Congressional seat for presidential runner-up

A package of political reforms is wending its way through the Colombian congress (yes, again). Among the provisions is one that would grant an automatic seat in the Senate to the runner-up in the presidential election.

I am aware of one other country that has (had?) such a provision: Nicaragua under its 1987 constitution. Are there others that readers are aware of?

The appeal of this sort of measure might stem from “parliamentary envy”: In parliamentary systems, it is almost guaranteed that the prime ministerial candidates of the main losing parties (as well as the leaders of other parties) will have seats in the legislature. On the other hand, what if a defeated party replaces its leader, as is actually quite common in parliamentary systems?* The new leader typically also has a seat in parliament, but under the “defeated presidential candidate” provision, a change in leadership would not change who represents the party as its “opposition leader”. This seems less than helpful to establishing “opposition guarantees” (the name of the constitutional amendment bill in Colombia).

Basically, it seems to me that members of an elected legislative body should have to win seats themselves (via whatever candidate-selection processes and electoral system apply to the body), rather than be given one via the outcome of the executive election. That is, the measure strikes me as a poor substitute for strengthening parties such that the opposition to the president has a platform in the legislature. Of course, Colombia has tried various such measures since its major constitutional process of 1991 (and earlier). And they keep coming up short.

The Colombian bill goes one step farther: the running mate of the runner-up would get a seat in the House of Representatives. Because, after all, there are few things more valuable to national discourse than defeated vice-presidential candidates.

* Very recent example: the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties resigned their positions (though will remain MPs) immediately after the British election.

Colombian president’s reform proposals

The Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, currently seeking reelection, and his new running mate, Germán Vargas Lleras, have proposed a package of institutional reforms.

The proposals are:

    Abolish reelection eligibility of the president;
    Extend the term of the president from 4 to 6 years;
    Unify the terms of the president with those of regional and municipal elected executives (governors and mayors);
    Abolish the national district for the Senate;
    Abolish the preference vote.

Apparently congressional terms, currently four years, would not be changed. While Colombia does not use concurrent elections, the terms of office for both congress and president are both four years. (At this moment we are in the period in between the congressional elections, held in March, and the presidential elections, the first round of which will be 25 May.)

In general, I do not like different term lengths for president and assembly in pure presidential systems. When combined with “permissive” rules such as relatively high-magnitude PR and the election of the presidency by majority runoff, different electoral cycles for president and congress promote too much fragmentation.* The last thing Colombian politics needs is more encouragement to fragmentation.

Abolition of the national Senate district would be a movement in a less permissive direction, which might by itself be desirable, but at the cost of removing the current beneficial effect of allowing for minority political views to aggregate support across regions. (Aside from major urban centers, most house district magnitudes are in the 2-7 range.) Abolition of the preference vote would probably encourage more splitting of some existing parties that manage to cooperate only because various candidates, and the factions they belong to, can cultivate votes independently within lists, while still pooling for their common seat-maximization. Again, Colombia hardly needs devices to encourage fragmentation.

These proposals would be, in my assessment, retrogressions. (In case that was not clear by now.)

* Under current rules, governors and mayors (and those levels’ respective legislative bodies) are elected to four-year terms, but in odd-numbered years (2007, 2011, etc.). The linked article mentions the possibility of extending the terms of those regional and local executives elected in 2011 until 2018, when the next presidential election is due.