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Institutions still matter

I try not to stray too much in US politics on this blog, only because that information is so easily obtained elsewhere.  With that being said, party and electoral systems are well within the scope here so please read Hans Noel and Seth Masket’s new article in the Los Angeles Times.  The arguments shouldn’t be novel to readers of this blog but apparently it’s possible to be very successful while making the opposite points, so it’ s good to get this out there.

I think the key parts here aren’t the explanation for why we only have two major parties, but the defense against those who see parties as the problem.

All of this seems unfair. Why should these two parties have such an advantage? That’s the wrong way to look at it. The Democrats and the Republicans are not our overlords. They are us. They are the natural creations of politically concerned citizens who want to make a difference. And because in a democracy, the more people you have, the more chance you have of making a difference, parties organize together to have strength in numbers.

That is democracy: people joining together, compromising among themselves to arrive at policies, and trying to get those policies enacted.

If you’re not content with the way this country is being governed, one of the best ways to change it is to get involved with one of the existing parties and work to nominate and elect candidates at all levels of government who will fight for the things you care about. Odds are, one of the parties will want much of what you want. Pining for an independent, third-party dictator is not only a waste of your time, but if you somehow got what you wanted, you’d quickly find it wasn’t what you wanted at all.

Pretty much my thoughts. Organized people, elected by citizens, debating policy in deliberative bodies is a wonderful thing.    People who like democracy should not get so upset when they see it in action.

The Implications of Egypt’s Proposed Electoral System (Long)

The Party Decides

Republicans held their first official debate last night, which I missed because I was watching the hockey game.   Just because I didn’t feel like watching, however, shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning I don’t think the debate was important.  In fact, I think it may be one of the most consequential debates of the year.

My professor, Hans Noel, is coauthor of a great book, The Party Decides, which contends that post McGovern-Fraser reforms, party elites still essentially control the nominating process.   According to the book’s model, modern parties should be viewed as a coalition of intense policy demanders with their own pet interests.  The role of the party leaders is to manage and placate each group so they stay in the coalition. This is somewhat similar to Seth Masket’s model, which states that Informal Party Organizations, or IPOs, determine the winners of primary elections, and thus, control party agendas.

I think this model of party structure is far more convincing than Aldrich’s model, laid out in Why Parties? (although otherwise a great book!) and certainly better than the very outdated bimodal model created by Anthony Downs so many years ago.  What’s especially great about the model, though, is we can actually test it during the current primary campaign! According to Hans and his coauthors, we are in the middle of the invisible primary, where the party, defined here as a wide assortment of elites, are making their decisions.  These elites will then signal primary and caucus voters on who to support.  That’s why these early debates are so important.  The Republican Party is made up of a many interested groups; all of whom are looking at how to best maximize their influence in the coalition.  Each elite then is evaluating candidates based on policy compatibly and electablity.  That’s why this early period is so important. While it’s difficult to quantify an inherently closed-door phenomenon, I think we should still be looking for elite signals in the next few months.  The average primary voter may not necessarily be watching these debates, but the party elites certainly are.  What they think may be all that matters.

Egypt’s proposed electoral system

I’m about a week late to this but Egypt’s transitional military government has released a draft law of the country’s new electoral system.  The draft is somewhat short on details, such as minimum thresholds, but the basic thrust is that 1/3 of seats would be allocated through closed-list PR and the rest would use the individual candidacy system that is currently in place.  This means that each district has two candidates and each elector gets two votes.  If no candidate receives an absolute majority in the first round, a second round is held one week later.

Photo property of David Jandura

A rough translation of this from the draft law:

The individual candidate shall be elected by the absolute majority of valid votes cast in the election. If the two candidates who gained the absolute majority were not workers and peasants, the one with the largest number of votes shall be declared elected, and a re-election in the constituency shall be conducted between the candidates from workers and peasants who obtained the largest number of votes. In this case, the one with the largest number of votes shall be declared elected.

If there was no absolute majority for one of the candidates in the constituency, a re-election shall be conducted among the four candidates who obtained the largest number of votes, provided at least half of them are workers and peasants. In this case, the two candidates who got the highest number of votes shall be declared elected.

I will have more to say on this, but my main point is the individual tier, as it exists, is highly candidate-centric and will greatly weaken political parties.  In particular, the two-round, two-seat system creates an incentive for local elites to make grand bargains that further undermine an already weak party system.  Two elites, for example, can make a bargain where they tell their supporters to cast their two votes for each of them – a de facto joint ticket.   Those same elites could then make separate deals with weaker candidates.  This would entail a  promise to support the weaker candidate in the second round (should they make it) in exchange for first-round support for themselves.

The nascent party system in Egypt is very weak.  A recent IRI poll shows that of all existing parties, Al Wafd garners the most support with a paltry six percent.   Parties as institutions also suffer from worse approval ratings than state-owned media and the hated business community.  Creating even a small PR tier is a welcome move but I certainly hope the final law will make it much larger than 1/3 of all seats.

Ethnic party formation in Estonia

The Estonian Centre Party (Eesti Keskerakond)

The OSCE/ODIHR has just released its assessment of February’s Riigikogu elections. The report devotes considerable discussion to Estonia’s internet voting system, which I’ve previously talked about. Also in the report is a discussion of the state of minority Russians in Estonia. Although technically twenty-six percent of the population, Russians are underrepresented in politial life. In fact, only ten percent of the previous parliaments’ MPs belonged to any minority at all. Furthermore, strict citizenship laws that requre Estonian lanaguage skills mean a large portion of Russians are not even allowed to vote.

Political parties made varying degrees of effort to include persons belonging to national minorities on their candidate lists and to reach out to Russian-speaking voters. One party that explicitly identified itself along ethnic lines did not meet the five per cent threshold. Estonia’s public broadcaster aired some election debates in Russian on TV and radio, while political parties and some individual candidates issued campaign materials in both Estonian and Russian. Issues related to national minorities did not feature prominently in the campaign.

Prior to the elections, the Estonian Cooperation Assembly/Roundtable of Nationalities, a network of civil society organizations, issued an appeal to election contestants and the public to take a more constructive approach to Estonia’s ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Estonia’s party system has been extremely unstable since its independence. Russians initially formed ethnic parties such as the Estonian United People’s Party and managed to gain some representation in parliament.   In the last decade, however, ethnic Russian voters started to move their support to non-ethnic, mainstream parties such as the Centre Party and Reform Party.  While the latter two haven’t made their platforms extremely Russian friendly – Reform favors stricter citizenship laws than exist now – they have both included significantly more ethnic Russians on their party lists.  It’s interesting that mainstream elites have wanted, and been able, to recruit ethnic Russians into their parties.  I’m guessing - although open to being corrected – that poor organization and performance of the ethnic parties allowed this to happen.  It probably also doesn’t hurt that there are so many ethnic Russians in the country (lots of votes!).  It’s my general observation that once ethnic parties become institutionalized, it’s rare for their voters to move to a different party.  Estonia might provide a great research design for anybody looking at the impact of strong ethnic parties as the country now has a time series change regarding their salience.

Let’s ‘AV a beer!

As I’ve previously mentioned, citizens of the UK will go to the polls tomorrow to decide whether to adopt an Alternative Vote (AV) system, or retain FPTP.  As a non-Brit, I’m strongly in favor of voting reform.  While I think the benefits of AV are overstated, FPTP is generally a horrible system that only manages to stay around because it institutionalizes itself through the party system it helps create.  But don’t take my word for it, here is the best pitch for AV.

Canada’s new party system?

Canada held snap elections yesterday in which Steven Harper’s Conservative Party managed to secure a parliamentary majority.  The New Democratic Party (NDP) essentially supplanted the Liberals as the left opposition in the country, while the center-left Liberals, who had dominated Canadian life for decades, saw their seat total plummet.  Likewise, the separatist Bloq Quebecois were reduced to a small four seats.

Canada isn’t normally thought to be an interesting country (Something which they should take as a complement; interesting countries tend to have more problems!) but buried in the lackluster coverage are a few gems worth election wonks pondering over.  The first is the fact that the final results were far different than initial polling would suggest.  When snap elections were called in March, the Liberals were still the leading opposition party with the NDP solidly behind.  This is pretty strong evidence that the campaign mattered. Not shocking to many, but certainly to those who are aware of the significant  literature that suggests campaigns are really only important at the margins. Recall the recent British elections where the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg’s leadership surged in the polls, only to wind up right where they started when the results were tallied.   The LibDem’s performance, of course, may be partially attributable to tactical voting, which brings me to my next point regarding Duverger’s Law.

In Les Partis Politique, Marice Duverger explained how plurality votes in single-member districts would bring the effective number of competitive candidates to two. ‘Duverger’s Law’ as it was dubbed by William Riker  was taken by some to mean that (1) SMD systems would always produce only two viable parties, and (2) that there would only be two effective parties at the national level.  These two misconceptions have led many to incorrectly state that Canada and India are proof Duverger’s law has been broken.   The problem, I think, is that what Duverger was explaining wasn’t really a law so much as a force, and is in this respect completely true.   Gary Cox in Making Votes Count does a good job of rescuing Duverger while expanding on his theory with his ever helpful equation, N+1, to predict an electoral system’s impact on the number of candidates.  (N being the number of available seats in the district, the number of candidates would be one more).   A quick glance at the results seem to indicate that Duverger’s Force was certainly in effect.  I’m guessing once the NDP took the mantle of the leading non-conservative party, voters evaluated it as their best option in a single member district.  It’s hard to say if Canada’s party system will stay like this after the next election, but I think there is a decent amount here for us to digest for now.

The Virtues of Political Parties


I’m reading Nancy L. Rosenblum’s defense of political parties in her book, On the Side of the Angels. I already had a strong appreciation for parties, so it’s always nice to hear their virtues clearly articulated. While Rosenblum seems to be primarily writing to other political theorists, her message really needs to be told to citizens of struggling Central European countries, whose original expectations of democratic elections were unrealistic, or citizens in Sub-Saharan African counties like Zambia, Mozambique, or South Africa, where one party rule creates false accountability. I would guess, however, that nobody in those countries would have the attention span to make it through Rosemblum’s book, which while good, is much longer than I felt it needed to be. (She also has a tendency to litter scare quotes and quotations so often, it is nearly impossible to distinguish if she is quoting a fellow academic, or merely suggesting her own words are misleading.)

Some of Rosenblum’s themes, however, are important, and I wish she had shortened her book to focus on them.  In particularly, her chapters where she writes about civil society and banning certain political parties have relevance for many transitioning and weak democracies.  The tendency to view civil society as a substitute for parties, for example, is a common problem among democracy promoters working with less than democratic parliaments.  Similarly, the debate over what should be a legal political party is timely given the events in the Middle East.  I found Rosenblum dealt with these issues very well, offering a fair summary of the tradeoffs for banning parties based on different criteria.   I tend to agree with her that any justification for banning a party runs into serious problems. The rule that a party can’t challenge the fundamental system of a government, for example, may sound like a good argument in the United States, but King Mohammed VI of Morroco could easily make the same statement while justifying the ban of a party that started demanding more power be invested in parliament.

The notion that there is a way to distinguish an acceptable party platform in a country assumes that there is a consensus on the fundamental structure of state institutions.  Yet if there is a true consensus, then a party attempting to challenge it should garner few votes and pose little threat.  Excluding them could only serve to push them out of the political arena and onto the streets.  If the party does build substantial support, however, then there is clearly not a consensus on the legitimacy of the state.  This does not mean that electoral engineering can never be a legitimate tool for state and nation building, but that it might not always be the best, or adequate, solution. In post-independence or post-conflict societies, political parties – some with violent pasts – may have to work together to build an uneasy consensus on the nature of the state.  Here especially it is difficult to ban a party based on a platform.

Alternative Voting campaigns in the UK

On May 5, UK citizens will head to the polls in a special referendum to decide if the country should move to an Alternative Voting (AV) system.  Unfortunately, recent polling predicts the measure will fail as the “no” campaign seems to be building a bigger lead.  There are plenty of places to read about the politics of the referendum, so I just wanted to focus on the campaign tactics being used by the respective camps and briefly speculate if there is any evidence they are having an impact on vote preference .   First, there is this widely clever ad from the “Yes” campaign.

This is a great advertisement, but it’s actually not the main talking point of the “Yes” campaign, which seems to be pushing the notion that AV will make Representatives work harder.

Your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote to be sure of winning. At present they can be handed power with just one vote in three. They’ll need to work harder to get – and keep – your support.

This doesn’t sound like the most convincing argument to me, although I’m sure it was the message that tested the best in focus groups.   Still, I find it much better than this “No” campaign spot, which seems to better represent that campaign’s overall message.

In order to understand how an AV system works you need to be able to count to three;  it’s really not much harder than that.  This isn’t, however, a surprising line of attack; efforts at voting reform in the United States have often run up against the same.  As misleading as that ad was, I think the false trade-off between critical national interests and voting is even more absurd.

Keeping a FPTP system will help the UK fund its military in the same way cutting NPR will help the United States eliminate the national debt.  This ad is even more insulting than the last.

Are any of these campaigns effective?  I think the evidence from surveys show that it’s difficult to prove:

The poll shows that while Liberal Democrat voters are overwhelmingly in favour of reform (66 per cent to 26 per cent) and Conservative voters are overwhelmingly opposed (76 per cent to 19 per cent), Labour voters remain divided, with 47 per cent backing FPTP No and 41 per cent backing AV.

To me, this implies that vote choice might be predominantly a function of partisan preference; the Michigan Model  for the United Kingdom.  Of course I don’t really know enough about UK politics to know if partisan attachment is more or less stable than the United States.  I would think the nature of their parties would make it more so, which would lead me to expect a greater correlation between party ID and preference on AV. Still the fact that support for the referendum has swung so drastically, with a large number of undecideds moving to one camp, may be evidence that people who have not paid much attention are now taking cues from party elites.  Not the best way to choose an electoral system, but another example that they are highly endogenous to their political environment.

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