How people elect parliaments
After a tumultuous run of elections in 2016, the parliamentary electoral calendar for 2017 looks somewhat milder, with elections in France and Germany arguably the most significant.
In many nations, the theme for the year will be the rise of so-called ‘populist’ movements and political parties, driven by a widespread frustration with established political parties. The results of the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the UK vote for Brexit last year are also still echoing through the political world.
Elections for national parliaments (not showing nations holding
presidential elections only) taking place during the year 2017
This website will analyse the electoral systems and the actual elections in several of the major nations, as well as the French presidential election and selected state/provincial parliamentary elections in the UK (Northern Ireland), Germany (three states), Canada (British Columbia) and Australia (at least one and possibly two states).
The year’s elections will kick off with a surprise poll for the legislature of UK ‘country’ of Northern Ireland, brought about by the collapse of the government in the unique Belfast administration.
The Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast – home of the
Northern Ireland Assembly (image: Wikipedia)
As a result of past peace process agreements, Northern Ireland has an executive duumvirate, in which the largest parliamentary political parties from each of the unionist and nationalist ‘communities’ appoint the two executive leaders – the First Minister and Deputy First Minister – whose powers are effectively the same. Under the current arrangements, the resignation of one of these officers automatically triggers the resignation of the other.
In January 2017 the Sinn Féin party’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned as part of ongoing protests against the handling of a domestic energy supply scandal by Democratic Unionist Party’s First Minister Arlene Foster. The Assembly was unwilling to support a replacement to reconstitute the government, and the resulting poll to elect a new Assembly will be held on 2 March.
Northern Ireland’s Assembly is elected by the very representative single transferable vote system (STV), which assists in distributing power among the divided communities and political movements in the country.
But ‘populism’ is not really the issue in Northern Ireland. The first 2017 test of the populist surge comes in one of the states of Australia.
The Australian state of Western Australia goes to the polls on 11 March. The constitutional structure of the WA state parliament is fairly typical of Australian systems – a lower house (the Legislative Assembly) elected by preferential voting in single member divisions, and an upper house (the Legislative Council) elected by the STV system in 6 regional electorates. Polls have for many months indicated that 2017 will be a swing election delivering government to the opposition Labor Party.
The most striking feature of the WA electoral system is that the Legislative Council electoral regions are seriously malapportioned, with voters in the three non-urban electoral divisions having dramatically more electoral influence than the urban voters in the state capital, Perth. Previously common across Australia in the state and national parliaments, such rural biases were mostly eliminated during the era of ‘one vote one value’ reforms from the 1960s to the 1990s, and the WA situation is the only remaining case in the nation.
Western Australia is one of two states where Australia’s populist party One Nation is running strongest (it is even stronger in the state of Queensland), and polls have it running at over 10% voter support. In the Legislative Assembly the standard single-member division electoral system should have the effect of preventing One Nation from winning any seats, although even one win could bring the party into the balance of power (the Assembly has 59 seats). There is however a significant chance that One Nation will achieve the balance of power in the more representative Legislative Council.
At some point later in the year an election may also be called in the state of Queensland as well. Queensland – which has only a single parliamentary chamber – is the only remaining Australian state where parliamentary terms are not fixed and the government in office can call an election at the time of their choosing.
On 15 March the curtain rises in Europe’s electoral encounter with populist insurgencies as the Netherlands goes to the polls. The Dutch Tweed Kamer is elected by the party-list seat allocation system, and with 150 seats allocated across one national pool the result is highly proportional, and micro-parties with votes as low as 0.67% are eligible to be allocated seats.
European parliamentary elections taking place in 2017
The 2017 Dutch election is expected to be a key indicator of the extent to which Europe’s populist ‘far-right’ parties are set for a good year across Europe, with the Party of Freedom (PVV) party led by Geert Wilders among the most established and successful of the continent’s populist movements. Polls are showing the PVV running at over 25% support, and consistently the leading party in polls since early 2016.
The PVV political strategy is to oblige the currently governing centre-right VVD party to join them in a new coalition, with Wilders potentially claiming the role of Prime Minister if his party is the coalition’s largest member. The only alternative would be a German-style ‘grand coalition’, consisting of the centre-right, centre-left, and several other minor parties.
Late in March the first of three German state (‘land’) elections for 2017 will occur. All the 16 German lander assemblies are elected by the mixed-member proportional system developed nationally in the 1950s. The system typically results in coalition governments.
Again, the results will be watched anxiously for signs of the rise of the German populist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). The three states voting this year were among the lowest supporters of AfD (with support below 6%) in the last national elections in 2013, so a significant vote showing for them this season could cause alarm.
The three German state elections taking place in 2017 (left) are in states where the populist
Alternative for Germany party polled less well in the 2013 national elections (right)
The German state of Saarland is voting on 26 March, with Schleswig-Holstein following on 7 May and North-Rhine Westphalia on 14 May. By the time when the latter two elections are held, the crucial French elections will have revealed whether the populist swing is fully on across Europe.
France has two elections to get through – presidential and legislative – in the next four months. Both involve two rounds of voting.
The French presidential election is the classic case of the two-round runoff voting system. On 23 April the first round occurs, with up to a dozen candidates preparing to nominate. The second round follows a week later, on 30 April, between the two best-placed first round candidates.
The French legislative elections for the Assemblée Nationale follow a few weeks later, with rounds of voting on 11 June and 18 June. Each of the 550 single-member districts will also be filled by the two-round runoff system.
At some point this year – perhaps in May – Lebanon is due to hold its first elections since 2009. These were originally due in 2014 but have been long-delayed due to an ongoing political standoff over the failure to elect a president as head of state.
With deep sectarian and community divisions and warfare rarely far away, the nation has one of the most complex of all electoral systems, based largely of the block vote method, but with an array of conditions aimed at ensuring a specified balance of representation for the main religious communities across the population, and for several subdivisions within each community. The system accommodates, and perhaps perpetuates, a complex political landscape with multiple political parties.
With Lebanese political parties taking a range of positions and supportive alliances with the multiple combating forces within neighbouring Syria, the ongoing horrific civil war there will no doubt make electoral conditions very difficult for this long-suffering nation.
Norway’s election on 11 September may also figure in this years’s theme of rising right-wing populism. Norway also uses a party seat allocation system, across 20 regions, but reserves a small number of seats nationally to correct for any disproportionality among the political parties that might arise from the aggregate of the regional results.
The weekend of 23 and 24 September will highlight the German-designed mix-member proportional electoral system (MMP) once again, with elections in New Zealand (which adopted the German system in the 1990s) on Saturday 23rd, and then for Germany’s national Bundestag on Sunday 24th.
The German election is also being watched anxiously to see if the right-populist Alternative for Germany party can improve on the 5% vote it opened with in 2013. All parties winning 5% nationally are eligible for Bundestag seats.
But the AfD is highly unlikely to enter into a governing role, because the two main German political parties (the centre-right CDU/CSU and the centre-left PDS) have become confortable with forming ‘grand coalitions’ to keep extreme parties out of government, as they have done for the 2013-17 term.
Even if that coalition government is renewed, however, the SPD may overtakes the CDU in votes, in which case CDU leader Angela Merkel would need to cede the chancellorship to the SPD leader, Martin Schultz.
South America will see neighbouring parliamentary elections late in the year in Chile (29 October) and Argentina (19 November).
Chile has an unusual method of electing members of its parliament, the Cámara de Diputados, in two-member districts. Each party nominates two candidates for each district. In each district’s result, if the largest party has twice the vote of the second-largest, that party is allocated both seats. Otherwise the two largest vote-winning parties are allocated one seat each. This vote counting method creates great stability (and many safe seats) for the two leading political parties, but imposes a high barrier to entry for any other political movement.
Argentina elects its Cámara de Diputados by a standard party list proportional seat allocation system, with seats allocated proportionally in advance to each province, and then allocated after the elections in proportion to each party’s vote in each province.
Meanwhile the United States is largely having a year off from significant elections, to rest and recover from 2016!
On the US national election day of 7 November, only the states of Virginia and New Jersey will elect their state governors and legislatures. The important post of Mayor of New York City will also be up for election this November.
For true election tragics, the only US municipality to elect its council by the single transferable vote (STV) method – the City Council of the municipality of Cambridge, Massachusetts (dominated by Harvard University) – is also up for its biennial election on 7 November 2017.
Other nations due to hold national parliamentary elections during 2017 – in rough chronological order – are: Lichtenstein and Ecuador (held already in February), Micronesia, Belize, Bulgaria, Gambia, Armenia, Algeria, the Bahamas, Albania, Senegal, Gabon, Congo, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Kuwait, Angola, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Liberia, Honduras, Sierra Leone, Nepal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the disputed state of Somaliland. Afghanistan is also long overdue to hold parliamentary elections.
Some of the above, and several other nations, will also hold presidential elections.