. But will they help solve the country’s deep political conflicts?

Indian state election results

The results of state assembly elections in five Indian states were announced today. The voting in some of these states took place during or after the attacks in Mumbai (26-29 Nov.).

The five states, with the prior governing party and the victor of these elections shown, are:

    Chhattisgarh (14 & 20 Nov. 1), BJP –> BJP2
    Madhya Pradesh (25 Nov.), BJP –> BJP
    Delhi (29 Nov.), INC –> INC
    Mizoram (29 Nov.), MNF –> INC
    Rajasthan (4 Dec.), BJP –> INC

All in all, a pretty good record for the Indian National Congress, the party of incumbent federal Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The only states the INC did not win were those that voted before the Mumbai attacks. And, as I note below, the INC gained on the BJP even in the two pre-attack states that the BJP held, suggesting there were national pro-INC factors at work independent of both the attacks and any particular state issues. Although these states are not necessarily bellwethers, overall, these results have to be good news for the INC as federal elections approach within the next few months.

Hindustan Times summarizes the results:

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) attempt to build a national campaign around the issues of terrorism, inflation, and a deepening agriculture crisis as a prelude to the Lok Sabha elections worked, at best, only partially. Local issues of governance won the day.

The BJP was pushing the “soft on terrorism” line even before the attacks in Mumbai.

The election was fought very much on BJP turf, as indicated by the party being the incumbent in three of the states, and how many of the federal parliamentary seats in these states are currently held by that party:

Delhi, Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh elect 72 of 542 members of the Lok Sabha, while Mizoram elects one. BJP has 57 and Congress 15 MPs in the current Lok Sabha from these states.

Federal elections must be completed no later than May.

So, when will the next general elections take place? There is nothing that suggests that the Congress would advance the polls. Congress hopes inflation will dip sharply from March 2009 onwards and by April-May the party will be in comfortable position. The party also expects to deliver on the issue of security by then, with a new home minister already in place.

Given the use of FPTP, it is always a good idea to look closely at more than just who won (i.e. who may have won a manufactured majority of seats). For instance, in the Rajastan election of 2003, the BJP majority (110 of 200 seats) resulted from 39.2% of the vote (against 35.6% for the INC). In Madhya Pradesh in 2003 the BJP’s 173 (of 230) seats came on 42.5% of the votes (INC, 31.6%). Chhattisgarh in 2003 had a really close election, in votes: the BJP won 50 of 90 seats despite a votes win of 39.3% to 36.7%. Then there’s Mizoram in 2003: the Mizoram National Front won its 21 (of 40) seats on 31.7% of the votes, against 30.1% for the INC.3 Only in Delhi did the winner in 2003 come close to an “earned” majority, with the INC winning 47 (of 68) seats on 48.1% of the vote.4

The 2008 results are available at the Election Commission of India website, but I do not see state-level aggregation of vote totals. Some of the INC wins over the BJP were substantial, however (in seats): 96 – 78 in Rajasthan, 42 – 23 in Delhi, and 32 – 0 in Mizoram (where the BJP barely contests; the incumbent National Front managed only 3 seats). In Chhattisgarh, the BJP won 37 seats to 31 for the INC, which is quite a lot closer than the 50-37 last time (in an assembly of 90 seats, now cut to 70). In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won 126 seats (a loss of 47), but the INC remains far behind (63, a gain of 25 in an assembly cut in size from 230 to 201).

Note that the Rajasthan result this time around is not a majority, with the INC having 96 of 200 seats (+40 on 2003). The BJP won 78 seats (-32). The INC has a potential ally to support a minority government in the Bahujan Samaj Party (6 seats, a gain of 4). As Adam notes below, it is even more likely to make deals with independent members (many of whom sought the INC nomination, were denied, but won anyway.)


1. Many elections in India take place in stages, with some districts voting on different days from others; always FPTP.

2. Party abbreviations: INC = Indian National Congress, the main component of the governing United Progressive Alliance at the federal level; BJP = Bharatiya Janata Party, the main component of the federal opposition bloc, the National Democratic Alliance; MNF = Mizoram National Front.

3. And 16.2% for the Mizoram People’s Congress and 14.7% for the Zoram Nationalist Party.

4. The BJP had 20 seats on 35.2%. Here my source is a PDF from the Election Commission of India, as Adam Carr does not have a summary on his site.

[Minor corrections, additions made on 14 Dec.]

All we want is a government

A piece in the Times of London begins:

All that Belgium wants for Christmas is a government — and thousands of people marched through Brussels yesterday to demand that politicians should avoid the break-up of their country.

Yes, Belgium held elections for parliament in June. And, no, there still is not a new coalition in place to govern the country.

The demonstration referred to by the Times is, on one level, a great show of national unity. The Times reports that the demonstrators were:

bedecked with the black, gold and red of the national flag, with not a party affiliation in sight.

Then again:

In a sign of the division between the two main language communities, there were noticeably more French-speaking marchers than those from the Flemish north, where support for national unity is more ambivalent.

The “Czechoslovakia option” is being discussed in the newspapers, ((Then what to do with Brussels, which is mixed linguistically, unlike Prague, the former Czecho-Slovak capital. Brussels and Prague. Two of my favorite cities, and no, that is not only for the beer. But the beer is a major consideration, for sure.)) and as the VOA reports, the impasse over coalition formation is indeed related to classic issues of federalism: how to divide the national wealth and the extent to which citizens of a richer region perceive themselves to be subsidizing the less wealthy citizens in other units of the federation.

Huge obstacles remain and neither side is budging. Flemish parties insist that regional governments must have more autonomy. With 60 percent of the population, Flanders generates 70 percent of Belgium’s Gross Domestic Product. The Dutch speaking area wants to retain more power and tax money, rather than sending it south.

Wallonia’s politicians are resisting this, partly because they see it as the first step toward dividing the country, which Walloons oppose in large numbers.

Just to keep things interesting, Angus Reid has asked people in the Netherlands if they would welcome Flanders back into the fold. They are “divided” on the question.
Thanks to Andrés for sending me the first item linked above.

Elections in Michoacan, Mexico

On 11 November, the Mexican state of Michoacan, in the central region of the country, had elections for governor, state assembly, and municipal offices. The state is the birthplace of Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, the founder of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). The PRD’s presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”), narrowly lost the 2006 national presidential election.

In the state elections, the PRD held on to the state’s governorship, but with not even one third of the votes. Leonel Godoy Rangel had 33.1%, beating the candidate of the National Action Party (PAN, the party of President Felipe Calderón). The PAN candidate, Salvador Lopez Orduña, had 30.5%. ((Orduña has been the mayor of the capital, Morelia, for the past three years. (The PRD also won that city’s mayoralty on 11 November.) )) The candidate of the PRI won 24%. In addition to the PRD, Godoy was backed by the smaller PT, Convergencia, and Alternativa parties.

From a preliminary count of the elections for state deputies (for the unicameral legislative assembly), it appears the PRD-PT alliance won about 31.9% of the vote to 29.2% for the PRI and 27.5% for the PAN. ((I do not know the electoral system of Michoacan. All Mexican states have variants of the national single-vote MMM system, though some lean more towards MMP. There are 24 single-seat districts, and it appears that 12 of them were won by the PRD-PT, while the PAN won 8 and the PRI 4. There would also be some number of PR-list seats, but I do not know how many or how they are allocated. As long as they are not highly compensatory–i.e. that the system is not MMP–the PRD-PT will be substantially over-represented in the legislature–perhaps around 40% of the seats. The legislature’s website was not working when I tried to check on its size or electoral system. On the Google search page, there was a page within the legislature’s site indicated as being about an Acuerdo de Reforma Electoral.)) Assuming those results are correct, note that the order of finish for the second and third parties was reversed between the two elections. The obvious conclusion would be that some PRI voters favored the PAN gubernatorial candidate in an effort to block Godoy. Similar tactical voting (on a much larger scale) by PRI voters probably prevented AMLO from winning the presidency in 2006.

Despite the “juxtaposed government” of PAN at the center and PRD in the state, ((I owe the term, juxtaposed government, to Alain De Remes.)) and despite AMLO’s continuing refusal to accept the PAN national victory, Governor-elect Godoy promises that his relations with the President will be “cordial.” He further says:

Nosotros no podemos adoptar actitudes suicidas, de no tener una relación de plena colaboración ante tal dependencia del Gobierno federal.

Indeed, it would be “suicidal” to adopt a confrontational attitude, given that 96% of the state’s revenues come from federal transfers. ((According to an article in the 12 November edition of Reforma by Adán García, Denis Rodríguez y Daniel Pensamiento, which was also the source of the quote from Godoy. (Via Lexis Nexis.) ))

Normally, like the federal executive, a state governor in Mexico serves a six-year term. However, Godoy’s term will be four years, following a state constitutional change. Reforma says the change is meant to synchronize state and federal elections in the future. How far in the future? The next federal elections will be in 2009 (lower house of congress) and after that, 2012 (presidency and both federal chambers). So, only if this governor and his successor are elected for four-year terms will elections be synchronized–in the federal midterm election of 2015 (presumably again for a six-year term). It seems if synchronization is the goal, a clever and mathematically inclined political engineer might have come up with another way (e.g. elect this governor for five years, and then have state and federal elections in 2012).

New South Wales: Federalism and ranked-preference voting

Reader Alan G. reminded me that the Australian state of New South Wales (the country’s largest, where Sydney is located) is having its general parliamentary election on 24 March. ABC has a good central site for following the campaign. See especially Antony Green’s Election Guide.

For election watchers and electoral-rules aficionados, there are a few noteworthy facts about this election. First, currently the federal government is controlled by the conservative alliance (which has a majority in both houses, itself a rare occurrence in Australia), while every state is controlled by the Labor party. (Has it ever happened in a federation before that one party controlled all the central levers of power and another all the state/provincial?)

Australia is one of those federal systems in which states have their separate electoral calendars from the federal level. Thus there are almost always some state elections coming up at any given time, and they serve partly as a barometer of support for the federal government–perhaps especially so when the federal governing party faces a total shutout at the state level!

Of particular interest in New South Wales is the electoral system for the state’s upper house, which is single transferable vote in a very large statewide constituency. With twenty-one seats elected at each election (the chamber has 42 members), it is (to my knowledge) the world’s largest STV district. (This fact is made somewhat more trivial by the “above-the-line vote” option, which apparently well over 95% voters employ1; this makes the system much more closed-list in nature than STV.2)

The lower house is also elected by STV, but in single-seat districts. Therefore, the lower house uses what is known as the alternative vote (or ‘IRV’). In the lower house, the Labor party won its majority in 2003 on 42.7% of the first-preference votes, against only 24.7% for the runner up Liberal party and 9.6% for the Liberals’ partner, the Nationals. In a plurality (FPTP) system, 42.7% of the vote and such a strong margin could have resulted in a very large seat majority despite the party’s being so far short of a voting majority.

However, the ranked-preference, sequential-elimination electoral rule allows us to know, from the votes transfers, that the “two-party preferred” vote for Labour was 56.2%. For Liberal/National it was 43.8%. The seat allocation thus mirrors this two-party preferred vote quite a bit better than would be the case under a plurality system: 55 (59.1%) for Labor, 20 for Liberal, 12 for National (for a combined 34.4%), plus six independents.3

Comparing the two houses, the first-preference votes for Labor were very slightly higher in the Legislative Council than in the lower house, at 43.5% (see Adam Carr’s table). Nonetheless, given the high proportionality afforded by STV and a district magnitude of 21, Labor came up one seat short of a majority of the seats at stake in the election. The Liberal-National alliance won exactly one third of the seats contested in 2003 on almost exactly one third of the vote.

New South Wales offers us a very interesting laboratory on ranked-preference voting, district magnitude, and federalism!


1. See Green’s background paper at the link given by Alan in the third comment.

2. It is like a closed list if (as is likely) the party directs that its preferences stay within the party before transferring to candidates of other parties. The additional ‘twist’ on the closed list is that, unlike in a strictly list system, the party may (depending on the specific rules) direct that its votes transfer to other parties’ candidates in the event it lacks sufficient votes to elect a candidate even after intra-party transfers. As Alan notes, the transfer of votes out the party is not controlled by the party in NSW, but rather the voter who chooses the ticket (above-the-line) vote option may designate a second ticket to which the vote should transfer.

3. The page linked at the start of this paragraph offers interesting detail on the 1999 and 2003 elections, including the fact that the attempt of the government elected in 1995 to advantage itself in 1999 by reducing the number of seats (from 99) backfired and nearly cost it the majority.

Partial citizenship breakthrough for DC?

One of the embarrassments–or at least it should be an embarrassment–of the US political system is the absence of any voting representation in federal affairs for residents of the capital territory, the District of Columbia. That may be about to change, incrementally. No, DC is not about to become a state or state-equivalent, with full Senate as well as House representation, as it should. However, DC may soon get a voting Representative in the House.

In classic American style, however, this (partial) breakthrough for citizenship and democracy will not come about because it is such an obviously right thing to do, but through a partisan logroll. It seems that Utah politicos are upset that it just missed out on an additional House seat after the 2000 census.* So, how about this solution: DC gets its seat (sure to be held more or less in perpetuity by a Black Caucus Democrat) and Utah gets one, too (sure to be held more or less in perpetuity by a white Republican).

Utah’s grievance comes with a religious special-status plea, to boot! The Guardian: “Utah insists that the 2000 census undercounted the state’s population because so many of the state’s young Mormon men were out of state or out of the country doing missionary work.” I wonder how many other states might have experienced undercounts because residents–less identifiable as a bloc than Utah Mormons–were abroad.

Of course, there is a better and simpler way to deal with situations akin to Utah’s without special claims. Even the alleged undercount showed Utah had grown, and other states grew yet lost seats that they already had to faster-growing states. The solution is to let the House grow as the population grows. Then House representation would be less an interstate (and interpartisan) source of conflict than it is under the fixed size, which has been at 435 since 1912, when the USA had one-third the population it has now!* Well, at least Utah’s grievance may lead to the right outcome for DC–or, rather, half the right outcome.

Now, what about representation in the Senate? There is no objective argument for denying residents of the capital territory representation in either house of the national legislature. Several federal systems have special territories for their capitals, which thus give them fewer sovereign rights as units of the federation than the states have. However, no other federation deprives its capital residents of representation in both houses of the federal legislature. In most cases, the capital territory is represented as if it were a state.*

That would require statehood (which requires only ordinary legislation) or a constitutional amendment to grant a non-state territory entitlement to representation in the Senate. Apparently, there is some question as to whether Congress can grant DC a voting House member through ordinary legislation. As the Guardian notes:

The Constitution says that the House shall be composed of members chosen by “the people of the several states.” But it also gives Congress the power “to exercise exclusive legislation” over the seat of the federal government, interpreted by some to mean that Congress can, if it wants, give D.C. voting rights.

Whatever the situation with respect to the constitutional question, it is unconscionable to treat DC residents as second-class citizens just because they happen to live near federal government buildings. Can anyone seriously argue that this situation would still be tolerated today if the District had a different racial composition to its population? It is a national shame. The partisan logroll that may remedy its lack of House vote is a step forward (in outcome, of not process). But it is only one step. (And see the bolded parts of the “other blog action” below for some reasons to doubt that even this is a step forward.)


*1. Other than temporary increases when Hawaii and Alaska entered the union in 1959. The House reverted to 435 after the 1960 census, meaning other states lost members as of 1962 to ensure seats for the new states.

*2. A partial exception is Australia, where the capital territory (ACT) has two senators, whereas each state has twelve. Two senators put ACT on par with the Northern Territory. In the USA–also nearly unique among federations–territories (e.g. Puerto Rico and Guam) also do not have congressional representation (aside from nonvoting “delegates” in the House, as DC likewise has). [Thanks to Alan for correcting an error in the original version of this note; see his comment for further detail.]

Other blog action on this topic:

(Surprisingly little action in the blogosphere on this so far, actually.)

Current DC nonvoting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, at The Hill Blog, calls this bill “An easy test for Democrats.”

Undernews disagrees with Norton and claims the bill is a “trick to increase GOP power.” Alluding to the constitutional argument, it says, “if Congress approves this measure, Utah will have a new seat while DC’s status will be headed for a long wrangle in the court. Result: one more GOP vote in the House as least until the case is decided. Plus Utah gains one more GOP electoral vote out of the deal.” (My emphasis; also note that DC’s electoral votes are not affected, as it has had three electors since the ratification of the Twenty-Third Amendment to the US Constitution in 1961.)

Rusty at why.i.hate.dc is not too pleased with the logroll aspect of the compromise, either: “Let me explain to Rep. Davis [R-Va., and co-sponsor] and Del. Norton how representative democracy works. The people elect representative to vote on their behalf. It’s not meant to preserve political balance. If an area that’s 90% Democrat is having their human rights trampled on, giving Republicans an extra vote to offset that new vote is not an appropriate solution. Someone explain to me the purpose of having a DC vote when Republicans in Utah get a new vote of their own. Everything cancels out. DC residents are no better off.” (Posted in December when a previous effort to pass this legislation failed; again, my emphasis.)

Shining City Atop a Hill is pleased.

Federalism and resource revenue equalization

In my Institutional Engineering and Democracy course, we have been discussing federalism and the problems of agreeing on an instituional design and revenue-allocation formulas that satisfy both a resource-rich unit of a federation and the central government’s desire to redistirbute to more populous units (thereby potentially increasing the power of the center, especially if its redistirbution is discretionary).

Of course, we have been discussing these challenges of federalism mainly in the context of cases like Iraq, Nigeria, and Russia. However, from CBC comes a reminder that these questions loom very large in Canada. Continue reading

Federalism, upper houses, and country size: Restore the NZ Legislative Council?

As Holden Republic relates, there is dicussion in some New Zealand circles about restoring the upper house. Were New Zealand to do so, it would make that country quite an outlier indeed.

Consider the following graph (another in a series occasionally posted here from my forthcoming coauthored book on US Democracy in Comparative Perspective). This shows the relationship of a country’s size (both in population and in area) to federalism and bicameralism.

Federalism, bicameralism, and country size

What the graph shows is that bicameral legislatures are associated with two types of country: Large (in either dimension) or federal.

All federal systems are bicameral, for the simple reason that two houses allow one house to be the “chamber of states” (like the US and Australian Senates) while the other is the “chamber of the people” (like the House of Representatives). The argument for bicameralism in large, but non-federal, systems is that larger countries are more complex than smaller ones, and a single chamber cannot adequately represent such complexity. (Unitary bicameral systems vary quite a bit in the extent to which their two houses are constituted differently, with few having such differential constituencies as in federal systems, but usually having some differentiation, or “incongruence” in the political-science jargon.)

The graph shows that only two unitary systems with less than 245,000 square miles/635 km2 area (UK) or fifteen million population (about the size of Chile) have upper houses: the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.

New Zealand, at under four million population, is quite small. In area, with just under 104,000 square miles/269,000 km2, and spread out over two major islands, New Zealand’s case for bicameralism on the basis of geographic extent is somewhat stonger, though the country is a good deal smaller territorially than several other smallish unitary systems (like Finland and Sweden).

While New Zealanders should not make their decision to restore, or not, their old upper house based on what other countries have done, the comaprative experience suggests that non-federal countries around New Zealand’s size tend not to see the need for an upper house.

Quite apart from the size of the country, I would think that the case for an upper house would be even weaker now than in the era of single-party parliamentary majorities. One argument for an upper house is to put the “brakes” on the otherwise “unbridled power” of the government. However, governments are now inherently checked under proportional representation, which has made governments either coalitions or minority cabinets (or both, as currently). Depending on how it was (s)elected, an upper house could even result in a center-left coalition responsible to the lower house being checked by a conservative upper-house majority (or vice versa), which would hardly seem desirable.

The case for bicameralism in New Zealand seems quite weak. Among unitary states, only countries considerably larger than New Zealand tend to be bicameral.

A good case FOR Germany’s grand coalition: Federal reform

(Not that I ever had as much negative to say as others.)

The advantage is that the grand coalition will effectively neutralize the veto of the Bundesrat (upper house, representing the state governments). This government will be able to tackle reforms to the center–state distirbution of policy-making powers that a government containing only one of the big parties and lacking a majority in the Bundesrat could not do. Continue reading