Disturbing runoff pairing for Colombia

In yesterday’s presidential election in Colombia, the top two candidates were from the extremes of the political spectrum. Leading the pack is Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla of the M-19 (which demobilized about thirty years ago and has been a political party, or component of various alliances, since). He won 40.3% of the vote. In second place is Rodolfo Hernández, with 28.2%. He is an outsider–having had only municipal political experience in a medium-sized city1–and presents as Colombia’s Trump/Bolsonaro/Bukele. Or worse, as he is on record saying he admires Hitler.

Regular readers of this blog or followers of my published research will know I have always been skeptical of two-round majority election of presidents. And this Colombian runoff pairing is a perfect demonstration of why–sometimes reducing choices to two means a choice between two brands of poison. Consider the third-place candidate: Federico Gutiérrez, who finished just under five points behind Hernández, with 23.9%. He is from an alliance of several more mainstream right-wing parties, including La U, the party originally formed to back former President Alvaro Uribe and which later backed President Juan Manuel Santos (with whom Uribe broke, but that’s another story).

Whatever one might think of any of these candidates and political tendencies, one might posit that a candidate like Gutiérrez could be a more consensus and less risky candidate for the top job. But first he had to stay ahead of Hernández and qualify for the runoff. Moreover, whatever one might think of the notion of a left-wing former guerrilla as president,2 one might posit that 40%, with a 12-point lead over the runner-up in a fragmented field, maybe should suffice. (See the double complement rule–first proposed by Shugart and Taagepera, 1994–under which this would be have been sufficient.) Instead, Colombia gets a polarizing runoff in which it is plausible that a genuine extremist outsider might rally most of the rest of the 60% on a “stop the left” plank and become Colombia’s president.

And then what? Quite apart from inexperience and ill temperament, Hernández will confront a congress in which those who backed his first round campaign have little presence. I do not know where within Colombian politics his voter support came from, but the alliance he led in the presidential election’s first round–League of Anti-Corruption Governors–did not even present a list for the Senate election. In the Chamber of Representatives, it won 2 of the 168 seats. This is one version of the Linzian nightmare scenario!

Colombia is, as I’ve written about before, one of the few presidential (or semi-presidential) systems to use an exclusively counter-honeymoon electoral cycle. The Chamber and Senate were elected 13 March, for a four-year term. Petro’s alliance–Historic Pact for Colombia–led the vote in the nationwide Senate election, but with only 14%. Its 16 seats (of 100 in the main electoral district, or 106 all told3) tie it with the old established Conservative Party. The other old establishment party, the Liberals, got 15 seats, a Green-Center alliance got 14, Democratic Center (Uribe’s other party, after the break with Santos) also 14, and the misnamed Radical Change (actually a split years ago from the Liberals) got 11, followed by 10 for the older Uribe party. What a fragmented mess! That would be hard to govern with no matter who would have been elected president. But at least either Petro or Gutiérrez would have had a base to build on. In the Chamber, the situation is broadly the same, although differing in important detail. There, the Liberals actually won the most seats, albeit only 32 (19%), with Petro’s alliance on 27 and Conservatives on 25.

In the past–including Colombia 2018 and 2010–I have suggested that counter-honeymoon elections can function as a de facto presidential primary, clarifying and narrowing the realistic choices for the upcoming presidential election. There seems to have been little of that this time, with the second runoff contender and realistic runoff winner having made no showing at all in the legislative races. Another feature–and not a desirable one–of counter-honeymoon elections is that they tend to be associated with greater fragmentation, relative to expectation from the electoral system’s seat product–than election held at other points in the period between presidential elections (Shugart and Taagepera, 2017, Ch. 12, in particular figures 12.1 and 12.3). That is certainly the case in Colombia, and specifically in this election.

The seat product for the Chamber is approximately 800 (162 seats elected in 33 districts means a mean district magnitude of 4.9, so the seat product is 162*4.9=795, but there are also various set-aside seats I am leaving out). For the Senate, it is approximately 10,000 (100*100, again leaving out the set-aside seats). That Chamber seat product would lead us to expect a largest party with around 43% of seats; the Senate’s around 32%.4 Obviously neither house is close to that. The electoral cycle is part of the reason (likely exacerbated by some parties and alliances holding actual presidential primaries concurrent with assembly elections), but certainly not the only or even most important reason. Colombia’s party system has not been “strong” by any definition since the old Liberal–Conservative duopoly began breaking down in the early 1990s.

This upcoming runoff–and the presidential–assembly relationship to follow–is deeply troubling. It seems to signify the death of the old moderate swings in Colombian policy that have typified the system up to now. With the social unrest of the past year, discrediting of the established elite was perhaps inevitable. But the institutions of Colombian democracy are about to endure a very serious stress test.

  1. Bucaramanga, the largest city (over half a million) in Santander department.
  2. I should note that Petro is also a former mayor of the capital, Bogotá, so not a total outsider.
  3. In addition, Colombia sets aside 2 senate seats for indigenous candidates who run separately from the main district, 5 for the party of the former FARC guerrilla movement (which got only 0.19% of the vote) and 1 for the eventual presidential runner up).
  4. The houses are co-equal; we lack a model of how diverging seat products in two strong chambers should affect the overall party system. Regardless, with largest parties–and different ones, at that–in each chamber under 20%, it is not the seat product’s fault!

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.