Saturday, 1 May 2010

The best electoral system for Portugal?

Pedro Passos Coelho, the new leader of the main opposition party, PSD, has called for a revision of the Portuguese constitutional law. Among other things, he wants to change the Portuguese electoral system.

Passos Coelho seems to favor the British “first past the post” system instead of the Portuguese proportional representation system.

We all know that a perfect voting system is a mathematical impossibility. However we should not cease debating the best feasible option. The arguments for the British system are more or less well-known: (1) each voter knows perfectly well who he is voting for, (2) it is easier for the government party to obtain majority in the parliament, and (3) the elected representative is not a mere Pinocchio in the hands of the party leaders. The criticisms are also well-known. In a young democracy, like the Portuguese one, where there is no strong tradition of respecting individual and minority rights, absolute majorities can easily give birth to autocratic governments. Second, the first past the post system may easily generate absurd situations. For example, according to a poll published by The Guardian, which I heard about thanks to Tomás Belchior, it is possible that the labor party ends up being third, behind Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, while keeping a majority of seats in the parliament.

There are, of course, some hybrid systems. One of the most common is the open party list. In this case, the party lists its candidates for the seat(s) and the voter can alter the order in which candidates have been placed on the list. This system is not impervious to criticisms either. It is a known fact from the PolSci literature that the mere order of the candidates may have huge effects on the final outcomes. Several empirical analyses have confirmed that electors tend to choose candidates that appear on the top of the list. I quote, “Jonathan Koppell and Jennifer Steen studied the 1998 Democratic primary in New York City. The study looked at 79 contests and found that in 71 of those contests candidates received a greater proportion of votes simply because they were listed first on the ballot. In 7 of the contests the candidate listed first won his race by a smaller margin of victory then the increased percentage of votes gained by being first on the ballot. This striking evidence suggests that nearly 10 percent of the elections in New York would have had a different outcome if candidates were randomly placed on ballots.”

Berta Esteve-Volart and Manuel Bagues have studied the impact of imposing gender quotas. Using data for the elections to the Spanish Senate, an open party list system where candidates are ordered alphabetically, the authors concluded that the parties choose female candidates by their surname. By choosing women whose family name starts with the last letters of the alphabet, parties can prevent females from being elected. The effect is so strong that the final impact of the gender quotas law is null.

I agree with Tomás Belchior, no electoral reform will solve the problems of our young parliament. It will simply create different ones.


  1. But... Why are they thinking about it? An electoral reform? As a portuguese I would like to hear about proposals related whith the following question: "how can we get out of this economical mess??"
    What we all want is to see resolutions which can effect directly (electoral reform???) and positively :) the portuguese economy.

  2. "how can we get out of this economical mess??"

    Ana, right now, everybody knows what needs to be done. In the short run, and I mean immediately, cut government spending drastically. In the longer run, to correct the macroeconomic imbalances, either our productivity increases or wages must fall.

  3. And that's it? Is it enough for an economist? To state this mechanical reasoning based on a kind of "maquina de sulfatar" model? What about value? What about wealth? What about people? What happens in that long run if nothing else changes on that model? Will we state another "short run" cut? Until when?
    Getting out of this economical mess is about oppening the future not about closing it into this circular thoughts. What is this economics for?

  4. In Britain, one of the arguments against proportional representation has been that it doesn't deliver strong governments with working majorities, yet just a few days ago, we had an election under first past the post in which we didn't get a party with an overall majority!

    I think that Portugal does need wide-reaching economic and social reforms, similar to those that New Zealand underwent in the mid-1980s, although those were pretty savage, and this actually led to a campaign for a change to proportional representation.

    Therefore, I think it's unlikely that Portuguese will vote for a system that might lead to an elective dictatorship, not to mention one that will make it easier to make huge spending cuts.

    If you want to make deputies more accountable to voters, then the single transferable vote used in
    Ireland would be better - voters rank candidates in order of preference, with each constituency having between three and five members. There are no party lists. But that is no guarantee of social and