Results on three continents

Tying up three sets of loose ends from recent electoral events.

Angola

First Angola, which went to the polls on 24 August for presidential and parliamentary elections, held on a single ballot. As explained in my preview, the incumbent party, the MPLA, has governed Angola since independence in 1975 and was not thought likely to allow itself to be defeated.

Results are now complete, and sure enough, president João Lourenço was re-elected. But by Angolan standards it was extremely close: he and the MPLA had just 51.2% of the vote, against 44.0% for his challenger, Unita’s Adalberto Costa. Turnout was 44.8%, a big drop from 2017’s 76.1%.

The ruling party finished with 124 of the 220 seats, with 90 for Unita’s coalition and two each for three minor parties. The distribution of seats favors smaller rural provinces, which on this occasion worked in the MPLA’s favor; the opposition actually won a big majority in Luanda, the capital, which is greatly under-represented. (It may also be that electoral fraud is easier in rural areas.)

Unita has claimed foul play and has lodged a challenge to the results. It’s certainly true that the MPLA has no history of democratic practice; the African Union observer mission, in a generally positive report, acknowledged that the government enjoyed a number of advantages. On the other hand, there’s nothing implausible in the reported voting pattern, and it puts Unita in a strong position for next time, when term limits should prevent Lourenço from running again.

Alaska

We’ve been following a congressional by-election held in Alaska on 16 August (see original report here and later update here), noteworthy both for the introduction of preferential voting and for the attempted comeback of Sarah Palin, former governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate.

With the results now finalised, Palin has failed to make up her deficit on primaries. Mainstream Republican Nick Begich, with 28.5% of the vote, was eliminated. Just on half of his preferences – 50.3% – flowed to Palin; 28.7% of them went to Democrat Mary Peltola, and the remaining 21.0% exhausted. That was enough for Peltola to just hold on, winning with 51.5%, a margin of 5,240 votes over Palin.

Republicans (especially conservative ones) are appalled that, as they see it, Alaska’s new voting system has deprived them of victory. Noah Millman explains what’s wrong with that claim, but he somewhat overstates the case. The key passage is this one: “if there had been a runoff between the top two candidates, the neutral assumption should be that Peltola would have [won], since ranked-choice voting is an instant runoff.”

That sounds plausible, but it glides over a key difference. To beat Palin under the conventional system, with party primaries followed by a head-to-head general election, those moderate Republican voters – the 15 thousand or so who voted for Begich and then preferenced Peltola – would have had to actually turn out in the general election and vote for a Democrat. I don’t think so many of them would have.

If you’re familiar with preferential voting, you know that what they did this time – putting “1” beside a Republican then “2” beside a Democrat – has the same effect. But it wouldn’t have felt the same; it wouldn’t have seemed to them like a betrayal of their party. And it’s that ability to painlessly seduce voters away from the extremes that makes preferential voting a potential force for moderation.

Also note that Peltola will only hold the seat until January. The regular election for Alaska’s seat will happen in November, when the same three candidates (with the addition of a Libertarian) will again compete. It’ll be very interesting to see if there’s a shift in the numbers.

Chile

Finally to Chile’s constitutional referendum, which I previewed on Friday. The opinion polls were vindicated; with all but a handful of polling places reporting, the draft constitution has been decisively rejected, 61.9% to 38.1%, a margin of more than three million votes. Every region voted against it, with the lowest “no” vote being 55.3% in metropolitan Santiago.

Leftist president Gabriel Boric, who had strongly supported the draft, has called together political leaders for a meeting to try to work out what to do next. Some pundits are suggesting that the “no” vote was partly a vote of dissatisfaction with Boric’s government.

Supporters of the new constitution, it seems to me, have mostly themselves to blame for having been too ambitious in their strategy and having failed to bring the centre-right forces with them on the project. It was not hard to predict that, faced with a large new document in which many different groups could find something to dislike, voters would stick with the status quo.

The reformers would have been better off identifying particular features of the existing constitution that they find objectionable and proposing amendments, rather than going for the big bang approach.

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