Big & little results

Two election results – one from a big country with a bad electoral system, and one from a small country with a very good one.

First Nigeria, which went to the polls a week ago (see my preview here). It took a few days for the result to be declared, but that’s not a problem: in a large and relatively poor country you expect counting to take some time, and it’s more important to get results right than to get them quickly. The problem is the electoral system.

Voting for president is by simple plurality. Because Nigeria has previously had a two-party system, that hasn’t been a problem: the winning candidates have always had a majority, with the narrowest being Muhammadu Buhari’s first victory, in 2015, with 54.0% of the vote. This time, however, that came unstuck, with three candidates having a serious chance.

Very serious, as it turned out: all three of them had more than a quarter of the vote. Bola Tinubu, from the governing All Progressives Congress, was the winner with 36.6%; Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party was again runner-up with 29.1%, and the Labour Party’s Peter Obi was a close third on 25.4%. Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party was a creditable fourth with 6.2%, and 14 also-rans shared the remaining 2.7%.

Abubakar and Obi have both cried foul, claiming various sorts of irregularities. But their main problem is the system. If a runoff had been held, it’s quite likely that Abubakar would have won, given that he and Obi were both opposition candidates (they had run on the same ticket in 2019). And if preferential voting had been used, Obi would have had a chance to get ahead of Abubakar and benefit from his preferences.

The unfairness is especially striking given that there actually is a provision for a second round – in the case where the winning candidate fails to win more than a quarter of the vote in at least two-thirds of the states. That didn’t apply this time (in fact it never has); Tinubu fell short of the 25% mark in just eight of the 36 states. But it would make more sense to hold a runoff when a candidate falls well short of a majority.

It’s not just the presidency, either: both houses of the legislature, which were also up for election, are chosen by first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts. (It’s easy to tell that it used to be a British colony.) There’s no sign of final results yet, but geographical diversity will work against the system’s unfairness and should prevent any one party holding a majority.

Contrast Estonia, which voted yesterday (previewed here). Its parliament is elected by genuine proportional representation (D’Hondt); most MPs represent multi-member constituencies, and balancing seats are then added to ensure overall proportionality across the whole country, subject to a 5% threshold.

The threshold can potentially be a serious problem if parties are polling close to it, but that wasn’t the case this time; no-one scored between 2.4% and 8.2%, and the two parties that came closest – the pro-Russian United Left on 2.4% and the conservative Right party with 2.3% – would only have won two seats each if there was no threshold. (See official results here.)

As expected, six parties made it into parliament: the same five as last time, plus the liberal Estonia 200. Reform (right-liberal), the party of prime minister Kaja Kallas, again topped the poll with 31.2% (up 2.3%) and 37 of the 101 seats (up three). Her two coalition partners didn’t fare so well; the centre-left Social Democrats dropped a bit further to 9.3% and nine seats (down 0.6% and one seat), while the centre-right Fatherland fell below them, to 8.2% and eight seats (down 3.2% and four seats).

Nonetheless, the three together still have a seven-seat majority, so reassembling the existing government is an option. But Kallas may well prefer to take in Estonia 200, which won 13.3% (up 9.0%) and 14 seats; that would provide a bare majority on its own, or a more comfortable buffer with just one of the existing partners.

Last time around, although Reform was the largest party, it was at first excluded from government: the Centre party took office with the support of both Fatherland and the far right. But that’s no longer a possibility; that combination now has only 41 seats, with all its components having lost ground. Centre is down 7.3% and ten seats to 15.3% and 16 seats, while the far-right EKRE, now in second place, dipped 1.7% and two seats to finish on 16.1% and 17 seats.

Turnout remains quite strong (at least by eastern European standards) at 63.5%, down just 0.1% on 2019. That compares with just 27.7% in Nigeria, down from an already dreadful 34.7% last time. It would be foolish to suggest that the voting system is the only thing or even the main thing responsible, but surely the fact that in Estonia people actually get what they vote for must make some difference to public engagement.

PS: Jon Henley at Politico now has a good report on the Estonian result.


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