Ukraine honeymoon election today

Ukrainians are voting today in an assembly election. It is a relatively extreme “honeymoon” election, as the new president, Volodomyr Zelensky, was just elected in March-April of this year (two rounds). There was already an assembly election scheduled for October of this year, which certainly would have qualified as a honeymoon election. But in his inauguration, Zelensky announced he would dissolve the Verkhovna Rada and call an election even earlier.

And why not? Based on much experience in presidential and semi-presidential systems, we know that there is a strong tendency for the party of a newly elected president to gain a large boost in votes the earlier it is held following the presidential election. This topic of the impact of election timing has been a theme of my research ever since my dissertation (1988), an early APSR article of mine (1995), and most recently in a whole chapter of Votes from Seats (2017).

At the time Zelensky was elected, various news commentary had the all-too-typical concern that the new president would be weak, because he is an “outsider” with no established political party. We got similar useless punditry when Emannuel Macron was elected in France in 2017. And we know how that turned out–his formed-on-the-fly party did slightly better than the 29% of votes I projected, based on an equation in Votes from Seats, prior to Macron’s own runoff win. (The electoral system helped turn that into a strong majority in the assembly.)

In May of this year, I projected that Zelensky’s Servant of the People party could get around 34.5% of the votes in an election held on 28 July. (One week earlier obviously does not change anything of substance.)

Early polling had him short of this (not even 25% just before the presidential first round), but predictably, SoP has been rising in the polls ever since Zelensky took office. The party almost certainly will beat this projection, and may even have an electoral majority. If short of 50% of votes, the party still looks likely to win a parliamentary majority, given the electoral system (discussed below).

A bigger boost than average (where the average across systems with nonconcurrent elections is what my projections are based on) is to be expected in a context like Ukraine, in which the party system is so weak. That is, poorly institutionalized party systems would tend to exaggerate the normal electoral cycle effect. The effect will be only further enhanced by low turnout, as opponents of the new president have little left in the way of viable political parties to rally behind. Thus a performance in the range of the mid-40s to over 50% of the vote would not be a surprise.

As for the electoral system and election itself, Ukraine is using again (for now, at least) its mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system. It consists of 225 single-seat districts, decided by plurality, and 225 closed-list proportional representation seats, in a single nationwide district. The two components are in “parallel”, meaning seats won by any given party in districts and seats won from party lists are simply summed; there is no compensatory process (as with MMP). There is a 5% threshold on the list component; quite a few small opposition parties may waste votes below this bar. Due to parts of the country being under Russian occupation, only 199 single-seat contests will take place.

In some past MMM elections in Ukraine, a large share of the single-seat districts have been won by independents or minor parties, whereas the national parties (such as they are) have, obviously, dominated the nationwide list seats. It is probably quite likely that this rather extreme honeymoon election will result in most of the seats in both components being won by “Servants.”

On that theme, a tweet by Bermet Talant makes the following points (and also has some nice polling-place photos) based on conversations with voters in Kyiv:

• Ppl vote for leaders. Few know other candidates on party lists, even top5

• Servant of the People = Zelensky. Bscly, ppl vote for him again

• In single-member districts, ppl vote for a party too, not candidate

This is, of course, as expected. It is a completely new party. Many voters will be wanting to support the new president who created the party. The identity of candidates will not matter, either on party lists (where at least the top ones might be known in a more conventional party) or in the districts (where the vote is cast for a candidate). The single-seat districts themselves are referred to as the “twilight zone” of Ukrainian elections in a fascinating overview of the candidates and contests in the district component published in the Kyiv Post. These contests attract “shady candidates” many of whom are “largely unknown”. If a given election lacks a strong national focal point, it would tend to favor independents and local notables. In an election with an exceptionally strong focal point–as in a honeymoon election, more or less by definition–that will benefit whoever has the “Servant of the People” endorsement.

The timing of the election, and the likely dominance of an entirely new pro-Zelenskyy party, really is presidentialization at its very “finest”.

I am just going to quote myself, in the final paragraph of an earlier post about Macron’s honeymoon election, as it totally applies here, too: “All of the above should serve as a reminder of two things: (1) the purpose of the upcoming election is to ratify the new executive’s direction, not to be a second chance for an alternative vision; (2) the honeymoon electoral cycle matters.”

Expect the new Verkhovna Rada to be Servants of Zelenskyy.

Ukraine will have an early election

Well, it did not take long to learn the answer to my question. Yes, Ukraine will have an early election, as President Volodomyr Zelenskyy announced on 19 May in his inaugural address. And thus, no, the current electoral system will not be replaced just yet.

The election is expected to be in July, a scenario I already discussed in the earlier post.

In the context of all this, today (20 May) the Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman, announced his resignation.

There had been a report last week that a dissolution of the coalition in the assembly would prevent the new president from calling an early election (because it would buy the assembly time to attempt to find, under terms of the constitution, an alternative premier they can agree on). But evidently not.

Ukraine: Possible early election and electoral reform (again?)

According to Hromadske (15 May), newly elected Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy is considering dissolving parliament. Moreover, there is also consideration of electoral reform in a country that seems almost never to hold more than an election or two under the same rules.

Currently, an election to the national assembly is scheduled for 27 October. At about six months out from the presidential election, that timing is clearly a “honeymoon” election, and we know the impact those have. But waiting that long is not ideal for Zelenskyy, given he has almost no partisan support in the current assembly, having cobbled together his own campaign vehicle for his presidential run. His newly formed party is named after the TV show that made him famous, Servant of the People.

In the first round of the presidential election, on 31 March, Zelenskyy placed first with 30.2%, nearly doubling the runner-up, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. In third place was perennial candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, with 13.4%. Four others had between 5% and 12%. There were thirty nine candidates in total! In the second round (21 April), Zelenskyy crushed Poroshenko, with nearly 75% of the valid votes cast. (I wonder if it would have been closer if Tymoshenko had made the runoff, or more competitive if ranked-choice voting had moved her or another candidate up into the final two.)

If the election goes ahead in late October as planned, it would be held with about 10% of the presidential inter-electoral period elapsed. The equation reported in Votes from Seats would imply that the Servant of the People party could expect around a third of the vote. (See my entry immediately after Macron’s win in France for the equation, graph of data from many countries, and discussion; note that our equation is based on first-round votes, and any fit to actual data would be much worse if runoff votes were used.)

One might understand why he thinks that is not enough. It is not clear to me what the date of the election might be if it is moved up. But let’s say it was 28 July instead. That would mean about 5% of the inter-electoral period elapsed, which would lead to an estimated vote share for the president’s party of… 34.5%. In other words, it is hardly worth the trouble!

Of course, the actual figure could be above these estimates–or below. One poll alluded to in Hromadske said that Servant of the People was the choice of only 25% of the people, a figure that would be a pretty disappointing honeymoon result. The more important point is that a three-month difference in timing does not really matter much for the honeymoon effect. Further, with no existing party to speak of, it might even be smart to allow more time to build the party and recruit candidates. And here is where the question of electoral system choice comes in.

Some electoral systems would be more demanding for candidate recruitment by a fledgling party than others. The current system is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) and consists of 225 single-seat districts (plurality) and 225 closed-list seats (single nationwide district). Finding viable candidates to be personal representatives of the party in 225 districts is more of a challenge than filling out a closed list.

In fact, this challenge is mentioned in the Hromadske article, which states, correctly in my view, that “Returning to the closed list proportional electoral system would be most beneficial to the president-elect and his team.”  The “return” referred to here would be to the system used in 2006 and 2007 that used a single nationwide district for all 450 seats, and a closed list.

Other systems that are under consideration in the current parliament are a regionalization of the list component, and an “open list”. (I am not sure they really mean an open list, as that term has been applied misleadingly to a current local electoral system that is more along the lines of district-ordered list.) Regarding the latter option, Hromadske notes, “For Zelenskyy, it is easier to handpick a list of candidates [for a closed list], than to look for people, known locally in the regions, who could potentially win in an open list system.”

If the election is called early, of course the current system will prevail. Whether Zelenskyy can get the election earlier depended on precisely when he would be inaugurated (Hromadske explains). The date for the inauguration was just set in a vote on 16 May to take place on 20 May. This seems to allow time for an early dissolution, as the Hromadske article states that Zelenskyy and his team figured the last date for making such a decision was 27 May (though one loophole could allow that to be extended into June, perhaps).

Ukraine has developed a record of consistent changes of government and legislative majorities through elections, yet it has been anything but consistent with its electoral rules, or election timing.

Nationwide PR in a big country

Ukraine and the Russian Federation have represented, at various times, the only two examples I know of using a single-nationwide district with a magnitude greater than the 150 used in the Netherlands* and Slovakia. (Israel’s single district has M=120, Namibia’s M=72.) [But see JD’s comment for an intermediate example.]

As it happens, both Ukraine and Russia have used the same magnitude, 450, with closed lists, when they have had the single-national district. For Ukraine, such a system was used in 2006 and 2007; for Russia, 2007 and 2011. By contrast, in 1998, 2002, and 2012, Ukraine used a mixed-member majoritarian system (225 M=1 districts, and a nationwide non-compensatory M=225 district), as did the Russian Federation in post-Soviet elections before 2007.

Nationwide closed lists could have the effect of biasing representation towards the capital and other major cities, given the (potential) control of the lists by the central party leadership, and the absence of institutional imperative to offer regional or personalized representation. On the other hand, they could encourage parties to present candidates from even those regions where they are not strong, because a vote anywhere counts towards the party’s overall seat total, and because even in closed lists the presence of candidates from a region might signal to voters in the region that the party is responsive to their needs. In the only study I know of in the political science literature to address such questions, Latner and McGann find some bias towards the most important cities, but also an over-representation of peripheral regions in Israel and the Netherlands.

What about Ukraine? The pattern could be different in a much larger country, with clear regional divides in its politics. A blog post by Erik Herron, Univ. of Kansas, and one of my “Party Personnel” collaborators, offers interesting data on candidate and MP residency in the 2007 election.

Key point regarding 2007 winners:

Kyiv residency is dominant, accounting for more than half of all elected deputies. The Party of Regions is better represented through the reported residency of its elected deputies in some eastern areas (e.g., Donetsk) and the opposition is better represented in western areas (e.g., BYuT in Galicia). But, parties can also claim elected deputies who report residency in “enemy” territory.

Meanwhile, Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin today signed into law a return of his country’s electoral system to the mixed-member system. While the article is not explicit about the relation of the two tiers, I assume it will again be MMM (non-compensatory). Given the decline in the standing of the ruling United Russia, it makes sense that Putin would prefer a move towards a system that is both disproportional and favorable to “independents” who have local bases of support that exceed the popularity of the ruling party’s label. In this respect, it would be identical to the change in Ukraine prior to the 2012 election. That change worked strongly in favor of the Putinist forces of that country, buying them time to acquire the finest in home furnishings.

Now that Russia is moving back to MMM, and Ukraine is moving on from the Yanukovych/Party of Regions era, maybe Ukraine will go back to the pure PR system. If they ask me, I certainly would not recommend the single national district, however. Either districted PR, without too much variation in magnitude, or MMP would be my advice.

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* In a very technical sense, the Netherlands has districts for nomination purposes. But for all practical purposes, it is a single district. It also allows preference voting for candidates on the list (though list ranks are more important), as does Slovakia, and as Israel does not. Russian and Ukrainian lists have always been closed, as are Namibia’s, to the best of my knowledge.

Ukraine deal

The deal signed earlier today in Ukraine calls for a return to the constitution instituted after the Orange Revolution protests (but later reversed). Those provisions significantly weakened the presidency–mainly by giving the president essentially no discretion in the choice of a prime minister, who was defined as the candidate of the legislative majority. On the other hand, the president under that constitution still retained control over key ministries, such as interior and defense, as well as a veto requiring two thirds to override. So the protesters are right to be skeptical, even if this is a big concession by President Yanukovych.

The agreement also mentions reforms to electoral laws, but does not clearly address the electoral system itself, which is obviously critical inasmuch as it determines how votes are translated into seats in empowering the very legislative majority that would appoint the PM. And, as I noted before, the current system is highly disproportional and personalistic, and these features allowed the pro-Yanukovych bloc to win a majority, counting pro-Yanukovych “independents” (bearing no party label), despite the president’s Party of Regions having barely a quarter of the votes. Of course, with the renewed mobilization of the opposition, it is less clear who would benefit from the current system’s disproportionality, but the opposition would seem to have a clear interest in a return to the party-list system used in 2006 and 2007. And that system’s proportionality would presumably offer the pro-Yanukovych forces a hedge against possible voter retributions whenever the new legislative election is held.

The agreement also only specifically refers to early presidential elections.

Obviously a situation still in flux.

Ukraine’s second Orange Revolution–an electoral-systems perspective

[UPDATED below]

The mass protests in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities are reminiscent of the Orange Revolution of November-December, 2004, when protests were critical to overturning the fraudulent official victory for the candidate of the old establishment, Viktor Yanukovych. Those protests succeeded in getting a re-vote of the presidential election runoff, which was won by Viktor Yushchenko. Now, nine years later, protesters are calling on Yanukovych, elected president in 2010 to succeed Yushchenko, and his cabinet to resign. The trigger for the protests appears to be the government’s decision not to sign an agreement with the European Union. But aren’t the protests now against a legitimately elected president and parliament?

It depends on what one means by “legitimate”–a word I discourage my students from ever using in my presence. If we compare the current parliament, the product of the most recent national election in Ukraine (28 October 2012), to that elected in 2007, some important qualifications to the electoral standing of the current government and its legislative support become obvious. Yanukovych is the head of the Party of Regions. Consider the following data:

Year; total valid votes; votes for Regions; % of votes for Regions; seats for Regions (out of 450)
2012;  20.4M;  6.1M;  30.0%;  185
2007; 22.3M;  8.01M;  34.4%;  175

Note that the total valid votes are lower in 2012 than in 2007. In addition, the vote percentage for Regions declined from 2007 to 2012, yet it won ten more seats. Its greater success in turning votes into seats in 2012 is entirely a product of a change in the electoral system, from pure nationwide proportional (with 3% threshold) in 2007 to a mixed-member majoritarian (or parallel) system in 2012. In the more recent election, the Regions won only 72 of the 225 nationwide proportional seats, but it bagged a bare majority of the nominal-tier seats (113 of 225), which are elected by plurality in single-seat districts. In addition, 49 of the nominal-tier seats were won by independents, and most of them are Yanukovych supporters who did not run under the Regions (or any) label. With the Regions-labelled winners and the Regions-supporting independents, the Yanukovych bloc rises to a majority. (Votes totals here refer to party list votes; I do not have a nationwide aggregation of the nominal-tier votes available.*)

Thus the electoral system change was critical to the success of Yanukovych’s bloc in the current parliament. It lost votes, but gained seats, even if we look only at the seats won by those bearing the party label, but even more so if we include the pro-Regions independents. Thus the MMM system benefited the Party of Regions via both its majoritarian and its nominal (candidate-based) features, relative to the pure party-list system in use in 2007.

Whether that makes Yanukovych’s parliamentary majority “legitimate” or not, I will leave to the reader’s judgment. But this electoral-system perspective demonstrates a key basis for the opposition’s claims that Regions does not represent the country at large.

What about Yanukovych himself? He was, after all, elected president in 2010. Consider the following from the runoff votes:

Year; total votes; Yanukovych votes; Yanukovych vote %
2010; 24.07M; 12.48M; 51.8
2004; 27.93M; 12.83M; 45.9

So, yes, he won a majority in 2010. But with fewer votes than his losing total in 2004. Of course, those who did not vote for his runoff opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, have only themselves to blame for not showing up at the polls. And we can also blame them for failing to coordinate in the single-seat districts in 2012 to beat a ruling party that was so unpopular it won only 30% of the (list) votes. But it is not as if the protesters are facing off against a government with a broad mandate from the electoral process.

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* UPDATE. Actually, I do have access to the nominal-tier results. Somehow I neglected another page at Adam Carr’s site where this information is available (national aggregate and regional, though not individual districts). And the Party of Regions had an even smaller vote share in the nominal tier than for party lists: 27.7%. That’s right, it won a majority of the 225 plurality contests on not quite two sevenths of the votes. “Others”, which would be mostly independents, combined for a third of the votes. The second largest party, All Ukrainian Fatherland, and which managed 25.5% of the list votes, had only 16.9% of the nominal votes. It now gets even easier to see why Yanukovych and his supporters wanted to change to a system that diminished the role of party-label voting and enhanced that of candidate factors.