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.)

 

The Italian Constitutional Referendum: Political and Institutional Consequences of a Striking “NO”

By Gianluca Passarelli

The electoral results of the constitutional referendum have led to the Prime Minister’s resignation. But let us consider what happened before.

On December 4th 2016, Italian voters expressed their vote on a referendum about constitutional reforms. This was the third referendum of its kind in Italy, with the other two held in 2001 and 2006. The two options presented to voters this time were related to the approval or rejection of the reform promoted by Matteo Renzi’s government and his centre-left parliamentary majority. However, several Democratic Party’s MPs decided not to support Renzi’s position, and used the ballot as a tool to oppose their leader due to different visions of the party, the government, policies, and the reform itself. The reform was approved earlier by an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, but the proposed changes required a two-thirds majority in parliament in order to be implemented without a referendum according to the Italian Constitution (art. 138.3). Since this threshold was not met in parliament, the referendum was called (by the Government) by collecting the required number of voter signatures, as stated by the art. 138.2, while the opponents to the reform were not able in getting the minimum number of required signatures (500.000).

The result of the referendum was both clear and decisive. Approximately 60% of voters cast a “NO” vote in opposition to the proposed reforms and only 40% voted in favor. Perhaps the most striking result was voter turnout. Nearly 70% of eligible voters cast a vote, a percentage that is similar to that reached in general elections in Italy (e.g., 75% in 2013). This figure also confirms that Italy remains a democracy with one of the highest electoral participation rates in the world. Despite this high turnout figure, one of the most notable features of the referendum is the persistent North-South divide in terms of turnout and the level of rejection of the reform. Rejection of the referendum was particularly high in southern regions, with peaks in Sicily, Sardinia, and Campania. Support for the referendum was limited and prevailed in only two regions (i.e., Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna), as well as in the province of Bolzano.

A closer investigation of the result reveals a clear centre/periphery electoral pattern, with “NO” support found in less urbanized areas, and “YES” support located in urban and metropolitan areas, though unable to surpass 50%. A positive correlation appears to exist between the support for the referendum and support for the Democratic Party in recent elections. Therefore, the “centre-periphery” cleavage is not necessarily a surprise because the Democratic Party tends to perform better in urban areas. The age of voters was also a factor with younger voters in general more likely to reject the referendum. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of Italians who participated in the referendum from abroad supported the reform. Since only a few of the smallest parties in Italy and Renzi’s PD supported the reform, the negative result is not entirely surprising though the overwhelming turnout was.

The precise language of the December 4, 2016 referendum was as follows:

«Do you approve the constitutional bill concerning the proposals to overcome perfect bicameralism, to reduce  the number of members of the Parliament, to reduce the operating costs of said institutions, to abolish CNEL and to revise Title V of the 2nd part of the Constitution, which was approved by the Parliament and published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale n. 88, on April 15, 2016?»

What was really at the stake beyond this question? Although the reform modified the text of 46 of the 138 articles of the Italian Constitution, the “real” changes were far fewer and included minor “revisions” as a consequence of double references (here the text of the reform). In fact, the most significant of the proposed reforms were centered around two key issues: eliminating Italy’s ‘symmetric bicameralism’, and reforming the Italian senate.

The elimination of Italy’s ‘perfect’ or better symmetrical bicameralism was central to the reform. Since both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate maintain an equal share of legislative power, political impasse and obstruction are more common that progress. In fact, as established in 1947, identical texts of Italian laws must be approved by both branches of parliament. Moreover, since both houses confer the confidence to the government, each can autonomously provoke a government’s downfall by withdrawing its confidence. Such kind of bicameralism is unique among contemporary democracies and is a subject of much debate by politicians and scholars alike. It also contributes to political instability especially after 1994, as the risk of different majorities in the two branches has increased due to differences in how and who selects deputies (e.g., minimum voter age is 18 years), and senators (e.g., minimum voter age is 25 years) These different electorates have divergent electoral behaviors that are further accentuated by the regional allocation of seats for the Senate versus the national allocation for the Chamber. Therefore, the electoral geography of Italian politics plays an important role in the allocation of parliamentary seats with increased party and voter volatility.

The collapse of the pre- 1989 party system opened the door to more opinion-based electoral behaviors, together with new parties that were not linked to historical political traditions. The success of the Five Star Movement in 2013, attractive to younger voters (about 44% according to ITANES), and the Northern League since 1992-1994, that is/was especially settled in northern regions, highlight the need for parties to focus on a few regions where the number of seats allocated to the Senate was bigger, as in Lombardy, Campania, or Veneto. This was particularly true for the Senate and especially after 2005. According to those campaigning in favor of the referendum, abandoning the system in which both chambers have equal powers, not only in terms of confidence in a government but also in legislative terms, would have yielded a more efficient and effective government.

The second key reform behind the referendum concerned reducing the Senate’s legislative powers, modifying the (s)election of senators’, and changing the composition of the Senate. Abolishing the senate was never an option, and keeping it in some form permitted the government to maintain regional representation and interests. As noted above, reducing the Senate’s power however was argued to be fundamental to streamlining the Italian legislative process. That said, the Senate would still be consulted on matters and laws concerning constitutional reform, the electoral system, the ratification of international treaties, local and regional government, and the most important EU policies. This was an opposite approach to that of the constitutional reform approved in 2001.

The referendum also included changes to the selection of Italian senators and the composition of the senate. The Senate currently has 315 members, elected by direct popular vote, plus a few life senators (former Presidents of the Republic, and personalities appointed by the President). Under the proposed reform, the Senate would have been composed of 100 members – 95 elected members and 5 chosen by the President of the Republic, and appointed for a seven-year term (the life senators were abolished). Senators were to have been elected based on the share of Italy’s population among the 20 administrative regions: 74 of them would have been members of the regions’ legislative councils and 21 chosen among mayors. One of the most controversial and debated topics over the long electoral campaign was related to the fact that those 95 would have been elected by each region’s council «in conformity with the choices made by the voters’ and ‘in accordance with the votes and composition of each council». In other words, senators were not to be directly elected by voters but selected by regional councils. Since the referendum was rejected, the Senate will maintain its historical functions and composition.

In addition to the key reforms described above, it is worth noting some other amendments included in the referendum. In particular, the reform established that if a referendum was proposed by at least 800,000 citizens, the election will be considered valid if more than half of the total number of voters who took part in the most recent general election voted in it. This change would have reduced the threshold for referendums, as without the reform the threshold is equal to the absolute majority of eligible voters. Moreover, in terms of “direct democracy” tools, the reform stated that it would be mandatory for parliament to discuss a legislative initiative supported by at least 150,000 Italian voters (currently a popular bill proposal must be advanced by at least 50,000 voters but without any provision on the parliament’s duty to discuss it (art. 71.2 of the Constitution).

 Political and institutional consequences

Soon after the exit polls projected that the majority of Italians rejected the proposed referendum, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi quickly announced his resignation. Renzi’s resignation was indeed unusual but expected because he tied the referendum’s success to his own personal political success and support throughout the campaign. Consequently, Renzi’s risky political choice not only undermined his political career but also created another government crisis. In the week following Renzi’s resignation, the new government of Paolo Gentiloni, former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Renzi’s government, took the office. The new «president of the council of the ministers» (as such it is defined the Italian head of the government, art. 92 of the Constitution) has been appointed by the President of the Republic and he should receive the vote of confidence of… both chambers.

Renzi’s resignation also exposed the fissures and divides within the Italian Democratic Party.  Furthermore, regardless of when the next general elections will be held, the current electoral law poses several challenges. In fact, the new law approved in 2005 did not modified the Senate, as the constitutional reform modified the bicameralism and the Senate powers and relationship with the government, as said above. Therefore, the Senate electoral law was not changed also because the reform’s supporters thought the referendum would pass. Moreover, currently we will have separate units for bonus calculation (yes for the Chamber not for the Senate). Therefore, similar majorities cannot be assured.

Then, the constitutional reform was in somehow related to the new electoral law, which came into force in July 2016, albeit never been used. As for the previous 2005 electoral law, the so-called Italicum – as labelled by the Prime Minister Renzi – it is a bonus-adjusted proportional representation system. The majority bonus should be allocated to the most voted list, and no longer to a coalition of parties as in 2005. 340 MPs out of 618 are allocated to the most voted list, provided that it reaches 40% of the valid votes at national level (no further bonus is awarded if the list already had that quota through proportional distribution). If no list would get this many votes, a run-off is held two weeks later between the two most voted lists. No formal alliances (the so-called apparentamento) are allowed between lists running in the first round to compete to the run-off. Moreover, in spite of what happened in 2005, the Italicum foresaw only one legal threshold to enable access to the distribution of seats. Such access is allowed  solely for those lists that will reach at least the 3% of valid votes nationwide. Once the majority bonus is assigned (in this sense the system is majority assuring, whatever the result of the first round), the rest of seats are allocated with PR (Hare quota and largest remainders) to the list that has overcome the national threshold; no mechanism of repêchage has been introduced. Vice versa, an peculiar element of the 1948-1993 system has been re-introduced, given that the new electoral law allow voters to cast up to two preference votes (male/female candidates) for the open candidates (i.e. excluding the head-of-list) of their party, by writing the corresponding names on the ballot.

A first clarification (if any) should come from the Constitutional court, whose decision is scheduled for January 24 2017. The Court could likely drop the majority bonus for the Chamber of Deputies in order to make “more similar” the two electoral systems for the two Houses, albeit the Senate would still have a regional allocation of seats. Moreover, some changes could intervene in the voters’ provisions such as the preference votes. By the way, I am wondering if anybody among politicians and/or scholars is seriously convinced, and arguably convincing, that that PV gives more effective power to the voters in selecting their MPs.

The currently situation has changed the parties’ strategy. The Five Star Movement that firmly opposed the Italicum has quickly changed its mind by calling early elections and a vote with the Italicum electoral law. The political and social contexts offer in fact to the M5s the unique chance to probably win the run-off either against the centre-right, or against the centre-left. Vice versa part of the outgoing Democratic Party’s MPs do not dislike to have a CLPR, with a high district magnitude. However, a possible rebirth of the 1993-2005 electoral law style could give to Italian voters the chance to select MPs via SMD plus some percentage of deputies elected via CLPR. In this context, Renzi has decided to leave the Government also to avoid to be exposed to the opposition’s attacks while preparing a new electoral law. Leaving the floor to his former foreign affairs minister, Renzi – as outgoing party’s secretary – is free to prepare the campaign to obtain the new political investiture to run in the following elections.

The 2016 referendum has generated both political and institutional consequences. Another (!) electoral law could be approved in the following months (even beyond the punctual changes the Court would likely make). Under the Italian electoral sky, it seems that many things happen and nothing change. Theoretically, if the parliament would not approve any other change, it could also be possible to have general elections with two different systems for the Chamber of the Deputies and the Senate/Chamber/senate. It remains that Italy’s has not a coherent electoral law, still has two chambers with same powers, and the fact that the parliament would approve a new electoral law is not granted. The uncertainty is still there. We will (fortunately?) know more soon.

Gianluca Passarelli – Sapienza University, Roma
@gia_passarelli

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.)

Canadian electoral reform report

I never thought I would see politicians debating the Gallagher index, but since yesterday’s release of the report of the Canadian parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform, that is indeed what is happening. The Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef has taken criticism (justified, in my view) for the way she has mocked the idea of relying on the index to guide reform.

While the governing Liberal Party ran on a platform last year saying the 2015 election would be the country’s last under FPTP, now that the Special Committee has reported, the Liberals appear spooked. The majority of the Committee has said there should be a referendum, and has stated a preference for some model of proportionality (preferably with a Gallagher index near 5%).

While the Committee was not specifically tasked with making a detailed recommendation of a new electoral system, the Minister is seizing on an alleged “lack of consensus” while simultaneously insisting there should not be a referendum. Unfortunately, this is looking exactly like the playbook I cynically suggested on 18 November was the Liberals’ intention.

When you combine cries of “no consensus” with “no referendum”, it might be because (1) you really do not want proportional representation, and (2) you fear the voters do.

The process is not over, by any means. But the government looks like it is running for cover, rather than embracing the report of the Committee that it established to carry out a campaign promise.

Canadian electoral reform process: NDP now says there could be a referendum

Canada’s New Democrats are now willing to support a referendum on electoral-system change, “if it means consensus among parties” on the parliamentary committee, which is to report on Dec. 1.

Previously, the NDP and the Liberals and other advocates of reform have been opposed to a referendum, either because they consider the Liberals’ platform pledge (and that of the NDP and Greens) a sufficient mandate for change, or because they fear a referendum can’t be won . Or both. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have consistently said such a big change must not happen without a referendum. Presumably they think they can defeat it.

The above-linked National Post story refers to this as not “the first time the NDP appeared to have out-maneuvered the Liberals on the electoral reform file.” This remark refers to the NDP having successfully forced the Liberals to make the composition of the committee reflect the parties’ shares of the popular vote instead of their shares of seats. The Liberals have a (manufactured) majority of seats, and the norm for committees is generally proportional representation according to seats.

At the time, I thought the Liberals’ concession to their not having a majority was a clear case of “act-contingency”–not wanting to appear opposed to a potentially popular concept of reform, whatever their sincere preferences on their platform commitment once they (surprisingly) won a majority of seats.

However, in recent weeks, I have thought that the non-majority on the committee was opening up a “perfect” opportunity for the Liberals to declare, “sorry, we tried, but could not get cross-party consensus”, and let the status quo remain. The NDP move may be an effort to head off that outcome and take their chances with a referendum. They might need to get a deal with the Conservatives to make it work.

That may not be quite as far-fetched as it seems. Both parties actually could benefit from a moderate PR system. For the NDP, usually the third-largest party nationally, the appeal of PR is obvious. For the Conservatives, the benefit would be from allowing the party’s disparate wings to appeal separately, either as factions competing within small multi-seat districts* or eventually as separate parties, as they were not so long ago.

The next several weeks may determine whether electoral reform can advance, at least to a referendum, against what remain pretty formidable hurdles.

 

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* I am assuming it would have to be STV or open lists. Closed lists are probably out of the question, even as part of an MMP system. And while the NDP and Greens logically prefer MMP (more highly proportional, even with only province-level compensation), the Conservatives and Liberals would like small-magnitude PR, if keeping the status quo looks uncertain. (And if, for the Liberals, AV is not achievable.)