France: Outsider vs. outsider?

The rise of Emmanuel Macron in polls for the French election has been impressive.

France is likely to get a president who is an “outsider”. But not the ultra-nationalist norm-trashing outsider. France has a sensible electoral system for choosing presidents that will prevent such a disastrous travesty of democracy–unlike the United States.

Sometimes the news media gloss over the important detail of the runoff. For instance, although a CNBC story mentions that there are two rounds of voting for president, it still gives a false, context-free impression: That Marine Le Pen’s recent decline in the polls, relative to Macron, means that her chances of becoming president are “slipping”.

No, there was never a realistic threat of her winning, because of that second round. A French president must win over half the votes. Unlike the US, where you don’t even need the highest vote total.

It seems almost certain now that the top two will be Le Pen and Macron. There is even some chance that Macron will win the first-round plurality (aided by the recent withdrawal of Francoios Bayrou from the race), although it does not matter which is first and which is second.

Unless Francois Fillon recovers–which seems unlikely–neither of the mainstays of the established French party system, the Republicans (as the main center-right force now calls itself) nor the Socialists, will be in the runoff.

The candidate of the incumbent Socialist party, Benoit Hamon, has almost no chance of making it. The recent backing of Yannick Jadot, a former Greenpeace director who had been running, is hardly going to do the trick. And he has apparently failed to make a deal with the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. (The combined support of these two maybe would be enough to squeak into the top two–if Hamon did not bleed support by linking up with Mélenchon, as almost surely would be the case.)

Thus the contest will be between two “outsiders”, by which I mean candidates having no ties to major parties represented in the National Assembly. Of course, Le Pen has a party, the Front National, that gets substantial votes, but is unable to win many districts under the two-round (majority-plurality) assembly electoral system.

Macron, on the other hand, has no existing party–just a “movement”, En Marche! With assembly elections coming up very soon after the presidential elections, “he is recruiting candidates from all backgrounds to stand at parliamentary elections in June” (Economist article, second link above).

We normally expect a large boost for the president’s party when elections are held very early in the term–a honeymoon election. He has to make a party fast, if he is to take advantage.

Retractable concession–Gambia

It is always a remarkable thing when an authoritarian president who no one expects to lose accepts defeat (quite jovially and seemingly even humbly) in an election. It is still remarkable, though less enjoyable, to see such a president turn around and retract his concession. That’s what happened in Gambia in the space of a week earlier this month.

An opposition leader’s unfortunate remark about plans to prosecute President Yahya Jammeh might have contributed, but surely Jammeh would fear that regardless of any statements. He may have attempted to stop the vote count on election day and failed, lacking support among military and police. (Guardian, Dec. 7)

Perhaps it just took him a week to rally (buy?) support in the security services to reject the election. The head of the army actually pledged his allegiance to the victor, Adama Barrow (defenceWeb, Dec. 8) only to appear a few days later with an image of Jammeh pinned to his uniform (Dakaractu, Dec. 14)

In the meantime, there had also been a substantial revision of the vote. Jammeh’s margin of defeat to Barrow narrowed from about nine percentage points to only four, although that’s still a fairly clear margin. Notwithstanding the result, Jammeh has declared himself president while armed forces continue to block the Independent Election Commission headquarters.

(Gambians vote with marbles!)

I will add, because this is F&V, that Gambia elects its president by plurality. Barrow’s vote total, according to the election commission, was 43.3%. Jammeh’s was 39.6% and a third candidate, Mama Kandeh, won 17.1%. I don’t know anything about Kandeh, but I wonder if his presence–or the lack of a runoff requirement–robbed Barrow of a more decisive victory. It might not have mattered, and of course we have seen African dictators before who admit falling to second place in the first round of a two-round election, then manage to make it impossible for the opposition to prevail (or even contest) the runoff. (See Zimbabwe, 2008.)


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.)

Peru’s narrow presidential win–and unusual divided government

In Peru, narrow loser Keiko Fujimori has now conceded defeat to Pedro Pablo Kaczynski (PPK) in the presidential run-off. The final result is 50.12% to 49.9%. This is right up there with some of the slimmest margins in the annals of presidential elections. It does not quite beat Taiwan, 2004, however (50.11-49.89).*

Of particular interest is that this election results in divided government, defined as a single-party majority in the assembly opposed to the president. That majority is itself unusual, as it was based on just 37.8% of the vote. Fujimori’s party, Fuerza Popular (FP), won 73 seats out of 130 (56.5%), for an advantage ratio of 1.49. That is staggeringly high for a “proportional” system. Peru uses D’Hondt divisors. The mean district magnitude is around 5. Ordinarily, even D’Hondt (known to favor the largest party) would not produce such a disproportional outcome, particularly given that the country has several large-magnitude districts. However, the second largest party nationwide had only 17.1% (Peruanos Por el Kambio**), implying that in many districts, FP must have been far ahead and therefore poised to maximize advantage out of the D’Hondt divisors. (I did not take the time to scrutinize the district results myself.)

The assembly election was concurrent with the first round, and the FP actually ran just a little behind its candidate, who won 39.9%. PPK (the candidate) won 21.1% in the first round, thereby running well ahead of PPK (the party). Even so, he required a big runoff comeback to eventually win. In fact, Peru 2016 would be just a bit to the right of Austria’s recent (also very close) election in the graph I posted on runoff comebacks.

I do not know of another case of divided government resulting from a presidential runoff election where the assembly had been elected concurrent to the presidential first round.

This was a very unusual election season in Peru. Governing may be a challenge, and divided government may yield some upcoming reminders that the Peruvian system actually is semi-presidential.


* By comparison, the recent election in Austria was practically a landslide.

** The spelling is a play on Pedro Pablo Kaczynski’s initials.

Runoff comebacks

In light of the Austrian presidential runoff election this past Sunday, the question arises: how common is it for the first-round leader to be defeated in the runoff? I can’t claim to have a specific quantitative answer to this question. However, I do have a graph that I prepared some years ago that helps contextualize the Austrian case.

The original graph has only Latin American cases, and ends around 2006. In the version posted here, I add the Austrian election and another prominent example from Europe: Portugal (1986). The x-axis shows the vote percentage of the candidate who came in first in the first round, while the y-axis is the second candidate’s vote percentage. A triangle indicates cases in which the second-place candidate came back to win the runoff.

majority_graph w Austria//

The vertical grey line is at 50%. Obviously, if the first round result is to the right of this line, there is no comeback possible because the threshold for victory was met in the first round. The diagonal grey line marks equality between the top two candidates.

We should expect runoff comebacks (those marked with triangles) to be decreasingly common as we move farther down from the diagonal, and also as we get closer to the 50% line. In this sense, the Portugal 1986 case is truly extraordinary, as the first-round leader was quite close to 50% and faced a runoff challenger who had finished far back. The Austrian case is quite striking, too, with the second candidate having a shortfall to make up that was almost as big as in the Portuguese case. On the other hand, a leading candidate on only 35% is quite vulnerable. Most of the earlier cases depicted in the graph are of front-runners who were under 35%, and there are two others (aside from Portugal 1986) in which the first-round leader was over 40%. But all of these other cases had with a runner-up much closer than was the case in Austria.

Some day I should update the graph with more recent Latin American cases, as well as the full range of cases from other regions. This graph, however, makes clear that a comeback like we just saw in Austria is unusual.
(The original version of the graph appears in Matthew Søberg Shugart. 2007. “Mayoría relativa vs. segunda vuelta: la elección presidencial mexicana de 2006 en perspectiva comparada,” Política y gobiernoXIV, 1, Primer semestre.)

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.