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>Let be AV-ing you

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 It’s day of the local elections and I’m not voting.

But – UKIP tweeps and others out there concerned about my lack of civic engagement take note –  I am going down the polling station today – to have my say in the UK’s referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote electoral system (or not).

The consequences, advantages or disadvantages depending on your point of view and what you think democracy should deliver, are fairly and clearly summed up in a briefing paper by the Political Studies Association.  On my reading, AV is not a big deal, preserving the basic, highly disproportional majoirtarian logic of first-past-the-post and (as far as simulations can tell) excluding smaller parties but boosting the Liberal Democrats.

So, not something you would really want to vote for unless you were a dyed-in-the-wool LibDem; felt reallocating preferences to many voters’ second or third choice candidate to generate a diminished 50%+ majority for the winning canidate really was a major democratic improvement ;or are convinced that politically AV will be a first step to further  electoral reform along more proportional lines, or that the Liberal Democrats will  revert to their imagined role of the 1990s and became natural and easy coalition partners for Labour in a ‘progressive pact’.

Personally, I’m not, I don’t and (on both of the last two counts) I severely doubt it.

So –  after doing some short-term partisan guesswork about what might most damage the cohesion of a coalition government I really don’t support – I’ll be voting No.


I’m a little surprised to have ended up with this decision – although I repeatedly come back to  – and good citizen that I am (honest) I’ve tried to tune in to the debate. But the rival campaigns, low profile and mostly confined to the TV and radio studios and internet have, frankly, both been been pretty dire. Both have tended to present AV as if it were a proportional system (‘fair votes’ for the Yes campaign, a entree to parliament for the BNP for the No side), although both have touched on preference reallocation mechanism, the proposed new system’s only truly innovative feature. The Yes campaign argue that it ensures genuine majorities (see rather witty beet v graphic below), the No campaign that preference re-allocation it is complicated, doesn’t eliminate tactical voting and can generate equally perverse results. Some invoke Arrow’s paradoxes

Interestingly, figures from the Party Labour  – now the most likely recipient of my vote if they had a candidate around to around to vote for –  lined up on both sides of the campaign, but, oddly, have lacked any very distinct or clear message. for or against Those in the desperately worthy Yes campaign repeated the rather tired Fair Votes ,some-reform-better than-none mantras, while those on the more brutal, kick-ass No side have recycled the equally tired pro- first-past-the-post arguments (the best of which centre on the ability to ‘kick out the bums’)  in ways indistinguishable from those campaign’s mainly Tory backers.


Left-wing blogger (and author of a soon to be published UCL PhD on the concept of Chavs) Owen Jones, however, advances a more interesting argument  distinctly of the left opposing AV

 “… because I think it will institutionalise mushy centrist politics. I think that’s exactly the aim of many of its staunchest supporters, because they are … mushy centrists and want an electoral system most likely to ensure their ideology dominates.”
and more concretely because he sees it as faciltating the type of LibDem-Labour alliance that some people are as mentioned, actually, still hoping for and which  this left-wing take on things sees as an important (if never realised) element of the New Labour project.
The obvious objection is that AV would have delivered Tony Blair a bigger landslide in 1997 that FTTP, although I guess it could be argued that a weakened Blairite forces couldn’t repeat this trick on the same scale

Here, however, as it often does, my mind veers off to Czech(oslovak) politics and, concretely, to the AV-like electoral system promoted in 1990-1 by President Václav Havel in preference to list PR, which he (rather accurately as it turned out) would empower political parties and produce a core of legislators with little connection with localities (the fabled ‘constituency link’ as it is called in British debates). However, Havel also favoured it because it felt it would promoted centrist candidates, who would benefit disportionately from second preferences, and prevent ideological polarisation.

He also hoped it would help prevent well organised parties with concentrated support from overcoming divided liberals – the scenario the beer versus coffee poster outlines, although a daft ine for most reasonably developed democracies where pro-beer forces would be consolidated into a  Friends of Beer Party  that would romp home easily under FTPP (perhaps on a public crawl programme).

Like much of what Havel advocated,  his electoral reform project – actually a  form of the Supplementary Vote (asking for first and second preferences only)* – never really stood a chance and was quickly voted down  by the country’s emerging parties – although, in a certain, it lives on in the two-round, first-past-the-post system used for the Czech Senate, whose logic loosely parallels the ‘instant runover’ in SV). 
In the Czech context, Havel was in hindsight was probably right: there are no deep class cleavages  in Czech society and  perhaps because of that the country’s ideologically strident but depressingly corrupt parties have continually struggled to generate clear, stable majority of left or right, resulting  centrist politics by default. 

But, as Carsten Schneider’s excellent heavy-duty political science book on democratic consolidation argues, what matters most is the democratic fit of electoral system to a particular society. British (or perhaps, anticipating the de facto detachment or independence of the other nations, should I say English society is not the Czech society and perhaps a more polarised politics between loose blocs of left and right is a better fit. 

Perhaps the real issue is not electoral reform – even the kind of elegant mixed system that I might turn out to vote for – but decentralise political power to locally elected bodies and  to loosen up party structures, which seem as closed and narrow as anything Havel feared.

* Note Havel’s proposal was technically a mixed system – I guess we might call it  a kind of SV+ – as they also contained a rather elegant proposal for proportional ‘top-up’ seats for votes in constituencies where combined first and second preferences did help elect winning candidates in individual member constituencies. My old notes suggest that under Havel’s proposal fall voter’s first and second preferences were simply to be added together (giving everyone a second vote), rather than re-allocating the votes of all except the two leading canidates.

>New old politics

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The unfolding drama of coalition formation, although in a more lucid moment I had inadvertantly predicted it, left me non-plussed and not very happy: partly because I didn’t like the outcome and because, not for the first time, political events I thought I had handle on left me flat footed. I had basically expected the Lib Dems to go no further than a confidence and supply deal with the possibility of playing both big parties off against each other to some extent, but underestimated the Lib Dem thirst for office and the extent to which the right-wing Orange Book group of economic liberals (which includes Nick Clegg himself) had come to dominate the party’s leadership. In our local public library the next day I chanced upon a biography of the party’s previous leader (until 2005) Charlie Kennedy and flicked through to see if – as the instant political history in the papers claimed – he had really been forced out for political reasons (too left-wing), rather than because he was an alcoholic.

The answer though seems to be that the booze that did for him and that he was a walking political liability for years, although as everyone in the party – right down to an ex-student intern I interviewed for a place at UCL – knew for years he was often too drunk or hungover to function, the timing of his downfall (months after David Cameron and the Tory modernisers came on the scene) was to say the least interesting.

All this doesn’t, however, help my post-election hangover and bright-new-dawn ‘new politics’ rhetoric and reformspeak of the Cameron-Clegg doublt act – echoed by newspaper pundits across the political spectrum – leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Most bitter and disorienting of all is the way that constitutional and electoral reform – a high minded preoccuption of liberal-minded intellectual folk since 1980s – and the main concession the Lib Dems have supposedly wrested from the Tories seems suddenly degraded like some rare radioactive isotope into a series of political fixes to shore up the new coalition: the 55% supermajority reqirement to dissolbe parliament conjured out of the air (the type of rule that would be consitutionally entrenched in countries with a written constitution) and the realisation that the alternative vote (AV) system we will be asked to vote is unlikely to the first step to some more rational and balance electoral system, but simply a means (if it passes) of boosting Lib Dem representation by steering lots of 2nd and 3rd preferences towards them, while keeping the system majoritarian enough to block small challenger parties like the Greens, whose minor miracle in winning Brighton Pavilion in a three-way fight is unlikely to be easily repeated elsewhere. Indeed, Václav Havel once advocated AV for Czechoslovakia precisely for this reason – because he thought it would favour the political centre, although I suspect that Lib-Cons (see how easily that phrase starts to trip of the tongue) will increasingly form a bloc and with the two parties’ voters tending to second preference each others’ candidate.

Frankly, a French or Hungarian style second-round run-off election would be more transparent. – and more fun (I like elections) If we do get AV, I’m sure the Lib-Dems will quickly discover its virtues and forget about Single Transferable Vote and any other form of PR or decide that that they would like it only for the House of Lords or local government.

There is little real discussion of the democratic merits or likely effects of AV in the press. Ironically, it seems, however electoral reform (any electoral reform) is seen – as in Romania and Bulgaria – as a kind of magic bullet, which will automatically and of itself bring in a host of desirable changes. I am sceptical. Indeed, so sceptical that I think I will vote ‘no’ in that referendum. I’ve never changed my mind about any key issue so decisively in such a short space of time. Perhaps two party (or two bloc) politics is what fits in this country- this is, after all, not Holland or Norway with a of multiple crosscutting historical and cultural cleavages to accomodate – and, in somewhat, new and re-invented form two bloc is what we will probably what we will end up with. A new old politics.

>Romania on their minds

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An interesting post by Manuel Alvarez-Riveraon on the recent Romanian elections – and the working of the new election system – can be found the Global Economy Matters blog here. Further interesting discussion can be found on the Fruits and Votes thread on the subject. There is also a link to Robert Elgie’s newish blog on semi-presidentialism.

>Americano and electoral reform, please

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Having read as much on neo-corporatism and downed as much coffee in one afternoon as was healthy, I turned, as you do, for a bit of light relief to the Slovene electoral system. As a very interesting recent conference paper by Danica Fink-Hafner makes clear, there is (at least to Visegrad-minded ignoramuses such as me) a whole unknown history of (failed) electoral reform in Slovenia with not a few uncanny parallels tothe Czech electoral reform saga of the 1990s, that politicians in Prague now seem intent on reviving for a new decade: main centre right party tries to push for a more majoritarian system; all kinds of reform variants then fly around as parties and politicians sense high stakes are in play, before the Constitutional Court steps in to shoot them down and, when the dust clears, we are left with a slightly less proportional form of PR. Of course, referendums play a key in Slovenia that most Czech politicians (even those theoretically in favour of allowing national referendums) would probably blanche at.

>Czech electoral reform debate: sense and insensibility

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Czech current affairs TV programme Politické spektrum devotes a recent issue to that old chestnut of Czech politics (politický evergreen), reform of the electoral system. There are, in truth, a small forest’s worth old chestnuts in Czech politics, but this programme is actually quite interesting. After a maddening filmed introduction featuring some pointless whining by representatives of small extra-parliamentary parties, who claim that the current PR electoral system – and specically its 5% threshold – is illegal, unconstitutional, dictatorial etc because it doesn’t allow Israeli style one-man-and-his-dog parties into partliament, we get a sensible and well informed, discussion on the electoral system between Czech political scientists. They conclude sensibly enough that the underlying issue is the relatively even balance of social and political forces in the CR and the occasional instability of its parties – as recent ructions in the Civic Democratic Party. On the other hand, that hasn’t stopped both big and little parties from litigious trying to bend the electoral system (back) in their direction as Kieran Williams notes in a characteristically polished recent article in Europe-Asia Studies.

>Slovenia: Knickers to PR

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Romanian and Bulgarian electoral reform not exciting enough for you? Are you, like me, getting a bit bored with that McCain-Obama thing in… er what’s that country called again , – and gearing up for Slovenia’s forthcoming parliamentary poll? If so, you’ll certainly like the detailed explanation of Slovenia’s open-list PR electoral system, which seem to have echoes of the Finnish and Estonian systems, in Sleeping With Pengovsky. Though not too lively at first glance – bare breasts and women’s knickers on the title banner, my just eyes glazed over – once you get into it and there’s plenty of plenty of interesting stuff on Slovene politics for political scientists to gawp at.

>Electoral reform back on the agenda in the Czech Republic

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Oh no, they’re at it again. After the saga of abortive electoral reform in 1999-2001 undertaken in the interest of stability – at least that’s what they said – by the Czech Republic’s two main parties during the era of their’Opposition Agreement’ pact, you would have thought Czech politicians had learned their lesson. But no. The governing coalition is currently reviewing options for reforming the electoral system to the lower house of parliament to break the political logjam, which has seen no strong majority government since 1996.

Last time round, it was a straightforward effort to increase the representation of bigger parties at the expense of smaller but introducing a highly disproportional form of proportional representation that could just about squeeze through the constitutional requirement to use PR for the lower chamber of parliament. It didn’t and a more modest reform reducing the size of electoral districts was passed in 2002 instead. (The two bigger parties lacked the votes to change the Constitution and besides, any change, in the electoral law requires majorities in both houses of parliament to pass, unlike normal legislation where the lower house has the final say).

Now, however, the goal is ensure a strong majority government and avoid squeezing useful little parties like the Greens. The options outlined by the Justice Ministry – whittled down from an original nine to six in inter-ministerial discussions – centre mainly on two-tier forms of PR which give a bonus in seats to the party with the largest vote at the expense of the second strongest, but give smaller parties roughly proportional representation. The Czech press reports that ‘Scottish’, ‘Dutch’ and ‘Greek’ models are being considered, although I am not sure how accurate these analogies are. An Italian style awarding of a direct bonus to the winning party has been ruled out as too crude and probably unconstitutional, as has a ‘Polish’ model of having parallel thresholds. Readers who know Czech are recommended to click through from the link(s) above to the excellent coverage in Hospodářské noviny.

Applied to the 2006 elections, the net effect of the all the proposels models would be to reduce the Social Democrats representation at the expense largest party (the centre-right Civic Democrats) and the smallest party, their allies (at least for the moment – internecine faction fighting at the upcoming Green Party conference may change this. Indeed the government may collapse). However, if the 2006 vote was reproduced and the Greens don’t implode or move left, such changes would give the current Civic Democrat/Christian Democrat/Green coalition a working majority. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – it’s the Social Democrats who are currently ahead in the polls and thus likely to benefit if one of these is adopted. The result might actually be another minority Social Democratic government playing off ‘support parties’ to their left (the Communists) and right (the Greens or whatever liberal eco-centrist types can make it into parliament – there have been a few over the years), the basis of the fairly successful 1998-2002 government.

Personally, I am sceptical that the requisite political hurdles can be crossed to change the electoral system. Much will depend whether the Social Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Communists think it will benefit them politically.

>Sofia Weekly on Bulgarian reform debate

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The excellent online Sofia Weekly of 12 July carries the following pot pourri of news items about Bulgaria’s on-off debate about party and electoral reform.

“Bulgaria President Hosts Forum on Electoral Reform

The Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov opened Monday a forum to discuss the proposed reform of the country’s political model and election system, especially the introduction of majority representation that he himself had promoted over the recent months.

The public discussion is attended by a total of eighty persons, including the Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, the Sofia Mayor and informal leader of the GERB party Boyko Borisov, all leaders of major political parties, as well as a number of leading Bulgarian sociologists, political scientists, and journalists.

At the opening of the forum the President expressed his doubts that the leading political parties would manage to achieve a consensus for the political reform.

Yet, Parvanov put forth his position that the introduction of majority representation elements, i.e. the adopting of a mixed representation system would turn into an antidote against the people’s indifference to politics and parties.

“None of us believes that the introduction of majority representation is the universal cure”, the President said.

He added, however, that the adding of majority elements to the proportional representation, the voters would have the opportunity to select from two “menus” – one of political parties, and another of personalities.

Parvanov rejected the allegation that the majority representation would make the buying of votes easier with the words: “It is easier to purchase a small, neat party.”

In his opening statement, the President declared himself against the introduction of a preferential proportional system, in which the voters would be able to rearrange the party tickets by pointing out that the experiment with this system had failed at the last elections for Members of the European Parliament in the spring of 2007.

He also said the preferential system would cause quarrels within the parties and coalitions, and push out of the ticket the smaller coalition partners.

The President called for the establishing of clear rules for the founding and registration of political parties. He pointed out the fact there were as many as 380 political parties in Bulgaria meant many of them were used to cover corporate interests.

Parvanov was positive that the political campaigns were the main corruption factors in Bulgaria because during them a lot more hidden party funds were spent. He suggested that a public register of the donors, advertising, PR, and lobbyist groups be set up.

According to the President and former leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Monday’s discussion was unprecedented because of the goodwill to debate and tackle important issues.

Bulgaria President: Obligatory Voting Might Give Birth to Political Monsters

Bulgaria’s President Georgi Parvanov said at the end of Monday’s discussion of the proposed electoral system reform that he himself initiated that he was firmly against the introduction of obligatory voting.

In his words, such a measure could lead to the creation of “political monsters” as the voters would try to find ways to protest against being force to vote.

“At this point we need to win people with policies, not through forcible and administrative action”, the President said warning the politicians would not be able to tackle the consequences of such a measure for decades to come.

Parvanov pointed out the point of the whole debate was to find a solution for the curing of the parties and political system in Bulgaria, because in the last parliamentary elections the winner received only about 450 000 votes.

He stressed the negativity of this trend, and made it clear that the parties should seek a way up from the bottom that they had reached.

After the five-hour long debates, however, the President discovered the support for the introduction of greater majority representation in the political system was waning. He admitted that even the Bulgarian Socialist Party, whose leader he was before becoming President, had stepped back from its former position on electoral reform.

Parvanov also concluded that the political parties and the other participants in Monday’s forum were unable to reach a consensus on the introduction of majority representation. In his words, the idea had many proponents but no one was willing to step in and assume the political responsibility for its realization.

Bulgaria Nationalist Leader: Electoral System Debate Is Fake

The leader of the extreme right and nationalist Ataka party Volen Siderov stated Monday that the discussion forum organized by the President Parvanov for reforms in the electoral system was insincere and fake.

According to the Ataka leader, the debate was a simulation because at the end the governing majority was going to adopt whatever changes it wanted without listening to the opposition.

“It is neither honest, nor moral to achieve a victory by default through changing the rules of the game”, he stated.

“We here are present at an advertising campaign of the President for a new political model”, Siderov said adding, “What other type of model do you want, Mr. President, autocracy or a military junta?”

The nationalist leader announced that there were two members of the Supreme Council of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and one advisor of the PM working in the board of Information Services Jsc, which helped with the counting of the votes.

“It is not important who votes but who counts the votes”, Siderov concluded.

He compared Monday’s forum to the round table of 1990, which in his words the former Communist Party, whose successor the BSP is, used to make a PR campaign.

The President Parvanov retorted to Siderov that it was really bad when there were people who fell asleep in 1990 and woke up today.

Sofia Mayor Borisov: Party Leaders Should Be Allowed to Be Mayors

The Sofia Mayor and informal leader of the GERB party Boyko Borisov demanded Monday that the reforms in the electoral system allow party leaders to hold positions such as his.

During the roundtable on the proposed electoral reforms organized by the President Parvanov, Borisov stated he could not see the point of banning party leaders from being mayors, while the Prime Minister could hold their position and still remain chair of their party.

The provisions prohibiting party leaders from holding mayor’s office has forced Borisov to hand over the leadership of his party GERB to Tzvetan Tzvetanov, and to assume the title of “informal leader”.

During his statement at the forum, the Sofia Mayor also demanded that the electoral lists be finally updated in order to prevent abuses with the votes of dead persons, and those living no longer at their permanent address.

Instead, Borisov insisted that all Bulgarian citizens vote at their current address. He also declared himself in favor of abolishing the state subsidy for political parties, and against the renting of municipal property for party headquarters.

The Sofia Mayor also suggested that the Interior Ministry should inspect the minority-populated regions in order to check whether the persons were actually there, or whether somebody else voted instead of them by using their IDs.

Borisov meant primarily the thousands of Bulgarian expatriates of Turkish origin living in Turkey, whose coming back to Bulgaria by bus in order to vote has turned into a problematic phenomenon.

The MP Lutvi Mestan from the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms party retorted it would be too bad for the elections reform discussion if it was centered only around the minority-populated regions.

Earlier, the Prime Minister Stanishev said the electoral system changes would most likely be voted in November. He replied to the demands for a referendum on obligatory voting made by the National Movement for Stability that the politicians should be careful with referendums because they could turn into a populist tool. ”

>Romania: President’s party calls foul over electoral boundaries

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Vehement complaints from representatives of the pro-presidentia Democratic Liberals in Romania, reports Nine O’Clock, (PD-L) that the opposition Social Democrats (PSD) and National Liberal Party (PNL), who currently form a minority government are colluding in the Electoral Code Commission, which is drawing up the (sort of) single-member (‘uninominal’) districts, which are an element in the new electoral system. Less than confidence inspiring to read that this body, which is loosely equivalent to the UK’s Boundary Commission is made up of representatives of political parties and works mainly on the basis of proposals agreed in deals between parties at local (counyt) level. Still, I suppose gerrymandering is a fairly well established practice in some ‘advanced democracies ‘as well….

>Parties indifferent to Bulgarian President’s electoral reform plans

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As might perhaps have been anticipated, the Bulgarian President’s package of electoral and party regulation reforms, reports the Sofia Echo, has met an indifferent-to-frosty reputation from parties of the governing coalition – like most CEE presidents (and unlike President Basescu in neighbouring Romania) Bulgaria’s President Purvanov is not a big political player. The declining Movement for Stability and Progress, of ex-PM and -man-who-would-be-king-if-Bulgaria- was-monarchy, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, are according to the Echo against it because as a small party they would lose out from any more majoritarian system and, as they rightly, point out because it isn’t the most obvious solution to (supposed) problems of vote-buying. However, the Movement’s website reports that it is in favour of some form of mixed electoral system, although it seems to see the ‘majoritarian’ element partly in terms of allowing voters greater choice of individual candidate by freeing up the system of preferential voting allow electors to re-order the ranking on party lists. Other small parties like the far right Ataka bloc are against, presumably for similar reasons. The Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedom’s, also has more to lose than to gain: there seem to be concentrated minorities of ethnic Turks in five of Bulgaria’s 28 districts (see map), suggesting about the same level of parliamentary representation for the MRF as now (assuming lack of ethnic polarization). However, any new electoral system, especially one with a less proportional outcome, might deprive the MRF would lose its pivotal kingmaking status, so the party would have to risjk much for limited gains.
The Bulgarian Socialists, who might, as a big, once very dominant party, have something to gain electorally, also now seem lukewarm. The Sofia Echo quotes Socialist PM Sergei Stanisheas saying that the “BSP had already bet on the majority element in the 2007 elections for European Parliament, but this did not lead to great results”, although I’m not clear if that means the euroelections were held using some kind of ‘mixed’ MMP system.The Bulgarian election commission’s website suggests that it was a straightforward party-listed based proportional contest, although unfortunately I can’t read enough Bulgarian to read the technical summary.

With heroic optimism (and a certain disregard for the facts) President Purvanov sums up the result of his abortive roundtable on report by as saying that “we all seem to be in favor of introducing a stronger majority element in the elections but no one wants to take the responsibility and make the decision in favour of it.” Not how I read it.

Meanwhile, in a separate development the Echo also reports that the country’s two Green parties have merged.