So much for fixed terms

Barring a further unexpected turn of events, it seems the UK government has an answer to the question of whether an early election can be called, despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. [Update: the measure to call the election has passed.]

Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated that she wants a snap election. In May, of course–Alas, no, it is actually on 8 June.

Under the FTPA, parliament can be dissolved early only if (1) the government loses confidence and a resolution of confidence in a government (whether the original or a new one) is not passed within 14 days, or (2) the House of Commons votes by two-thirds of its total number to dissolve itself.

May is seeking the latter, and with opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying he “welcomes” an election, the vote is likely to go ahead.

May’s Conservatives have a narrow majority in the current Commons. The snap election is likely to give the party a much bigger one. This may not do much to strengthen the government’s hand with the EU in Brexit negotiations (the ostensible justification), but it should strengthen its hand against its own back-benchers.

Recommended: Alan Renwick’s take.

Presidential runoffs

With the upcoming French presidential election first-round contest looking more and more like a four-way race, now is a good time to visualize performance of candidates across the two rounds of majority-runoff presidential elections.

The data plot here graphs the top two candidates’ shares of the vote in the first round (y-axis) against their runoff share (x-axis). The candidate who had the most votes in the first round is shown with a circle, and the second candidate with a triangle. This is from the Shugart-Taagepera dataset, which contains 117 presidential elections in countries with politically significant presidents. There are 34 elections depicted in the graph–all those in which the rule was that a candidate needed over 50% to win in the first round, but no candidate achieved that threshold.

The solid line at 0.5 marks the runoff victory threshold, thus allowing us to see at a glance how close the runoff was.

Two noteworthy facts:

  1. A leading candidate under 25% is unusual. In this dataset, there are only two prior such cases–both in France (1997 and 2002).
  2. When no one can crack about 35% the votes, it becomes quite likely that the runoff will be won by the second-place candidate. (That is, after all, why there is a runoff; the first-round leader might not be a consensus pick.) The graph shows nine cases in which the first-placed candidate initially had under 35%, and in six of those the trailing candidate came back to win the runoff. Three of these winners started out under 30%.

Many polls suggest that France could wind up in both these categories in 2017.

A final curious observation: The dashed diagonal line marks equality of second and first round shares. One might think that no candidates would be to the “northwest” of this line, as in a two-candidate runoff, both candidates might be expected to increase their vote share following a first round that had three or more competitors. Yet two runoff contenders managed to lose vote share between rounds. The dubious distinction goes to John Atta Mills in Ghana in 2000 (44.5% in the first round, 43.1% in the runoff) and Geraldo Alckmin in Brazil in 2006 (41.6%, then 39.2%). In both cases, turnout may have been a factor; the number of votes cast was lower in both runoffs than it had been at the first round. Jean-Marie Le Pen was close to this line in the French 2002 election, but he did manage a small increase in his vote share, even with a large increase in turnout in the runoff following the shock of the National Front showing in the first round.

France 2017 presidential scenarios

The graphic at this link shows a wide range of scenarios for potential runoff pairings for the French presidential contest. It comes from a recent Les Echos poll.

The most likely overall scenario remains Emanuel Macron (independent center-left) beating Marine Le Pen (National Front) in the second round. He also beats François Fillon (Republican) by the same margin, 65-35.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Left Front, does better than I would have expected against various potential runoff opponents, beating Le Pen, 63-37, and Fillon, 59-41. While the idea of Mélenchon making it to the runoff is still a stretch, various recent polls have shown him having surged to within a few percentage points of second place in the first round.

The potential runoff pairing of Le Pen and Fillon is the most worrisome. While Le Pen still loses, it is closer, at 58-42.

Macron beats Mélenchon in the closest (and probably least likely) of these scenarios, 54-46.

Macron has been slipping in first-round polls. What once seemed certain–that he would make the top two and then easily win the runoff–now looks somewhat less so. His position as a runoff contender has become more precarious, with a crowd of three (Macron, Fillon, Mélenchon) along with Le Pen (who is almost certainly going to finish first, or at worst second if Macron recovers).

These results are what always trouble me about two-round majority systems. It is not unusual for the main contest to be for the second slot, and for two or more candidates to be vying for it. And sometimes the runoff pairing can make quite a difference. Fortunately, there is no very likely scenario in which Le Pen draws such a weak opponent that she wins.

Yet the pairing with the scandal-plagued Fillon should give voters pause. Behind whom to coordinate to block him? The obvious choice is, of course, Macron. But Mélenchon may be more competitive than even recent polls suggest, if still more left-wing voters dessert Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate with no realistic chance of making it to the runoff. Fortunately, as noted, even Mélenchon looks to beat Le Pen, though I’d take a scenario that voters may not have really digested yet with a grain of salt.

The first round is on 23 April.

Turkey referendum: Latin Americanization on the road to autocracy

Turkey will go to the polls on April 16th, to vote on a set of constitutional amendments which would change the country’s system of government to presidentialism. Though it seems that in Turkey, the current system is generally referred to as ‘parliamentary’, Turkey has actually been semi-presidential (specifically, premier-presidential) since the country’s first direct presidential election was held in 2014.

The amendments passed the three-fifths legislative majority necessary to put them to referendum with support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Introducing presidentialism has long been president Erdogan’s express wish. The idea has apparently been around in Turkish politics for a while before it was adopted by the Erdogan and his party, AKP. Full presidentialism seems to have been ‘plan A’, so introducing semi-presidentialism (passed in 2007, entering operation in 2014) was perhaps only ever meant as a way-station toward this goal.

The main details of the amendments are as follows:

  1. Establishing presidentialism:

As stated above the president is already elected directly, specifically using a two-round system. The president is to become both head of state and head of government, with the power to appoint and fire ministers and the vice president. There is no requirement for the Grand National Assembly to confirm appointments. Executive office is incompatible with assembly membership. Interpolation of ministers is to be removed from the constitution, leaving MPs with written questions.

  1. Legislative powers:

The president is to have veto power over legislation, subject to absolute majority override in the assembly. He is to have the power to issue decrees in “matters concerning the executive power” and regulations “to provide for the enforcement of the laws, provided they are not contrary to them”. These cannot affect fundamental rights, except under a state of emergency; an emergency can be declared by the president without confirmation by the assembly, but the latter must be notified immediately and can shorten or end it at any time. These decree powers are essentially the same as those currently held by the cabinet. The president would also dominate the budgetary process: the complete budget is to be proposed by the president and put to a straight up-or-down vote in the assembly without possibility of amendment, with failure to adopt a budget within a timeframe leading to continuation of previous arrangements.

  1. Term lengths and dissolution power:

The assembly’s term in extended to five years (from the current four) and legislative and presidential elections are to be held concurrently. If the presidency becomes vacant, fresh presidential elections must be held. If parliamentary elections are due within less than a year, then they too are held on the same day as early presidential elections; if the parliament has over a year left before its term expires, the newly elected president serves until the end of the parliamentary term, after which presidential and parliamentary election cycles are held concurrently again.

The president is to be limited to being elected twice, but there are some exceptions, the first of which is that a mid-term vacancy-filling election doesn’t count towards the total. The current presidential power to dissolve the assembly is retained, in addition to a new clause which enables the assembly to dissolve itself, by three-fifths majority vote – in either case, fresh elections are held for both president and assembly, who serve new five-year terms. Early concurrent elections triggered by the assembly can always be contested by the president.

  1. Impeachment

The president or any member of the executive is indicted by two-thirds majority in the assembly (upon which many powers, including dissolution, are suspended), which takes the decision on removal to the Supreme Court. A president which has thus been removed is ineligible for re-election.

  1. Judiciary

The acts of the president, previously protected, are now to be subject to judicial review. The structure of the judiciary will not change much – with the role of the president in appointments remaining quite strong. Of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the president is to appoint 6 and the assembly is to appoint 7 (4 of whom must be judges from the highest courts) – for renewable four-year terms. The Council appoints most (two-thirds to three-quarters) of the judges of each of the highest courts, with the rest being appointed by the president directly.

According to the BBC, Erdogan claims that the new system will ‘resemble those in France and the US’. There is clearly little truth to this. First of all, France is semi-presidential, specifically the premier-presidential variant. This means that the prime minister, while appointed by the president, can formally only be removed by the assembly – in other words, what Turkey has now. These amendments would outright abolish the prime ministership and parliamentary responsibility, granting the president (already in a position to play a dominant role in the country’s government) absolute control over the executive branch.

Does that mean that the new system will essentially be the same as the US? Not really. Presidential or not, the proposed system includes numerous features bearing little resemblance the American model of checks and balances. The amendments would invest the Turkish president with extensive constitutional decree powers, allow him to all but dictate the budget, but on the other hand leave him with a substantially weaker veto than the US. The absence of assembly confirmation vote for ministers, not to mention presidential dissolution power, are also alien to the US constitution. Overall, the proposed institutional framework is to bear far greater resemblance to past and present constitutions of Latin America, where assembly confirmation is non-existent, emergency and decree powers are common, while some of the other institutions in question have featured occasionally, e.g. presidential dissolution power (Ecuador, formerly Chile and Argentina) and weaker veto (Brazil, formerly Venezuela).

In any case, the proposed amendments represent an immense consolidation of power in the hands of president Erdogan. It would probably allow him to serve beyond the supposed limit of two five-year terms. Judicial appointments involve a somewhat greater degree of presidential influence over a judiciary that has already lost a great deal of independence in recent years. Judicial review, needless to say, will not amount to much. Furthermore, the requirement for judicial ratification may leave impeachment ultimately toothless even in the unlikely event that the requisite majority were achieved in the assembly. Meanwhile, the weak veto and the assembly’s own (weaker) power to call early elections is unlikely to provide much balance in practice. Though dissolution would entail new elections for both president and assembly, a president armed with the power to dissolve the assembly still seems more likely to have the upper hand in the exceptional situation his party ever lacks a majority there – exceptional because of the country’s majoritarian system, and because the president’s very power of calling early elections enables him to do so opportunistically, as Erdogan did in 2015[1].

The Venice Commission’s report characterises the proposed changes as “a dangerous step backwards” for democracy in Turkey. It certainly feels hard to disagree.

[1] One might add (as the Venice Commission does) the fact that elections will be concurrent, which is certainly true, though, as we have recently seen, it’s certainly possible (though still uncommon) for countries to elect a president in the second round that was not of the legislative majority elected concurrently with the first round (e.g. Argentina, Peru), while more generally, two-round systems cause vote fragmentation in the first round. If elections in Turkey remain competitive, it may be that the two round system will, in the long run, cause fragmentation which will spread to the assembly. Perhaps more likely is that once in a while, the concurrent elections could result in divided government as in the first scenario I mention here. A situation like that might provoke Linzian scenarios, but is probably most likely to simply result in early elections at some point, whose outcome would most likely be a reversion to the regular unified control.

Magnitude and party advantage ratios

What is the relationship between district magnitude and a party’s advantage in seats, relative to votes?

Using the same district-level dataset that Rein Taagepera and I use for our forthcoming Votes from Seats (and which has its original source in CLEA), we can answer this question. The sample I am using here is simple PR systems–those in which the districts are the sole locus of seat allocation (i.e., leaving out two-tier systems).

The advantage ratio (A) is the best way to examine this; it is just a party’s percentage of seats, divided by its percentage of votes.The table below shows the average A for magnitudes (M) ranging from 2 to 7. The larger the A, the more a given party is over-represented. The table shows mean A values for the first, second, and third largest parties (by vote share in the district), as well as how many districts of a given magnitude are in the dataset .

M A, 1st A, 2nd A, 3rd Num. obs.
2 1.29 1.50 0.00 172
3 1.34 1.10 0.50 98
4 1.25 1.15 0.50 103
5 1.26 1.14 0.64 112
6 1.19 1.17 0.73 72
7 1.19 1.09 0.81 79

We can see that M=2 is the only case where the second largest party gains more than the largest does, on average. This result is well known from the experience in Chile. I had thought we might see a similar pattern at M=4. However, we do not. As with all other magnitudes except 2, the largest party at M=4 tends to have a bigger advantage ratio than the second, although the two largest parties’ A values are closer here than in odd M‘s just above and below.

Also of interest fro the same query to the dataset, we find that the lowest magnitude at which A<1.10 for the largest party is M=17. The average for the largest party never falls below 1.00. The second party first falls to A<1.10 at M=13 and then stays right around 1.00 through all higher values.

As for the third largest party, it stays, on average below A=1.00 till M=13, but falls below 1.00 again at several higher M values. The fourth largest party has to wait till M=20 (and likewise has some higher magnitudes where it falls below 1.00).

At higher magnitudes, these average values tend to bounce around a bit, mainly because the sample at any given magnitude is small and thus subject to vagaries of country-level (or district-level) factors (including allocation rules, although the vast majority of these are D’Hondt).

I have long “known” that 4-seat districts tended to under-represent the largest party, relative to the second largest. Well, apparently one should check what one “knows”. Thanks to Jack (on Twitter) for the prompt to investigate.

Netherlands, compared to the Seat Product expectation

The recent election in the Netherlands was noteworthy for its high fragmentation. But was it higher than we should expect, given an extremely proportional electoral system? If so, how much higher?

Fortunately, from Taagepera’s Seat Product Model, we have a baseline against which to compare any given election. For “simple” electoral systems–those with a single tier of allocation and a basic PR formula (or FPTP)–we expect:


NS is the effective number of seat-winning parties, whereas s1 is the seat share of the largest party. MS is the seat product, defined as the mean district magnitude, times the assembly size. The derivation of these models for expectations may be found in Taagepera (2007), and is also summarized in Li and Shugart (2016) and my forthcoming book with Taagepera, Votes from Seats.

Two important points about these models: (1) They are not mere regression estimates, bur rather are derived deductively; (2) On average, they are remarkably accurate. For long-term European democracies, the mean ratio of actual NS to the model expectation is 1.007; for s1 it is 1.074. (They are not substantially less accurate for other regions or younger democracies, but given the topic of this post, the longer-run European democracies are the most relevant comparison set. The ratios reported are based on 219 individual elections.)

For the Netherlands, with a single nationwide district, MS=150*150=22,500. This means we should expect, on average, in an electoral system like that of the Netherlands, that NS=5.31 and the largest party has 28.6% of the seats (s1=0.286). In other words, we should expect the Dutch party system to be quite fragmented.

In the graphs below, we compare the actual values in each election since 1945 to the Seat Product expectation.

First, for NS.

Now, for s1.

Strikingly, both values are well off the expectation now and have been in some other recent elections–but not so much as recently as 2012 or 2006. The 2017 election appears to be a continuation or acceleration a trend, but that trend has been somewhat irregular. Note, however, a bit farther back in the past there were elections in which NS was much lower than expected, and s1 much higher–in other words, when fragmentation was less than expected. (Note to readers: On 31 March I revised this paragraph to better reflect the recent trends shown in the graph.)

Over the entire period, the mean effective number of seat-winning parties has been 5.08, and the mean largest seat share has been 0.29. In other words, the Netherlands has not been exceptional in its long-term averages, given its extremely high seat product.

A key question is whether fragmentation will again come back closer to expectation. This is not a question the Seat Product Model can answer. But note that if we had been running this test in about 1986, I might have said, “will the Dutch electoral system ever again fragment, like we’d expect?” Sometimes things even out, sometimes they don’t.

Obviously, the fragmentation inn 2017 is far higher, relative to the baseline than it was during the previous (and brief) fragmenting around 1970. Perhaps that means the Dutch party system has entered a new phase from which there is no turning back. The very high proportionality of the system means it can sustain this level of fragmentation without anyone being seriously under-represented. On the other hand, one might want to be careful about assuming recent trends can’t reverse themselves. Parties could merge, or voters could tire of voting for small parties that are only bit players in policy-making.

The value of the Seat Product Model is it lets us go beyond simply saying “the Netherlands uses PR, so fragmentation is no surprise” or, alternatively, “fragmentation is out of control in the Netherlands”. It lets us say just how much the fragmentation in the Netherlands is out of whack with expectation. In 2017, the precise answer is that NS is 1.62 times the expectation, while s1 is 77% of expectation. That degree of divergence from the expectation is almost at the 99th percentile for NS among European countries; the divergence for s1 is at about the 18th percentile.

Will actual and expected values again converge in the Netherlands? Stick around for a few more elections and see.

Netherlands 2017 open thread

I hope to have something to say about the recent election in the Netherlands. But so far have not. But maybe you do. Here is your chance!

We can talk about the election result itself, or the coalition negotiations, which should be pretty interesting.

(Part of the reason for not having a post yet is that I made this election one of the themes for my students’ final exam earlier this week. And now that means exams and papers must be graded, grades assigned, etc.)