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Month: March, 2012

Russia: Gubernatorial Elections to be Re-Introduced, Party Registration Requirements Lowered

Following the safe re-election of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency on March 4th, the Russian government looks set to complete yet another round of institutional tinkering.

Gubernatorial elections, abolished in 2004 following the Beslan Crisis, are set to be re-introduced.   Governors will be elected for five year terms, serving a maximum of two terms.  A second reading of the Bill will take place in the near future, and the final shape of the legislation is still uncertain.  There is disagreement between the political parties in the Duma about how the ‘presidential filter’ (consultations between political parties and the President over who can be a candidate) will work.

Meanwhile, the Federation Council has passed legislation aimed at making it easier for political parties to register.  It will now be possible for parties to register with 500 members, instead of 40,000 as previously required.  Eighty-two parties are awaiting registration.

Although these measures have taken some of the heat out of the anti-Putin opposition, they are unlikely to lead to dramatic changes in the Russian political system.  Parties must still receive 7% of the national vote in order to win representation in the Duma, and small parties will not be permitted to form blocs.  Meanwhile, the ‘presidential filter’ will ensure that only candidates friendly to the Kremlin can secure nominations to stand in gubernatorial elections.

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If Cash for Cameron is a problem, is state funding the solution?

Revelations that David Cameron courted donors over dinner at Chequers have given British journalists an alliterative field day, with this week’s headlines including ‘Supper for Supporters’, ‘Dinner for Donors’ and, least plausibly, ‘Dave’s Dodgy Diner’.

Of course, this is not the first time that governing parties in Britain have been accused of trading influence for money; one of the most notorious examples was the Cash for Peerages scandal of 2006/2007.  And every time a case like this arises, somebody (usually the Liberal Democrats) always suggests that it is time to consider introducing state funding of political parties.

Most other European democracies have some level of state funding of political parties.  Decisions to provide such subsidies are usually the ‘carrot’ accompanying the legislative ‘stick’ of lower donation limits and increased reporting requirements.  Unfortunately experience on the continent suggests that state funding is no panacea for cleaning up politics.  Just ask the French.

Parties (and sometimes individual politicians) will always seek to maximise their income in order to out-compete their rivals.  Therefore, alternative fundraising doesn’t cease and funding scandals are still a problem.  Indeed, when funding scandals break, they are met with even more public frustration because taxpayers have made significant contributions without seeing the promised improvements in democratic quality.

Moreover, state funding does not necessarily level the playing field in quite the way that smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats might hope.  Funds are usually allocated in one of three ways: per vote received, according to the percentage of votes won, or according to the number of seats won.  Whichever method is chosen, the most electorally successful parties receive the most money, locking in their advantage.

In the current financial climate, it is unlikely that the idea of introducing state subsidies for political parties will catch on in the UK.  If it does, however, the Liberal Democrats must insist that funding is allocated on a ‘per vote’ basis in order to avoid receiving a double blow at the hands of Britain’s majoritarian electoral system.

LNP landslide in Queensland: what went wrong for Labor?

In these times of economic upheaval, dramatic electoral results have become commonplace in Europe.   Despite avoiding recession, Australia has also seen big political swings in recent years, with Saturday’s Queensland state election a case in point.

On 24th March, the Liberal National Party (LNP) won a landslide victory over the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in the Queensland state election, winning 78 seats in the 89 seat Parliament with 49.73% of the first preference vote.  The Australian Labor Party was reduced to only 7 seats despite winning 27% of the first preference vote.  A new entrant, Katter’s Australian Party, won two seats with 11.5% of the vote.  The full results can be viewed here.

Three factors contributed to Queensland Labor’s historic losses.  Firstly, they had governed uninterrupted for the last twelve years and there was a general mood for change.  Although Anna Bligh’s leadership during the Brisbane floods was highly praised,  Labor lost political capital through problems with Queensland Health’s payroll system and the sale of state assets. Queensland also suffered economic setbacks as a result of natural disasters in 2011 and the global financial crisis. Against this backdrop, the LNP managed to convince many voters that only they could ‘get Queensland back on track‘.

Secondly, the federal Labor party did not help their Queensland colleagues by conducting a leadership contest during the opening week of the state election campaign, when Queenslanders were exposed to open warfare amongst the ALP’s most prominent figures in Canberra.  Current Prime Minister Gillard defeated a challenge by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd convincingly, but it was the worst possible moment to re-open the wounds inflicted by Rudd’s ousting less than two years ago.  As a native Queenslander, Rudd has strong support within the state.

Thirdly, during the campaign itself, a highly personalised negative attack on the LNP’s leader, Campbell Newman, backfired.  Labor accused Mr Newman of corrupt connections with property developers during his tenure as Brisbane Mayor, but failed to land a killer blow.  They retreated from the allegations in the final week of the campaign, allowing Newman to claim that the allegations were unsubstantiated and should never have been made.  Although there was no time during the campaign when Labor looked like winning, their two party preferred support hovered around 40% until the final week when it plummeted.

Compulsory voting can also contribute to big swings in divisive elections.   Australia is one of only two democracies in the world where citizens are legally required to vote.  Those who are completely disengaged from politics would stay away from the polls in most countries, and are more likely than partisan voters to be swayed by media coverage in the final days of the election campaign.  This certainly worked in the LNP’s favour in Queensland 2012.

Although Labor’s electoral losses on 24th March were unprecedented, it is worth noting that the final results were distorted by a highly majoritarian electoral system.  The LNP won a super-majority with less than half the vote.  A pure proportional representation system would have given Labor 23 seats instead of the 7 currently awarded.     Therefore, the Labor ‘wipe-out’ is less absolute than it initially seems.  The defeated Premier, Anna Bligh, resigned yesterday, clearing the way for rebuilding efforts.

It will be interesting to see how the LNP wields their super-majority in the Queensland Parliament. They have much to live up to, having promised to cut the unemployment rate to 4%, reduce the cost of living and regain Queensland’s AAA credit rating.   During the campaign, they showed little appreciation of the economic headwinds affecting the Australian economy, including the fallout from the eurozone crisis and the high value of the Australian dollar.  They may yet regret setting such specific economic targets at a time when the global economic climate is so uncertain.  There is never a dull moment in Queensland politics, and the coming years will be no exception.

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @AliFionaSmith.

Slovakia’s election: another majority government from a proportional electoral system

On Saturday 10th March 2012, Slovakia joined the small but growing club of European countries that elected a majority government despite using a proportional representation system.  The centre-left Smer party, led by Robert Fico, won 86 out of 150 seats with 44.9% of the vote.  Although it was predicted that Smer would win the election, even Fico himself was surprised by the scale of the result.

Since the euro-zone crisis started to bite, strong anti-incumbency sentiments have regularly produced extreme results. In Hungary, Fidesz won more than a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010 with 68% of the popular vote.  In Scotland, a proportional electoral system unexpectedly produced a majority government in 2011, when the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won 69 out of 129 seats with 45% of the vote.

These recent cases show that proportional representation does not necessarily lead to minority or coalition governments.  The strong bias in favour of this outcome can be over-ridden if one single party becomes the repository of protest votes.  In Slovakia and Hungary, the incumbent coalition governments were badly damaged by the eurozone crisis and corruption scandals.  In Scotland, the SNP had led a minority government for the previous four years, but two other major parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) were punished electorally for decisions taken in London. In each of these countries, large numbers of voters opted for the one party that was perceived to be ‘untainted’.

Majoritarian governments have also produced unexpected results in recent years; minority or coalition governments were formed in the UK and Australia.  In both cases, a third party (the Liberal Democrats in the UK at the Greens in Australia) picked up significant support.  Although these third party votes did not translate proportionally into parliamentary representation, they were sufficient to deny either of the main parties an outright majority.

In these difficult economic times, voters like to kick incumbents hard, leading to extreme results.  Whether or not electoral systems behave as political scientist think they ‘should’ depends largely on the dynamics of protest voting.

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @alifionasmith