May electoral roundup

Time for a quick rundown on what’s been happening lately in the electoral world.

Northern Ireland

Voters in Northern Ireland elected a new Assembly last week, in conjunction with local elections across Britain. The headline result was that the nationalist Sinn Féin emerged (as expected) as the largest party, winning 29.0% of the vote. Its vote, however, increased only slightly and its tally of seats remained the same (27 out of 90); the difference was that its main rival, the unionist DUP, dropped sharply, to 21.3% and 25 seats.

The balance between unionists and nationalists barely shifted, but within each group voters moved towards the extremes: the moderate SDLP lost badly on the nationalist side, losing a third of its seats, while the Traditional Unionist Voice, which is hostile to the peace process, saw a big jump in its vote, although it failed to improve on its single seat.

The big winner was the non-sectarian Alliance, which rose to third place with 13.5% of the vote and more than doubled its representation, going from eight seats to 17. Some of that came at the expense of the Greens, who lost both of their seats, offsetting what was otherwise a good day for them in the local elections.

Institutionalised power-sharing means that the results don’t necessarily change the shape of the government much. Since the unionists still have a narrow plurality the DUP will still be entitled to claim the position of first minister [no, that’s wrong: see note below], assuming that it and Sinn Féin can agree on a government. Peter McLoughlin at the Conversation has a good explanation of what it might all mean for the province’s future.


No surprises at all from Monday’s presidential election in the Philippines (see my preview here). With 98.3% of precincts reporting, unofficial results show Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos the runaway winner with 58.7% of the vote, more than 16 million votes clear of liberal Leni Robredo, the incumbent vice-president, on 28.0%. Manny Pacquiao was a long way back in third place on 6.9%.

Marcos’s running mate and daughter of the incumbent president, Sara Duterte, had an even easier time of it, winning the vice-presidency with 61.3% against just 17.9% for her nearest rival, Robredo’s running mate Kiko Pangilinan. Turnout was again in the neighborhood of 80%.

Marcos has promised, as people usually do in these situations, “to be a president for all Filipinos”, and it is only fair to say that the propensity to dictatorship is not always hereditary. But it still doesn’t say much for the health of Philippine democracy.


The north German state of Schleswig-Holstein went to the polls last Sunday to elect a new state government. The three parties that govern together in Berlin had mixed fortunes: the Social Democrats and Liberals both lost badly, dropping 11.3% and 5.1% respectively, but the Greens had a good day, picking up 5.4% and overtaking the SPD to become the second-largest party with 14 of the 69 seats. (See official results here.)

The Christian Democrats, who already led the state government, were the best performers; with 43.4% of the vote (up 11.4%) and 34 seats (up nine) they are only one seat short of a majority in their own right. On the far right, Alternative for Germany fell below the threshold with 4.4% (down 1.5%) and lost all its seats, the first time it has ever dropped out of a state parliament.

Commentators are attributing the big win to the personal popularity of the CDU premier, Daniel Günther, but it’s clearly a bad sign for the SPD nationally. A bigger test will come this Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state – there the SPD and Greens are hoping to take power from the incumbent coalition of CDU and Liberals.

South Ossetia

Finally, also last Sunday, to a remarkable election in South Ossetia. In case you need a reminder, South Ossetia is a small Russian protectorate in the Caucasus mountains; it is internationally recognised as part of Georgia, but proclaimed its independence in 1991. Russia successfully defended that “independence” in a war with Georgia in 2008.

Despite the heavy Russian presence, South Ossetia has competitive elections. Its incumbent president, Anatoly Bibilov, won the job by defeating his predecessor, Leonid Tibilov, in the 2017 election. At the time it was thought this result was unwelcome to Moscow, so Bibilov has tried to ingratiate himself with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, promising if re-elected to hold a referendum on formally joining Russia.

But it didn’t help him. In the first round of the presidential election, held last month, he managed only 35.0% of the vote, three and a half points behind his main rival, Alan Gagloyev. Sunday was the runoff, and Gagloyev duly prevailed with 54% of the vote. Bibilov promptly conceded defeat.

Obviously, in view of South Ossetia’s situation, none of the candidates were ever likely to be in any way anti-Russian. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see that Russia’s own manifest lack of democracy has not been fully exported to all of its possessions.

Additional note on Northern Ireland: added Friday 12.25pm

I said above that the largest political designation (unionist, nationalist or other) gets to nominate the first minister – that’s not right, and it’s worth taking the time to explain why.

The relevant legislation is the Northern Ireland Act 1998, amended on various occasions since, notably in 2006 following the St Andrews Agreement. Section 16A(4) states that after an election, “The nominating officer of the largest political party of the largest political designation shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the First Minister.” (Section 16B(4) makes the same provision for when the position falls vacant mid-term.) That’s what I relied on.

Section 16A(12) then says “This section shall be construed in accordance with, and is subject to, section 16C.” Section 16C is mostly about what a “political designation” means and how it’s determined, which is pretty much just what you’d expect.

But if you read very carefully, you eventually find section 16C(6), which reads as follows:

If at any time the party which is the largest political party of the largest political designation is not the largest political party—

(a) any nomination to be made at that time under section 16A(4) or 16B(4) shall instead be made by the nominating officer of the largest political party …

So the largest party (which is now Sinn Féin) gets to name the first minister even though it’s not from the largest designation, and the largest party from the largest designation (now the DUP) gets the deputy first minister.

Whatever you think of the politics of this, it need hardly be said that it’s an atrocious piece of drafting. It amounts to saying “Do A, except for the case in which A isn’t also B, in which case do B,” which could be expressed much more simply as “Do B”.

So apologies for the slip (and thanks to Giuseppe De Simone for prodding me to investigate it), but my original point, that it doesn’t really change the balance of power much, remains unaffected.


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