A Look Abroad — Upcoming Elections

From time to time, I like to take a look at upcoming elections in our allies.  As the recent market fluctuations in response to problem with the Chinese economy show, the U.S. is not immune to feeling the effects of problems in the rest of the word.  Between now and November, there will be elections in Greece, Canada, Portugal, and Turkey.  For now, I want to focus on Greece, Canada, and Turkey.

Greece will hold its second election of 2015 next Sunday, September 20.  This election was almost inevitable after the results of the January election.  The Greek economy has been on shaky ground since the 2008 global recession, and Greece has needed multiple bailouts from its economic partners to avoid defaulting on its loans.  In January 2015, the Greeks voted for a new party (Syrizia) that opposed the concessions made in past bailout deals and promised to be a tough negotiator in the next round.  The problem was that Greece needed a new bailout more than its partners needed to keep Greece afloat.  So the government eventually had to accept a worse deal than its supporters wanted.  Several members of the governing party voted against the deal, costing the government its majority and leading to this second election.

Greece uses a proportional representation system to elect 250 members of parliament.  To reduce the likelihood (endemic to proportional representative systems) of an inconclusive result in which tiny parties hold the balance of power, Greece gives the party that finishes first an additional 50 seats.  As a result, it only takes around 35-40% of the vote  rather than 48-50% to get a majority of the seats.  The question for next week’s election is whether Syrizia will keep their supporters (with voters recognizing the limitations that the Greek government faces) or whether Greek voters will look for some other party promising the impossible.

Next up is Canada on October 19.  Canada, like the U.S. and the United Kingdom use a first-past-the-post system in which candidates run in single-member “ridings.”  After the last census, the Canadian Parliament has expanded from 308 seats to 338 seats with this election being the first election in the new boundaries.  While not the entirety of the Canadian election, a crucial part of the federal results comes down to two provinces — Quebec and Ontario.  The Atlantic Maritimes (Prince Edwards Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Labrador/New Foundland) have 32 seats combined (unchanged since 2011).  While the Prairie provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba — have more seats (62, up from 56 in the last election with the additional seats being in Alberta), the Prairie’s have long been the base of the Conservative Party with the other parties struggling to win one or two seats per province.   British Columbia is the third largest province (having 42 seats this election, up from 36 in the last election).

But that gets us back to the big two — Quebec (78 seats, up from 75 seats) and Ontario (121 seats, up from 106).  The reality remains that these two provinces represent approximately 60% of the seats in Parliament.  A party that loses big in these two provinces has almost no chance of making it up in the rest of the county.  For almost twenty years, Quebec politics have been dominated by the Parti Quebecois (a center-left party seeking independence for Quebec) that runs in federal elections as the Bloc Quebecois.  As recently as the 2008 elections, the Bloc was winning 45-50 seats from Quebec in each election.  With the other parties splitting the remaining seats, it was hard for any party to win a majority nationally (both the 2006 and 2008 elections ended with a minority government).  In 2011, however, support for the Bloc Quebecois collapsed and they only one four seats.  Almost all of the seats that the Bloc lost went to the New Democratic Party (a social democratic party).

Due to its sheer size, running well in Ontario is essential to the national results.  The main reason that the Conservatives were unable to get a majority nationally in 2006 and 2008 was there inability to win a majority in Ontario to make up for the lack of seats from Quebec.  In 2011, however, there was a sea change in Canadian politics.  For the most part of the past 50 years. the two main parties have been the Liberals (a center left party) and the Conservatives/Progressive Conservatives (a center right party) — and yes the change from Progressive Conservative to simply Conservative over the past 20 years reflects a shift toward the right.  The New Democratic Party won some seats in some areas, but, by 2008, they were still winning less than 40 seats, making them only the fourth largest party in Parliament.  However, due to problems with the Liberal Party, in 2011 the New Democrats actually finished ahead of the Liberal Party.  The closeness of the two parties was reflected in Ontario where both parties finished with approximately 25% of the votes.  This dead heat between the two main “left” parties, however, resulted in the Conservatives winning 73 seats with 44% of the vote.  In a significant number of these seats, the majority voted for the “left,” but the split vote allowed the Conservatives to take the seat, and the Conservatives eked out a narrow national majority with 166 seats.

With a month left to go, the polls a showing a tight three-way race.  The New Democrats are leading, but the Liberals and Conservatives are close enough that the difference is well within the margin of error (the current averages have the New Democrats at 32%, the Liberals at 30%, and the Conservatives at 29%).  The Blocs collapse in Quebec appears to be complete, and they may not win a single seat.  On the other hand, the Liberals appear to have fully recovered in Ontario.  The Quebec polling is very good for the New Democrats, but the polling in Ontario shows that the Liberals have recovered to be the main challenger to the Conservatives for the most seats from that province.  The combined results from the two provinces put the Liberals and New Democrats slightly ahead of the Conservatives, but not enough to clearly offset the results in the Prairie provinces.  Current projections at threehundredeight.com (a Canadian web site inspired by fivethirtyeight.com) show all three parties likely getting 90-140 seats, not enough for any of them to get a majority.

Finally, there is Turkey on November 1.  Like its traditional rival Greece, Turkey held elections earlier this year (June).  Unlike Greece, the elections in Turkey were inconclusive, with the leading party falling just short of a majority.  Rather than trying to form a coalition or proceed with a minority government, that party decided to try a second round of elections.  Turkey uses a proportional representation system with its own twist to get a clear majority for the leading party.  In most proportional representation systems, a party needs to get a certain threshold percent to win seats.  In determining the number of seats that each party gets, most countries recalculate the percent that each party gets by eliminating the votes for parties that did not get enough votes to win any seats.  In Turkey, those votes are still used in calculating seats, but the seats that would have gone to the parties that failed to meet the threshold go to the party that finished first.  Turkey also has a very high threshold (10%).  As such, a party can get a very comfortable majority of seats with only 40% of the vote if some minor parties manage to get 5-8% of the vote.  In the last election, the Islamist Justice and Development party (the current governing party) managed to get 40% of the vote with its main rival (the secularist Republican People’s Party) only getting 25% of the vote.  However, two minor parties each managed to get over 13% of the vote.   Aside from its strategic location, the dominance of an Islamist party over the past decade is potentially a model that can be followed by other countries in the Middle East — balancing religion and democracy.     The results earlier this year seem to be a clear sign that the majority of voters in Turkey want some check on the Justice and Development Party (which fell well short of their goal of a large enough majority to amend the Turkish Constitution), but not enough opposition to change the party in power.

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