Poland’s protests–and institutions

Protests in Poland have been making international news. The object of the protests is the government’s plans to undermine the independence of the judiciary. The case illustrates several important points about how political institutions affect policy (and can have potential international repercussions). The escalation of the crisis over these plans in recent days makes the decision some months ago to lead with Poland’s 2015 elections and their aftermath in the forthcoming Votes from Seats look like a good one.

We (Rein Taagepera and I) use the case to demonstrate how seemingly small institutional details can tip outcomes in favor of a party with a strong agenda that might undermine democracy itself. (Yes, the very first example mentioned in the book is the US presidential election of 2016.)

The background is that the Polish ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) has a majority of seats in the first chamber of the assembly (the Sejm). PiS also holds the presidency. It has a manufactured majority, despite the use of a proportional representation system. In fact, the party won only 37.6% of the votes. This would place the assembly majority on the short list of lowest vote percentages ever turned into a majority by a “proportional” electoral system. Moreover, it was a “honeymoon” election–the assembly was elected about six months after the president.

The manufactured majority was possible due to several factors. One is the use of D’Hondt divisors, which tend to boost the largest party’s overrepresentation, especially when it has a strong lead in votes over the runner up (in this case, Citizen’s Platform, with 24.1%). It is also due to the legal thresholds: 5% for a party and 8% for a pre-electoral alliance. This resulted in substantial wasted votes, particularly with the Democratic Left running as an alliance and getting 7.6% of the vote. Had it become a “party” it would have been represented, and the PiS surely would not have won a majority of seats. Or, obviously, had the alliance won just over 0.4% more votes, it would have won seats.

However, the 37.6% itself did not come in a vacuum. As noted, this was a honeymoon election: it was six months after the election of the president to a five year term. Based on a formula (purely empirical, but based on theory) in Votes from Seats, we expect an election with 10% of the presidential inter-electoral period elapsed to result in a modest boost for the newly elected president’s party. The formula (shown in an earlier post on the French 2017 elections) suggests what we can expect for the party’s assembly votes, expressed as a ratio to the president’s own votes (in the first round if a runoff system). We call that ratio the “presidential ratio” or RP. For elapsed time of 10%, we expect RP=1.13. Given that the president, Andrzej Duda, had earned 24.8% of the vote, we’d expect the party to get 39.3%. This is barely over what it actually got (37.6%). So, yes, honeymoon elections matter. (By comparison, PiS had 29.9% in the previous assembly election, in 2011.)

It was not even a sure thing that it would be the PiS that would benefit from the honeymoon boost. First it had to win the runoff, and it did so quite narrowly (51.8% to 48.4%).

So, the current crisis could have been averted, most likely, if any one of the following had been true, thereby preventing the PiS majority government:

(1) Duda had lost the runoff;

(2) The assembly election had not been scheduled so soon after the presidential;

(3) The electoral formula was some common proportional method other than D’Hondt;

(4) There was not a high threshold for alliances, or the Left had made itself into one party (or gotten just a small increase in its votes).

So, yes, institutions do matter!

And institutions may yet matter one other way to this story, and in a way relevant to a couple of my earlier co-authored books. The president has a veto that takes 3/5 to override, and Duda has indicated opposition to his own party’s proposals on the judiciary.  He may veto it. Presidents, after all, may help their parties gain power, but they are not beholden to them once in office. Under Poland’s semi-presidential system, the president and prime minister may disagree, even when from the same party. So the story may have at least one other act yet to come.

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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.)

Canadian Senate being debated in Supreme Court

Via CBC:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to advise whether it can proceed unilaterally to impose term limits on senators and create a process for electing them.

The government contends that some such reforms can be imposed by the central government, citing the imposition of a retirement age for senators in 1965. However, the government’s question also considers the question of possible abolition of the senate. Here the question is whether unanimous consent of the provinces would be required, or whether the “750 formula” must be adhered to. The latter means seven provinces, accounting for half the national population.

Ayodhya ruling

A big, much anticipated, judicial ruling was handed down in India earlier today in the Ayodhya dispute. From the Hindustan Times:

The Allahabad High Court (HC) took the first step on Thursday towards the resolution of the 60-year-old Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi ownership dispute — by including all the warring parties in the process.

The HC gave its stamp of judicial approval to the Hindu belief that Lord Ram was indeed born there. The court also ruled by a majority verdict that the disputed 120 feet by 90 feet plot land be divided into three equal parts among three petitioners — Sunni Wakf Board, Nirmohi Akhara and the party representing Ram Lalla.

This also means that the court’s three-way split of the plot to the petitioners — even after dismissing their cases — has kept the window open for further talks. […]

The court said the area under the central dome of the three-domed structure, where Lord Ram’s idol existed [and is presently kept in a makeshift temple at the same place], belonged to Ram Lala Virajman (the Ram deity). [Ed. note: previous brackets were in original]

The case is likely to remain unsettled for years if there is an appeal (as expected) to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, there are already political reverberations in Bihar, one of India’s largest states and one where voting begins in state assembly elections later this month.

The Ayodhya issue–specifically the 1992 destruction by militant Hindu nationalists of a Mosque built in Moghul times on the site Hindus claim as holy–was one that helped propel India’s main opposition party, the BJP, to prominence. One of the BJP’s partners in the National Democratic Alliance (which governed India from the late 1990s until 2004) is the JD(U), a party in Bihar that needs Muslim votes.

Great news for Colombian democracy!

The Constitutional Court of Colombia has blocked the planned referendum that would have opened the path to President Alvaro Uribe running for a third term.

This is a major benchmark (so to speak) in the maturity and institutionalization of Colombian democracy. I had long thought the third term ultimately would not happen, but my confidence in that expectation had been badly shaken as the process came this close to permitting the referendum.

The new president will be elected in May (or June, if a runoff is needed). Congress is elected in March, and there will be campaigns for various parties’ presidential candidacies, some of which will be decided in primaries concurrent with the legislative elections.

Much more at PoliBlog (Steven is leaving for some field research in Colombia rather soon; great timing, Steven!).

The Honduran Supreme Court case

Greg Weeks notes that documents pertaining to the case against the Honduran President have finally been posted on line.

Supporting suppositions I have articulated here since the military coup, Greg notes that nowhere in the documents does he find any accusation regarding an intent by Zelaya to seek reelection.

And there is the laughable claim that the court had to order the military to detain Zelaya because he was a threat to flee!

Much more at the link above, as well as an earlier post at Two Weeks Notice.