How people elect parliaments
Voters in Austria have their turn this Sunday to determine the role of the far-right in yet another European parliament.
Historically the nationalist, populist and conservative Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has been one of Europe’s most successful far-right parties.
From 1999 to 2005 FPÖ actually shared government in coalition with the establishment centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP), to the dismay of many other EU governments.
The chamber of the Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of the Austrian parliament (image: at.krg.org)
Elections in 2017 have seen far-right populist parties perform well in the Netherlands, France and Germany, but not been elected to – or included in – any national governments.
Austria’s two long-established major parties – the ÖVP and the centre-left Socialist Party (SPÖ) – recorded their worst results ever at the last parliamentary elections in 2013.
To prevent the far-right from having influence in the 2013-17 government the two major parties were obliged to join together in coalition, as has been happening in Germany recently.
Now the Freedom Party is back up in the polls, making it essentially a third major party.
In elections for the nation’s President in May 2016 the candidates of the two major parties were humiliatingly relegated to fourth and fifth places. In the final runoff – which had to be conducted twice – Green-supported presidential candidate Alexander van der Bellen won a tight contest over the Freedom Party’s candidate Norbert Hofer.
To elect the Nationalrat – the lower house of the parliament, where governments are formed – Austria uses a unique three-tiered voting system in which voters identify a single political party which they support. These party vote scores are tallied three times, at local, provincial and finally national levels.
At the first two tiers of counting, parties win seats in the 183-member house for each simple quota of votes (the number of seats available in the local or provincial electoral regions divided by party vote totals). Leftover seats as well as unsuccessful votes then cascade up to the second and third tiers of counting.
At the final national tier any party which wins 4% of the vote nationally will be allocated some of the remaining seats.
The result is essentially a fairly accurately party-proportional overall result, at least for all parties reaching the 4% national vote-share threshold.
The actual candidates who take parliamentary seats are nominally determined by the party listings, although voters have some chance to boost popular individuals up the party list order by identifying up to three favoured candidates.
A sample Austrian Nationalrat election ballot; voters must choose just one party (columns), but may mark support for up to three individuals (lower part of the ballot) within that party’s local list (image; Wikipedia)
Ten political parties have qualified to be listed on the ballots nationwide for this weekend’s elections. (Some minor and local parties will also be listed on the ballots for individual provinces.)
From mid-2015 to mid-2017 the Freedom Party was actually topping opinion polls in Austria. Their support peaked at around 35% in late 2016, but has now fallen to around 25%.
The SPÖ, which placed first in 2013 and had led the outgoing coalition government, has spent the past several years with support consistently around 25%, but never reaching 30%.
The centre-right ÖVP party, under new leader Sebastian Kurz, is now doing rather better. The party has opened its electoral list to include candidates from outside the party itself, and in recent months has seen its poll support surge from around 20% to lead the field at 33%.
The Green Party, which supported the current president into office, did well in 2013 and, with around 12% of the vote, held 24 seats in the outgoing Nationlarat.
In a system with a 4% threshold to win seats, a party averaging 12% support should be comfortable assured of winning numerous seats, especially at the higher tiers of counting. But the Greens have this year done the worst possible thing they could do, by splitting internally into three factions.
Green voters will need to choose between the official party list, a breakaway list led by party elder Peter Pilz, and an alliance of the recently expelled Young Greens and the Communists (KPÖ).
The first two groups are each averaging around 5% in the polls. They would both still win seats at those vote shares, but the horror scenario for the Greens is that all three lists fall just below 4%, resulting in no seats at all.
A lower vote share also increases the influence of the national list order in determining which individual candidates take the Green seats, relative to the order of candidates in the local and provincial lists.
The liberal NEÖS party also looks likely to win around 5% of the vote and thus secure seats, but not enough to be influential in the government coalition-forming process.
Whatever the fate of the minor parties, all the polls indicate that the next Nationlrat will basically require two out of three of the larger parties to form a coalition to govern.
Since the Socialists and the Freedom Party would not co-operate, and since the ÖVP seems certain to have the largest seat share anyway, the next government of Austria will in reality be determined by which of the other two parties the ÖVP chooses to partner with, with Kurz becoming the next Chancellor.
If ÖVP chooses to partner with the Freedom Party, it would become the only ‘western’ European government to include a far-right populist party.
Such an outcome would also embarrass the constitutional position of President van der Bellen, who has made known his discomfort with the Freedom Party having any role in governing the nation.
Austrians vote on Sunday: Will they turn to the right again? (Washington Post, October 12)
An SPÖ-led Grand Coalition is the norm in Austria, instead of being an unusual event that only came about due to the results in 2013.
According to polls the KPÖ-Young Greens joint list is not likely to fall anywhere close to the 4% threshold for seats.
As for that voting method and ballot paper… well, it’s a weird one, I admit. I would prefer it if Austria were to use the evidently more sensible German system, but I suppose it’s yet another way in which the Austrians want to differentiate themselves from their bigger neighbour.
Oli, I think the technique of aggregating ‘unsuccessful’ votes for application in a higher ‘tier’ goes back well before the modern German MMP system (1949+). Immediately after the first world war Germany adopted PartyPR voting, and this tiered device seems to have been present then. I am not sure why they did not use simple PR in each electoral region – which by then was underway in at least Belgium and Norway – but I guess that Germany’s larger and more complex structure of states (länder), former principalities and other distinct localities was important in some way. For future research. Anyway, I also guess that Austria received the technique via Germany. Obviously democracy was horrendously interrupted in both countries from the early 1930s.
Yes, such a system existed both in theory and in practice before 1949. When Austria regained its sovereignty in 1954/55 it had to prove to the Soviets that it was ‘neutral’ and to itself and the rest of the world that it was a viable state in its own right and not just the rump of an old empire that would inevitably end up unifying with its German-speaking brother. Therefore, simply copying the West German electoral system would’ve looked in each case like clear favouritism and sent out the wrong signals.
Federalism in Austria is indeed much weaker than in Germany (in the sense that competences are often merely duplicated rather than truly decentralised) which also harkens back to the history of both nations. And of course I take your point that those countries had particularly harrowing experiences with the failure of democracy in the 1930s.
When I read about systems like the “voters identify a single political party which they support” of Austria, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling of being thankful that Canada and the province of Ontario where I live use the more party-neutral SMP system. While I can hope for a better future of ranked ballots in multi-member districts, I can still be grateful things aren’t worse.
All the experience I had interacting with MPs in Canadian federal parliamentary committees and as individuals showed me how important the individual person was, and how of little help knowing party affiliation was. In each of Canada’s federal parties (IE: excluding the Bloc only from Quebec) that had more than a handful of seats (IE: excluding Elizabeth May, the single remaining Green MP), I can list MPs that could represent me, and MPs that are political opponents.
With a party vote I’m as likely to help elect someone I would disagree with as someone I would agree with, so the safe vote is to not vote at all.
I guess it just shows that you can get used to anything, and it is only because I’ve experienced a better system that I can see the disadvantages of theirs.
Russell, thanks for those reflections. The selection of individual MPs as ‘representative’ of each person voting is why I view STV as a better system than the PartyList PR systems (including MMP). As you say, in the latter a voter can easily be forced to send to parliament people who simply don’t represent their views.
Some analysts claim that the ‘open list’ PartyPR option for candidates makes a difference, but that still depends entirely on the nomination rules and party practices, and voter behaviour does not seem to make much use of open lists even where they are available.
STV, by comparison, can balance party overall representation while still ensuring that every MP gets in by individually attracting voter approval. STV can cope with differences of individual candidate character within parties, and allows easily for breakout independent candidates if the nominations made by parties are not satisfactory to enough voters.
I’m wondering if you could offer your thoughts on the 3-way split in Austria, and the long period of time it takes some PR countries to actually form a government, if these countries had instead been using STV? It is hard for me to read your other articles and not do the “what if” thought experiment.
I see floor crossing not only as a critical tool in holding a party to account, but also a tool to help form/dissolve governments. Executive branches are not directly elected, and should only exist at the pleasure of directly elected parliamentarians.
It always looks to me like PartyPR creates unnecessary deadlocks where MPs are not able to do is best for constituents, but have to narrowly follow brand dictates regardless of the merits of a given policy proposal. While candidates under STV can have party affiliation, representatives aren’t made deliberately subservient to parties by the voting system itself.
I read what you said about Austria, and it reads as if there are only 6 people in a room arguing, some obstinantly opposing anything the “government” says, rather than 183 people acting as adults in a national council representing citizens.
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Russell, I think your image that in party PR, just 3 (you say 6) people are ‘in the room’ negotiating is exactly the problem with partyPR.
In Austria now, a meeting between party leaders Kurz and Strache will be where the fate of the government is decided. The other 181 members of the Nationalrat will be outside the window looking in, wondering their fate.
In New Zealand, whatever Winston Peter decides will be the government.
It’s of course mathematically true that STV could serve up the same-sized parliamentary delegations as PartyPR (including MMP, which is for all practical purposes the same outcome).
But the difference with STV is that the backbench, and even the frontbench, is more vibrant, and potentially more rebellious.
The key difference with PartyPR systems is that the party leadership (whether understood as the ‘Leader’ or the list-nominating ‘officialrat’) dominates the behaviour of the MP caucuses. For example in Austria, the three-legged major parties will negotiate as if just 3 negotiators were present.
With STV – in theory – if the leadership negotiates badly, the voter-accountable caucuses can counsel, warn, and if necessary rebel. There would be ‘texture’ to the day-to-day politics of the situation. That makes all the difference, making the system it least in some better degree accountable to public opinion.
Granted – even with STV, my comments might be undermined by ‘strong’ nomination regulations, or strong party discipline. And I grant that in my country – Australia – the main parties do apply such strong controls.
But PartyPR/MMP is doomed to party discipline, whereas STV can at least breathe free if the rules are well-crafted.
Ergo – for democratic values – STV is better than MMP/PartyPR. And the detailed election-nomination and parliamentary procedure rules also matter a lot.