Archive | Campaigns and elections

Direct democracy in Switzerland: Yes to the army, vaccinations, and petrol station shops

Germany wasn’t the only country holding elections in Central Europe this weekend.  Swiss voters went to the polls for a number of referenda on Sunday, and we are pleased to continue our series of election reports with the following post-election report from political scientists Thomas Milic and Sean Mueller, both at the Institute of Political Science, University of Berne.


On 22 September 2013 the Swiss electorate, in its quarterly power of highest law-breaker and constitution-maker of the land, was once more called to the polls to answer three specific questions. First, whether the mandatory conscription service for all Swiss men should be deleted from the Federal Constitution and be replaced with the mere option to serve in the Swiss military for men and women alike; second, whether to approve a new law on vaccinations in times of epidemics; and third, whether to approve the modification of a single article in the Labour Code, thus enabling petrol station shops along busy roads to remain open also during the night. As had been widely expected, Swiss voters rejected the popular initiative launched by the Group for a Switzerland without an Army (GSOA), thereby confirming the existing conscription system, and equally approved of the two legislative reforms. What remains however interesting for political scientists to observe is the wide sub-national discrepancy in approval/rejection rates, the different constellations across the three questions, and the result of various cantonal and communal votes.

An overwhelming yes to the army, but not equally strong throughout Switzerland

In Switzerland, modifications of the Federal Constitution (the term “amendment” is misleading since changes are not attached, but rather directly incorporated in the written document) need to be approved by a majority of people and also a majority of Swiss cantons, whereby the vote of a canton is determined by the way its people decide. From the outset, this was thought to be an extraordinary obstacle for the popular initiative on partial constitutional change – of all the 184 popular initiatives voted upon between 1848 and March 2013, only 20 (11%) had been approved ( and own calculations). Proposals reforming or even abolishing the Swiss army in particular have had a tough stand. This time around, too, an overwhelming majority of 73.2% Swiss citizens voted against the proposal, with quite a respectable turnout of 46.4% (the average turnout between 1990 and 2010 being 44.1%; State Chancellery). Although none of the 23 cantons approved, there are still notable discrepancies as regards the degree of approval of the status quo. Rejection of the initiative, in other words, has reached top-levels of more than 80% in seven cantons, with Uri at the top of the list with 85%. At the other end, in three cantons “only” some 60% voted no, with canton Geneva, at 57.8%, forming the other end of the continuum. To sum it up, rejection was particularly strong in cantons where the left parties are weak and in rural regions, where the number of people actually doing their military service is higher and where the compulsory military service is not regarded as a disadvantage in the labour market (Figure 1; from Tages-Anzeiger).


Shop opening hours and state vaccinations: the rural-urban cleavage

The other two questions to be decided at national level both concerned legislative reforms against which a referendum (that is a petition signed by at least 50,000 citizens) had been launched. Although both rather detailed items to be decided, at least the campaign on extending the opening hours of petrol station shops was marked by an interesting alliance of left-wing trade-unions and religious groups, on the one hand, and liberal and business interests, on the other. For the former, although the reform concerned merely 24 shops throughout Switzerland (Figure 2; from Der Bund), the issue really was about protection of workers from having to work all night and family values at risk in a so-called “24-hours society”. The latter, however, saw in the existing regulation a “bureaucratic monster” – the 24 petrol stations in question could already remain open all night, but had to close off their shopping areas between 1am and 5am. The result was accordingly a rather narrow victory of the liberalisation camp, with 55.8% voting in favour of the reform (turnout: 45.8%). This time, however, the less well-off cantons of Valais, Uri and Jura plus Fribourg and Neuchatel voted against the overall trend; the people of Jura even by a 65.3%-strong majority.

Eidg-Abstim_Kantone 2-sp

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Background Information on German Elections

As we wait for the results of the German elections, we are pleased to be able to provide some background on this election from Benjamin Preisler, who most recently obtained his second M.A. from the College of Europe and is now looking for new opportunities. He blogs and tweets.  We will have post-election reports in the coming days.


The outcome of the federal elections that took place in Germany today, September 22, had enthralled Europe for the better part of 2013. Clearly, some national elections have become continental issues as the attention paid to Greek or French elections in recent years had already hinted at. Little surprisingly, Merkel’s reigning CDU/CSU has won, yet much remains uncertain as to what kind of coalition will – or even can – govern Germany.

The setup of the Bundestag had remained remarkably stable following its inauguration in 1949. Apart from two small exceptions in 1949 and 1953, the same three parties (CDU/CSU, SPD & FDP) topped the necessary 5%-hurdle, split all seats amongst each other and determined the government – with the FDP oftentimes tipping the scales – all the way up to 1983.

This inertia (or stability) of the party system started eroding over time with the process of – relevant – new parties emerging taking place increasingly rapidly. In the 1980s the Greens became a fixture on the parliamentary scene providing the blueprint for a bipolar four-parties, two-camps opposition that culminated in Schröder’s red-green coalition. Following reunification the former state party of East Germany became the PDS and made its entry onto the parliamentary scene as a regional power, which it consolidated through a union in 2007 with a predominately West German protest movement (the WASG) that resulted in today’s Die Linke.

These four established parties are joined in these elections by the Pirates who in 2011-2012 garnered enough votes to make their entry into four state parliaments. Currently drawing most attention though is an absolute newcomer on the German political scene in the Euro(zone)-skeptic Alternative für Deutschland, which arose out of a conservative economist-heavy backlash against the Merkel government’s supposedly failed policies in the framework of the eurocrisis.

From a stable three party system, Germany has thus moved to a volatile four to seven party whirlwind. As the exit polls beneath make clear, a parliament that currently seemingly consists of four parties could feasibly have either five or six at any point during this night.

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The Santorum Challenge to Romney: An Excerpt from The Gamble

Salon has an excerpt from The Gamble, Lynn Vavreck’s and my account of the 2012 election.  Here is one bit about how Santorum pulled off his victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri:
Santorum filled it by outhustling the other candidates in these states, despite his seat-of-the-pants campaign. He did so in part with a little outside help and in part with the shoe-leather campaigning that even an underfunded campaign can do (much as he did in Iowa). And with the other candidates doing far less to contest these states, the information his campaigning produced—via advertisements, voter contact, rallies, and local news—likely helped him persuade and mobilize voters. Santorum’s campaign benefited from the support of a super-PAC, the Red White and Blue Fund (RWBF), largely funded by wealthy businessmen William Doré and Foster Friess. Thanks to their support, RWBF actually aired more ads in Missouri and Minnesota than did any other candidate or affiliated super-PAC. In the three weeks before the two caucuses and the primary, RWBF aired 121 ads in Missouri (no other candidate aired any) and 193 ads in Minnesota (Romney’s super-PAC aired 150 and Paul aired 125). In Colorado, where Romney did advertise and Santorum did not, RWBF organized a phone bank to mobilize Santorum voters.

Santorum also did quite a bit of work himself. In the seven days before these primaries—from January 31 to February 6—Santorum held nine events in Colorado, twelve in Minnesota, and two in Missouri. He held more events in each state than did Gingrich, Paul, and Romney combined. Gingrich appeared only once in Minnesota and once in Colorado, virtually guaranteeing—or perhaps acknowledging—that he would not rebound from his defeat in Florida by winning in one of these states. Romney appeared only once in Minnesota, twice in Colorado, and not at all in Missouri.

Santorum’s campaigning did not much affect his national news coverage, but it did appear to affect his local news coverage. We tabulated the number of mentions that Romney and Santorum received during this seven-day period in both the national news media and the local news media in each state. Overall, Romney received about five times as many mentions as Santorum in the national news—as one might expect given that Romney was the front-runner and Santorum mostly an afterthought. But in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, Romney received roughly three times as many mentions. On the day before the caucuses and primary were held, Romney received only twice as many mentions. To generate even half as much local media attention as Romney was arguably an accomplishment for Santorum, a candidate who was polling in the single digits nationally and all but written off by many commentators.

The headline that Salon attached to this is “The Republicans almost went insane: Santorum really could have beaten Romney.”  That is unfortunate, since it is the opposite of what Lynn and I argue in the book.  We downplay the threats that both Gingrich and Santorum posed to Romney.

The book is available on Amazon here.  I will be posting more about it in the near future.  In the meantime, enjoy the excerpt.

[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.]

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2013 Austrian Parliamentary Elections: Pre-Election Report

The Austrian Voter

We are please to continue our series of Election Reports with the following pre-election report on the September 29, 2013 Austrian parliamentary elections by political scientists Sylvia Kritzinger, Michael Lewis-Beck, and Eva Zeglovits, three of the authors of The Austrian Voter.


On September 29, Austrian citizens will vote in the National Council elections. It is their first such vote since the extension of the legislative period from four to five years. Further, the two government parties, SPÖ and ÖVP, have not had to fight any regional or local elections for over two years. Though such a honeymoon period is rather unique, the government failed to make decisions over necessary reforms resulting in a standstill in most policy areas (pensions, higher education, the health system, etc.). Most importantly, new parties have entered the political scene, confronting the two ‘old’ mainstream parties with decreasing electoral support.

Austria has been known for its relative stability, with the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) holding together more than 90% of the votes for decades.  Hence, current developments make this election particularly interesting. First, since 1986, the Greens and the radical right (FPÖ) have offered serious challenges to this duopoly. And the 2013 campaign remains particularly special, with more parties than ever poised to play a role in the distribution of the 183 National Council seats.

Most prominently, Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach and his newly founded party Team Stronach are running, and the Austrian National Elections Study (AUTNES) survey foresees that his party will obtain seats. Moreover, Team Stronach poses trouble for the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) – a splinter party off the FPÖ, with popular Jörg Haider chairing it until his death in 2008. Stronach convinced some former BZÖ MPs to desert the BZÖ and form a parliamentary club for the Team Stronach. In all, these days there are six parties represented in the National Council, an all time high in Austrian politics.

Team Stronach also challenges the other radical right party in the Austrian National Council: the FPÖ. Team Stronach competes along similar electoral lines as the FPÖ: it is skeptical towards the European integration process, demands to leave the euro, and denounces the Austrian political system and its political class. In the past, the FPÖ ‘owned’ all these issues. Unlike the FPÖ though, Team Stronach does not tackle the issue of immigration, which was a major FPÖ issue in the last electoral campaign.

Finally, a new liberal party – the NEOS – also tries to capture the support from the center-right Austrian citizens. Unlike Team Stronach, however, it is far from certain whether the NEOS will pass the threshold of 4 per cent to gain a seat in the National Council. All in all, in this year’s election there is fierce competition on the right-hand side of the ideological political spectrum: 5 serious competitors are fighting for votes. The left-hand side of the ideological spectrum is emptier: only the Social Democrats and the Greens are serious contenders here.

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Ted Cruz Is Still Alienating Fellow Republicans

A few months ago, I wrote a couple pieces arguing that if Ted Cruz has presidential ambitions, he was doing himself no favors by taking on fellow Republicans.  I got a little pushback too.  So I thought this story was worth noting:

The staffer, whom two GOP sources identified as working for Representative John Culberson of Texas, went on to decry Cruz for holding events in Culberson’s district and telling his constituents that defunding Obamacare would be “easy”…
…A significant number in the room of about one hundred people applauded the woman’s remarks, but several GOP aides said it was not a standing ovation or an overwhelmingly positive response…
…On the other hand, it’s fair to say the staffer’s anger at Cruz carries a fairly broad base among House Republicans, many of whom view his Obamacare push as self-destructive to the party.

Just another data point.  We’ll see how relevant this becomes if Cruz runs in 2016.

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Additional Commentary on Moscow Mayoral Elections

University of North Carolina political scientist Graeme Robertson and Kings College London political scientist Samuel Greene:

From the government’s standpoint, the regional and local elections held Sunday in Russia were primarily about getting a ‘convincing’ victory – convincing the ruling elite that President Vladimir Putin’s imprimatur can still carry an election in the boisterous capital, convincing the public that Putin is still in charge, convincing the opposition that their cause is futile, and convincing himself that his political machine still functions. Did it work?

Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist convicted of embezzlement (on what many believe to be flimsy grounds) just before he stood for mayor of Moscow, garnered some 27% of the vote – more than many thought he could, but not enough to force the incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, into a runoff. On the other hand, Sobyanin avoided that runoff with only the slimmest of margins, at 51.37%, which is likely to be questioned when vote tallies can be scrutinized more carefully. Moreover, Putin’s United Russia party lost elections in two major cities – Ekaterinburg and Petrozavodsk – where opposition candidates with strong local backing overcame the country’s most powerful political machine. The Kremlin’s victory, then, was less than resounding.

How all of this looks from the confines of the Kremlin will begin to become clear tomorrow, when Navalny’s appeal against his embezzlement conviction gets its first hearing in court. Whether Navalny goes to jail will be a reflection of how soundly the Kremlin thinks it can sleep without its most prominent opponent behind bars. Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, due to be released in the spring unless a rumored third trial goes forward, will be watching carefully from his prison cell, as will 12 mostly young men and women arrested for taking part in a protest that turned violent on May 6, 2012.

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Moscow Mayoral Election: The Risks of Using “Relatively” Free Elections to Gain Legitimacy

The following is a guest post from Columbia University political scientist Timothy Frye, Director of the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.


Elections – even biased ones—are funny things. Going into the Moscow Mayoral election on Sunday, the conventional wisdom saw the incumbent Sergei Sobyanin easily winning a majority in the first round. Meanwhile, his main opponent, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny languished in the high teens in the polls. However with 94% of the vote counted, Sobyanin is sweating out a first round victory with a 51.2% of the vote, while Navalny beat expectations and earned 27.4 percent. A race this close could in principle spark a recount and perhaps a second round of voting, although even a remote possibility of turning the second most important Executive position in Russia to the opposition suggests that the authorities will find a way to prevent another round of voting.

One fascinating aspect of this election was Sergei Sobyanin’s attempts to use “relatively” freer elections to gain greater legitimacy even within Russia’s autocratic political system. Sure, he took advantage of all the benefits of incumbency, enjoyed massive television exposure, reportedly pressured state workers to vote, gained from absentee ballots etc., but the incumbent seems to have relied far less on the crude ballot falsifications that marred the Parliamentary elections of 2011. And it is widely reported that Sobyanin favored allowing Navalny to run in the Mayoral race even though he was recently sentenced to 5 years in jail for embezzlement – charges that many view as politically motivated. Free on appeal, Navalny conducted the campaign in full knowledge that he could be sent to prison at any moment. Although he could have run against “loyal” opposition figures from Kremlin-friendly parties, Sobyanin apparently favored the harder, but potentially more rewarding path, of running against a “disloyal” opposition candidate in Navalny.

Sobyanin, who was thought to be generally popular in Moscow, a city that has prospered in recent years, likely thought that he could coast to victory against an inexperienced candidate with little organization in a very short campaign without relying on the most crude forms of falsification. Earning an easy victory in an election against a “real” opposition figure could have greatly increased Sobyanin’s standing – perhaps even as a potential successor to President Putin. Yet in squeaking by with just over 51% of the vote, Sobyanin returns to office diminished. Navalny, on the other hand, may end up in jail but by beating expectations he cemented his position as a leader of the opposition. These are the risks of using “relatively” free elections to gain legitimacy in an autocratic system where outcomes are not easy to predict.

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Moscow Mayoral Election: Results from Exit Polls Look Like Numbers that Can Provoke Protest in National Elections


I wanted to make a quick initial observation about today’s Moscow mayoral election. The exit polls are showing the opposition leader Alexei Navalny doing better than expected at close to 30% of the vote, but losing handily to Putin ally and incumbent Sergei Sobyanin. The key figure here to watch, however, is Sobyanin’s share of the vote, which is currently being estimate in some exit polls as running around 52-53%. The reason the exact level is important is that the Moscow mayoral election uses a two-round majoritarian voting rule, meaning that if Sobyanin gets more than 50% of the vote, he avoids a second round run off in which he would have to go up against only Navalny. Although Navalny is losing handily in the first round, with Sobyanin’s support hovering just north of 50% it is by no means assured what would happen in a second round, especially as turnout can change across the different rounds of the election.

But equally importantly, these looks like the sorts of results that could trigger post-election protests if there is suspicion of electoral fraud (and Navalny is claiming his exit polls show Sobyanin’s support at 46%). The reason here is that although the actual results are not that close, Sobyanin being so close to 50% may lead voters to think that fraud tipped the outcome of the election in favor of the incumbent. As I have argued previously in an article in Perspectives on Politics, these types of elections can be especially conducive to protest because (a) they create an expectation that other people my also be protesting, thus lowering the potential cost to any individual of joining a protest while at the same time (b) they hold open the promise of a real benefit to protesting, i.e. potentially changing the outcome of the election.

There are two important caveats to consider. First, I have yet to see accusations of electoral fraud in this election – at the moment there are simply different claims as to what exit polls show the results should be. However, these are precisely the types of situations that can lead to accusations of electoral fraud later, and recent Russian elections have certainly not been immune to charges of electoral fraud. The second caveat is potentially more important, which is that the argument I made was in the context of national elections, where protest could really “throw the bums out”. We don’t yet know if similar dynamics are likely to be at work in election for a regional office. That being said, the mayor of Moscow, a city of 12 million people and the center of the Russian state, is about as important a local official as they come.

And to be clear, there are plenty of other reasons why people might not protest. There could be protest fatigue from the 2011-2012 Russian protests. There could be a fear of a harsh crack-down from security forces. There could be a sense that even if the first round results are overturned, the result will be just be the same in the next round. Or people could trust that the results are correct. (Or, still unknown at the time of this writing, the official results could even place Sobyanin below 50%, which I think would definitely not trigger protests.) But at this moment, past examples suggest that at the very least conditions are ripe for post-election protest should Moscovites sufficiently value the outcome of this peculiar “local” election.

[Photo Credit: The Wasington Post]

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