How people elect parliaments
The world’s last legislative election for 2017 – an emergency election for the Parliament of the Spanish region of Catalonia – has affirmed the Catalan population’s support for political parties favouring independence from Spain.
The election was called two years early after dramatic political and constitutional events in the region.
Following a controversial independence referendum outcome in early October – which was declared invalid by the national government and courts, and physically disrupted by national authorities – the regional President, with the support of a majority of the Catalan parliament, declared the province independent of Spain on 27 October.
The declaration was rapidly declared unconstitutional by the nation’s judiciary, and the national government in Madrid (and the national Senate) invoked a constitutional procedure to sack the regional government.
The regional parliament was also dissolved, and new elections called.
The national government hoped that that the region’s voters would have tired of the political crisis.
But Thursday’s election may have solved little, with voters returning an assembly very similar in political complexion to the one which the national government had dismissed.
At the preceding elections in 2015, around 36% of registered voters supported pro-independence parties, and 31% backed others opposed to independence, with a total elector turnout of around 74%.
Today a slightly stronger turnout of 78% (which may rise slightly as vote counting is finalised) has seen the pro-independence forces win about 37% of registered voters, and unionist parties about 34%.
In short, backing for parties of each category has eased up slightly.
The independence referendum in October was widely boycotted, with about 36% of the electorate voting for independence, 3% voting no, and around 60% not participating.
The conundrum for Catalonia is that while the motivated pro-independence vote amounts to around 35%-40% of the electorate, it exceeds that of the active opponents of independence, at around 30%-35%.
Around 20% of the electorate sitting on the political sidelines.
The issue of independence is also clouded by the question of whether the Spanish constitution allows for it. Catalonia (and its parliament) have a more independent history that other provinces, and many argue that it retains a constitutional right to separation.
The modern Catalan parliament is elected by a closed party list system of party proportional representation, in four regional electoral divisions.
The division covering Barcelona dominates the assembly, with 85 of the 135 seats, and is closely balanced between pro- and anti-independence voters.
But the three less populous electoral divisions of Tarragona, Lleida and Girona are home to strong voter support for independence.
On the election night results it seems that 70 pro-independence members will win seats, giving them a majority in the 135-member assembly, down from 72 before the dissolution.
The independence support will be divided among three parties. The formerly strong Together for Catalonia alliance split for the new elections, with the Republican Left of Catalonia running independently.
The leader of the Together for Catalonia group, former regional President Carles Puigdemont, remains in exile in Brussels, with the Spanish authorities intent on arresting him should he return to Spain.
Non-independence parties have won 57 seats – up from 52.
The national government’s People’s Party has done particularly poorly, dropping from 11 to just 3 seats. Non-independence support has instead transferred to the Citizens party, which currently keeps the minority People’s Party national government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in office.
The new parliament will also have a small group of 8 members undeclared on the independence issue.
Whether the Rajoy government allows any new pro-independence government to take office remains to be seen.
1. An excellent earlier article by David Lublin in the Washington Post from November 8 –
Lublin argued that detailed features of the current electoral system favour the pro-independence forces. In short, the electoral system:
(1) divides Catalonia into four electoral subdivisions, in a manner which mildly favours pro-independence voters who are stronger in the three outlying regions;
(2) has actual anti-urban malapportionment of seat allotments to the divisions, favouring the three non-Barcelona electoral divisions (with the Barcelona electoral division having an estimated 14 fewer seats than its voters deserve), once again mildly favouring pro-indepencence voters;
(3) has a 3% vote share threshold for party eligibility to win seats, adding (yet again) a mild benefit to the larger, pro-independence parties in the three smaller divisions; and
(4) the use of the D’Hondt formula (instead of perhaps the more proportional St Laguë formula) for allocating seats to parties mildly favours the larger party lists nominated at elections, which yet again happens to favour independence voters, especially in the smaller-magnitude non-Barcelona divisions.
Overall, Lublin estimates the size of the advantage to the pro-independence parties from these combined electoral system details at between 2 and 5 additional seats won. Had pro-independence parties held only 67 seats (not 72) from 2015 to 2017, the September 2017 referendum – and the resulting declaration of independence – might never have occurred.
Note, however, that the fact that 6 or more political parties are competitive in the recent Catalonian elections creates a good deal of diversity in party positions on independence, and that the 2015 elections were also concerned with ordinary economic and social policy choices, not with the issue of independence alone. The 2017 elections is much more dominated by the independence issue.
2. A review of the election result by Mathew Shugart at his Fruits and Votes blog – Catalonia 2017 result – also building on Lublin’s analysis and breaking down the election result absolute vote numbers. Their analysis concludes that the pro-independence parties would not have won a parliamentary majority at this week’s elections under almost any alternative electoral system model which used a single-Catalonia electoral division, or had avoided electoral division malapportionment, or had not used the D’Hondt formula.
3. What would an election result using the single-transferable vote (STV) system have yielded? A quick run-through using a single quota across Catalonia (around 31,600 votes her seat) yields a rough result of 64 seats for pro-independence parties, 60 for anti-independence, and 11 for the CatComú-Podem in-betweeners. This is very similar to the most proportional of the Shugart-Lublin party-list-system estimates (which was 65 pro-independence, 70 other).
The malapportionment of the current districts – especially the allotment of a high number of seats to the pro-independence Lleida province – is largely responsibly for artificially creating the parliamentary majority for pro-independence parties.
All this does not address the fundamental community division in Catalonia, in which the plurality of the active voting population wants independence, but that support falls short of 50% of the electorate, and is unable to overcome the determined position of the national government (and courts) working to prevent independence.