Tag Archives: parliament

Israeli Elections and the Challenge of Parliamentary Democracy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote on Tuesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote on Tuesday.

Elections were conducted in Israel on Tuesday, and the results paint an interesting picture for the future of Israeli politics as well as for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Pre-voting polling suggested that the ruling center-right coalition would be returned to power. But that was not to be. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party won a plurality of seats in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), their right-wing coalition partners suffered sharp setbacks, and progressive center-left parties had an unexpectedly strong showing.

Two questions emerge. First, who will form the coalition. While suffering a sharp setback, it appears that Netanyahu should be able to retain control of the government, albeit the composition of that government remains unclear. Like many parliamentary systems, post-election negotiations are required to form a majority in the government. In these negotiations, parties trade positions and policy promises, all with the hope of influencing decisions by the new government in their favor. The defeat of Netanyahus’s current coalition partners means that he will likely have to find common ground with more centrist parties to form a government.

Two parties performed far better than had been projected in pre-election polling. The center-left Ysh Atid Party came in a surprising second, with 19 seats, while the Labour Party came in third with 15 sets. Any coalition between Likud and the center-left parties would require a radical rethinking of Likud’s platform, particularly around the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the status of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Given the difficulty of these questions, it seems likely that such a coalition would focus on domestic issues rather than tackle the more difficult foreign policy questions.

What do you think? Will the new Israeli government be more or less inclined to pursue peace talks with the Palestinian Authority? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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Clegg the Kingmaker

Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron
Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron

Results from yesterday’s election in the United Kingdom are in, and they produced some surprising results. The Liberal Democrats, which had been riding high in the polls, performed worse than forecasted, losing five seats. As most analysts had been projecting, the Conservatives, who have been out of power for thirteen years, won a plurality of the votes. But they fell short of winning a majority of seats in the parliament—a situation referred to as a hung parliament. As a result, the Conservatives will likely be forced to enter an agreement with one or more of the smaller parties—most likely the Liberal Democrats—to gain control of parliament and the right to name the next Prime Minister.

The elections raise a few important points for students of comparative politics. First, they illustrate the challenges of Britain’s (and by extension, the U.S.) first-past-the-post system [glossary]. This system, in which the winner of each electoral district or riding is the candidate that secures the most votes, produces stable, majority governments when there are two dominant parties, as in the United States. But when a third party enters the mix, unusual results can develop. Take the results from yesterday’s election, for example.

The BBC is reporting the following results:

Party

Seats Won

Votes Received

Conservatives

305

10,681,417

Labour

258

8,601,441

Liberal Democrats

57

6,805,665

Democratic Unionist

8

168,216

Scottish National Party

6

491,386

Sinn Fein

5

171,942

Plaid Cymru

3

165,394

Social Democratic & Labour

3

110,970

All Others

3

2,406,787

Totals

 

29,653,638

So what does this tell us about the British electoral system? Several things. First, think about how votes convert into seats. If we look at the average number of votes each party receives to win an individual seat, we get the following:

Party

Votes per Seat Won

Conservatives

35,021

Labour

33,338

Liberal Democrats

117,339

Democratic Unionists

21,027

Scottish National Party

81,897

Sinn Fein

34,388

Plaid Cymru

55,131

Social Democratic & Labour

36,990

All Others

802,262

Consider the data. The Conservatives won 305 seats on 10,681,417 votes. They thus won a seat in Westminster for every 30,021 votes. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, won just 57 seats on 6,805,665 votes, or one seat for every 117,339 votes. This means that the Conservatives were more than three times as efficient as the Liberal Democrats at converting votes into seats in Westminster.

How does this happen? Winning a district in a first-past-the-post system requires only that you get more votes than any other candidate, not that you receive a majority of the votes cast. If a party receives 30 percent of all the votes cast across the country but does not get more votes than other party’s candidates in any district, it would receive no seats. It’s even possible that a party that receives fewer votes could receive more seats in parliament. Again, the U.K.’s election provides an interesting example. Smaller parties that are concentrated in a relatively small area tend to be over-represented in parliament. For example, the Democratic Unionist Party (a party based in Northern Ireland) won 6 seats on just 168,216 votes. The U.K. Independence Party, by contrast, received more than five times the number of votes but failed to win a single seat in parliament. Voters supporting the U.K. Independence Party tended to be geographically dispersed, this diluting their support across a larger number of ridings (electoral districts). A similar phenomenon regularly occurs in Canada, where the regionally-based Bloc Quebecois tends to over perform, while the nationally-dispersed Liberal Democrats tend to underperform in national elections.

In a proportional representation system [glossary], like that used in most parliamentary democracies around the world, votes are translated directly into seats. A party that receives 40 percent of the votes would be entitled to 40 percent of the seats in parliament. Not surprisingly, proportional representation tends to expand the participation of small parties in parliament, often fracturing the political spectrum into a larger number of smaller parties. This can lead to instability, as the recent history of Belgium and Italy attests.

So how would the British parliament look under a PR-based system? Let’s think about the number of seats each party received and compare that to the percentage of the popular vote each party won, using that figure as an appropriate number of seats that party might win in a hypothetical proportional representation (PR) system. Here’s what we get:

Party

Seats Won under FPTP

% of Seats Held under FPTP

% of Seats Held under Hypothetical PR System

Difference

Conservatives

306

47

36

-11

Labour

258

40

29

-11

Liberal Democrats

57

9

23

+14

Democratic Unionists

8

1

0

-1

Scottish National Party

6

1

2

+1

Sinn Fein

5

0.7

0.6

Plaid Cymru

3

0.5

0.6

Social Democratic & Labour

3

0.5

0.4

Green

1

0.002

1

+1

Alliance Party

1

0.002

0.1

UK Independence Party

0

0

3

+3

British National Party

0

0

2

+2

The big winners are the Liberal Democrats, who would net an increase of eleven seats in the parliament. The other winners are the UK Independence Party, the British National Party, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens, all of which net an increase in representation. The big losers? The Conservatives and the Labour Party, each of which would lose eleven seats.

Given these hypothetical results, it’s not surprising that the Liberal Democrats have been pushing hard for electoral reform. It’s also not surprising that the Conservatives and the Labour Party have both historically opposed electoral reform. The interesting question now is whether or not Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, can translate his position as potential kingmaker in any governing coalition into real electoral reform that might solidify the position of the Liberal Democratic in the British political landscape. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has already alluded to the possibility, promising to make a “big open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats in exchange for their support. Labour leader Gordon Brown made a similar offer, stressing the “substantial common ground” that exists between Labour and the Lib Dems and promising real electoral reform.

There are, of course, other possibilities. The Liberal Democrats may choose not to enter an agreement with either party but agree not to oppose the Queen’s Speech or budget—a vote against either of the two could constitute a confidence motion in the government, triggering new elections.

Whatever happens, the next few days will certainly be interesting to watch.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a week of surprises by the Obama administration. On Saturday, President Barack Obama nominated Jon Huntsman to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. Huntsman was a surprising pick. With his experience as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, his previous tenure as deputy U.S. trade representative and as deputy assistant secretary of commerce, and his fluency in Mandarin, Huntsman appears to be a solid pick. However, Huntsman is a Republican currently serving as governor of Utah, and has widely been viewed as a potential Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012. Obama last week also reversed his previous position in two controversial areas. First, on Friday, Obama announced the U.S. government would revive the military tribunals created by the Bush administration but suspended by Obama in January to try some 20 prisoners currently held at Guantánamo Bay.  Obama also changed position on the release of hundreds of photograps showing U.S. soldiers abusing detainees. Obama had previously promised to release such photos, but on Wednesday said that their release would “not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals” but would further enflame anti-American opinion and…put our troops in further danger.” The reversal was criticized by the American left, and even managed to draw a response from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  
 
In other news from the last week:

1. The Congress Party won a decisive victory over its rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s nation-wide elections Saturday. According to most observers, the election gives the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of center-left parties, a mandate to push ahead with a series of economic reform. Because most Pakistianis view Congress as less hawkish than the Hindu nationalist BJP, the election could also provide an opportunity to improve relations with Pakistan, which have been strained since the terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai six months ago.

2. Parliamentary elections in Kuwait were also completed on Saturday. The country has been paralyzed by a standoff between conservative Islamists in the parliament and the government which wants to move forward with economic reforms. Kuwaiti elections are unusual insofar as there are no political parties; candidates run as individuals without formal political affiliations. Historically, the parliament has been dominated by religious figures and tribal authorities who oppose the power of the central government. Kuwait formally extended the right to vote to women in 2005, and analysts had hoped that the expansion of the franchise might moderate the parliament. But while women were elected to the national parliament for the first time in the country’s history—some sixteen of the 210 candidates for the 50 seat-assembly were women; and two women were actually elected into the parliament—the overall composition of the parliament changed little. Analysts now fear that the standoff between the government and the parliament will continue into the next legislative term.

3. A political scandal rocked Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party in the United Kingdom last week. On Saturday, Labour suspended MP David Chaytor after it was revealed that he claimed £13,000 of taxpayers’ money for a mortgage he had already paid off. Chaytor was the second Labour MP suspended due to allegations of misuse of taxpayer funds. The scandal has also claimed one junior minister, Shahid Malik, who is being investigated by the parliamentary oversight committee for accusations that he violated the ministerial code. David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, has tried to seize the initiative, accusing the government of failing to provide sufficient oversight. But with members of his own party also accused of wrongdoing, some analysts believe the only real winners in the scandal are likely to be left-wing Liberal Democrats and the far-right British National Party, neither of which have been implicated in the scandal. With local and euro-elections scheduled for June 4, voters will not have long to wait to express their frustrations.

4. The fuel shortage in Nigeria—one of the world’s leading oil exporters—appears to be drawing to a close. A standoff between Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, and a group of powerful Nigerian business interests had led fuel importers to cut off supplies to the country. Fuel importers receive extensive subsidies from the Nigerian government to keep domestic fuel prices artificially low. However, as the subsidies have become increasingly expensive, the government sought to reduce their levels, sparking a confrontation with fuel importers, who receive approximately $5.5 billion per year from the subsidies. The Nigerian oil industry is the primary source of foreign exchange for the country, but has also been a source of considerable controversy.

5. After announcing plans to seize more than 60 oil-servicing companies last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continued his efforts to nationalize the country’s food industry last week. On Thursday, Chávez announced that the government would seize control of a pasta factory owned by the U.S. food producer Cargill. In March, the government seized a rice mill owned by Cargill, a Coca-Cola plant, and several other food factories. The government accused the companies of violating price controls aimed at controlling inflation and maintaining a sufficient national food supply. Cargill owns another 22 plants around the country, and the Chávez government warned the country that it could see further nationalizations within 90 days if it continued its “marked non-compliance with the law.” Venezuela currently suffers inflation of almost 30 percent and shortages of key staple foods are becoming increasingly common.

And in a bonus follow-up story this week:

6. Concerns over the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic appear to be waning, but several important stories nevertheless emerged last week in the wake of the crisis. First, the Mexican tourism industry is trying to encourage visitors to return to Mexico. Concerns over visiting Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, had led to a collapse of tourism in the country. The resort destination of Cancún, for example, is losing an estimated $6 million per day as a result of the downturn. To counter the decline, some Mexican resort destinations are now offering flu-free guarantees to lure back visitors.

And even more importantly, the H1N1 outbreak has also rekindled debates over the tradeoffs between intellectual property rights and the right to access essential medicines. The pharmaceutical giant Roche, manufacturer of the Tamiflu antiviral flu drug, has agreed to increase production. Roche currently sells Tamiflu for €12 ($16.30) per treatment for developing countries and€15 in developed countries. However, developing countries have been pushing the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify Tamiflu as an essential medicine, a move which would bypass Roche’s intellectual property claims and allow generic production to address public health concerns in the global South. Roche maintains that it can provide sufficient stockpiles of the drug to make such a move unnecessary. While the WHO has not yet issued its opinion, a leading Indian pharmaceutical company is nevertheless planning on moving forward with its plans to produce a cheap generic version of the patented Tamiflu drug, which its says it can sell for less than half the cost of the patented brand.

Good News Out of Rwanda

Most Americans know only one thing about Rwanda: it was the site one of the worst episodes of genocide in the history of the world in 1994, when Hutus killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi.  Most people couldn’t tell you the reason for the outbreak of violence or what has happened in Rwanda since 1994.

But a bit of promising news emerged from Rwanda this week: Following election on Monday, Rwanda will be the first country in the world with a parliament dominated by women.  President Paul Kagame’s ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front, the political party which emerged from the rebel group which brought the genocide to an end, looks to win its second national election since 1994.  Preliminary results indicate that the ruling RPF will retain at least 75% of the seats in parliament.  More impressively, the results also indicate that at least 55% of the members of parliament will be women. 

How does this compare to other countries

  1. Rwanda: 48.8%
  2. Sweden: 45.3%
  3. Norway: 37.9%
  4. Finland: 37.5%
  5. Denmark: 36.9%
  6. Netherlands: 36.7%
  7. Cuba: 36%
    Spain: 36%
  8. Costa Rica: 35.1%
  9. Argentina: 35%
  10. Mozambique: 34.8%

And where does the United States fall?  According to the International Parliamentary Union, the United States ranks 69th worldwide, with women comprising 16.8% of all members of Congress.  And nine countries (Belize, Micronesia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu) have no women in parliament.