Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Election matters – and why psephology is sexy

Parliament will be voting in the first week of April on whether to have another general election – only nine months after the last one. But some in Poland are starting to see the electoral system itself as one of the nation’s problems.

When Poles went to the polls in September last year to vote for a new government, most thought that two parties would end up holding the balance of power and would form a coalition government. Voters thought that because the two parties in question – the socially conservative but economically leftist, Law and Justice, and economic liberalizes, Civic Platform - told them that this would be so.

But after the election this coalition never materialized, and Law and Justice – the largest party in parliament – has tried to rule as a minority government ever since. This has meant that Law and Justice leaders, such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have spent more time trying to cobble together temporary coalitions than they have governing the country.

And so Law and Justice are trying to get parliament to dissolve itself and have another election.

To do this, however, they need a two-thirds majority in the Sejm, the Polish Lower House. This means the government needs the support of opposition parties, some of which have seen their support in the country shrink since September’s general election. Consequently, these parties like the parliament just the way it is now and don’t want an election, which would probably cut their number of seats.

Electoral turkeys, after all, do not often vote for Christmas.

Another objection to having an early election in late spring this year is the visit in the last week in May of Pope Benedict – his first to Poland since being elected Pontiff. The Polish church agrees.

Opposition Civic Platform - though now in the lead in the opinion polls - has also complained that the electoral system in Poland is to blame for the current stalemate and instability in parliament.

So what does the Polish proportional representative electoral system look like?

Let me take you, briefly, into the murky world of psephology – the study of elections and electoral systems.

Polish PR
The Polish administration's own web pages explain Polish PR as follows:

‘In proportional elections, the number of candidates representing the various parties returned to Sejm is proportional to the number of votes their respective parties receive…The number of successful candidates returned for each party in a given constituency is calculated after the final count of votes on the basis of the d'Hondt system.’

More of the d’Hondt system in a moment, but basically that means that if a party gets 35% of the vote throughout the country then they will end up receiving around 35% of the seats in parliament.

Which individuals take these seats depends on where they were on the list of candidates for their party on the local ballot paper. The higher the percentage of the vote the party receives the more individuals that party can send to the parliament.

Confused yet? You will be.

There are many different types of PR system – Poland’s works at the moment on the aforementioned d’Hondt system, named after a Belgium lawyer, who, way back in the 1870s came up with an amazingly complicated formula for matching popular aspiration with the number of seats in parliament.

I have looked at the D’Hondt system and guess what: I don’t understand a word of it.

What the PR system is good at is producing a parliament that reflects the proportion of votes. What it is bad at is producing governments with a working majority.

If you don’t believe me then look at the famously chaotic Italian system, which, until they reformed it a few years ago, had produced more governments since the war than Mama had produced plates of hot steaming pasta.

To remedy this Civic Platform mooted an idea last year that Poland should adopt the British, First Past the Post System. This system does have the advantage of being understandable by the electorate that has to take part in it.

Majority rules
Basically, parties put up individual candidates in the 646 constituencies in the UK. Whichever party gets the most votes in those constituencies gets a seat in parliament. So the UK system is actually made up of 646 individual elections. And the winner takes all.

It is that simple and it also tends to produce a two or three party system, and often creates one party with an overall majority in parliament.

What the British system is very bad at, though, is reflecting the popular vote within parliament. For instance, Tony Blair’s New Labour won about 38% of the vote in last year’s election but they have about 60% of the seats in parliament.

Unfair says voters for smaller parties which are disenfranchised by the bias towards the larger parties.

But this is what Civic Platform want for Poland. And many can see why. It would produce a two, maybe three party system which would be able to govern, uninterrupted by having to make deals in smoke filled rooms just so it could be agreed who is going to be ordering the coffee.

The chances for a spring election in Poland look slim, however. So politicians and the rest of us will have to wait till late autumn or a poll next year. And it the system the election will be fought under will probably be the same that produced the stalemate in parliament last time.

Until then the government will struggle on, intrigue upon intrigue and deal upon broken deal will emerge from those smoke filled rooms.

So much for psephology and electoral systems. Many normal people here argue, however, that it is not the system - with its PR, its d’Hondt, its First Past the Post - that is to blame for Poland’s political instability, but - and here’s a radical suggestion – it might just be something to do with the politicians that the system produces.

Now that’s an interesting thought.

D’Hondt system explained (sort of!)


beatroot said...

Thanks eulogist...informative a usual. Still can;t get me head around d-Hondt. I asked Poles yesterday to explain there system to me...most were just amused by the question. Nobody had heard of d'Hondt.

Persinally I am in favour of Poles using the British system and the Brits using the Polish one.

Polish political parties all new and have no roots in society. So maybe a two or three party system would be good for those parties to bed-down some social roots and give the country a little breather from this instability.

Whereas in Britain politics has turned into the living dead, with Zombie political parties fighting for a vacuous centre ground. The old is dead but the new cannot be born...So maybe a system that encouraged smaller parties would help give British politics - almost an oxymoron these days - a much needed kiss of life.

beatroot said...

No, it's just wank.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
beatroot said...

Of course, there is a form of PR in Northern Ireland. That's because if there wasn't then the loyalists would win virtually every seat. So PR is necessary to maintain minority views within parliament (if the Northern Irish had a parliament, that is).

Poland has lots of minority interests...rural, urban working class, east, west, secular/religious, and a small minority of the middle class (10%?).

A first past the post system would probably favour rural/religious/eastern voters the most as they are in the majority.

But they have to do something. Horse trading is basically all the government has been doing for the past half year. And if they do have another election in a few weeks, or a few months, then the result will be the same - a dog's breakfast.

beatroot said...

George - NI is a special case in many ways. That's why they have PR and the rest of the UK doesn't (but it should). But voting in NI is more than a 'census'. If a protestant decides to vote for DUP then they know that the consequences are going to be that they will not be reopening Stormont. Which is a significant thing to do and affects the way the place is governed, possibly in a more significant way than if someone votes either Conservative, Lib Dem or New Labour - where, practically, there is no difference at all in the way Britain is governed.

PR in the UK would mak it slightly easier to break the tyrany is moderation in that country. It might even get the vote out a bit better.

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