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Election Law Reform Requires a Penchant for Change

December 11, 2015
In the United States, there is occasional talk about election law reform. Politicians, pundits, writers, and comedians opine—as well as “yell” and “pontificate”, among other actions that would require more colorful language than appropriate—about the Electoral College, super-PACS, the Citizens United ruling, corporate power, special interest groups, and so on. Rarely, however, is a conversation ever broached about fundamental structures of the American system that garble the people’s voice in policymaking in a subtler manner, such as the manner in which the law favors a two-party system or the fact that only two-thirds of the Senate can be elected at any one time.

by Giovani Iaboni, C’17

For better or worse—as there are certainly strong arguments either way—, the system is meant for stability, not change. In this sense, however, the US is not unique.

The Republic of Croatia (Republika Hrvatska) declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and fought four hard years for that independence. In an incredibly swift turnaround—thanks in large part to enormous investments in infrastructure and the money from its popularity as a coastal vacation spot—Croatia acceded to the European Union in 2013. Naturally, economic stagnation in recent years has created political tensions and discontent globally as well as in Croatia. Two large parties dominate the Croatian political scene: the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The HDZ is the center-right party but in a European sense.[1] As is the way of the European right-wing, HDZ tends to draw fire for incitement against ethnic and religious minorities—something particularly touchy in the wake of the 90’s wartime atrocities. SDP, meanwhile, is a run-of-the-mill European socialist party.[2]While legitimate debate might center around, for example, the size or efficiency of the public sector, environment/energy policy, or anti-corruption efforts, the two parties instead tend to capitalize on the gaffes of the others. This results in a rhythmic back-and-forth of polls and political seats. Parliament members are generally rank-and-file and enjoy voting “No” out of spite. Hence politically, many are saying, “Something needs to change.”

Croatia, like many European nations, utilizes the standard d’Hondt method for parliamentary elections. The parliament (“Sabor”) is a unicameral body of 151 seats. There are 10 electoral districts that elect a fixed 14 people to the Sabor, while two additional, smaller “districts” exist for the diaspora and specially allotted seats for the national minorities (see image below). Individuals in the 10 districts vote for a party list—a party must gain a minimum of 5% of the vote in that district to achieve one seat. Obviously, this method is a bit skewed. The 5% threshold per district automatically favors regional parties over national movements and larger parties over smaller parties. It requires far more resources to surpass a 5% threshold in every district than to shoot for ten or 15 percent in one or two districts. This aspect resonates in the polling—Croatia has the peculiar habit of polling the entire nation as a single electorate, despite the fact that the nation does not vote as a single electorate; this provides interesting contrast. For the 2011 election, polling stopped 5 days before the election per a mandated Election Silence. As of those polls, HDZ was receiving only 19% while SDP’s coalition was receiving 37.5%. When all was said and done and votes were counted, they ended up with 40% and 55% of the seats, respectively. An even stronger example is that of two smaller parties: Labour was polling 5.6% and HDSSB was polling 2.5%, yet both ended up with 6 seats (Bašić).


Skewed Map of Croatia

Election law in Croatia does not just favor larger parties through the calculation method. An arguably greater impact is through campaign finance laws. Campaign spending reimbursement is directly linked to the number of seats a party wins in the election (Milovan). Thus, small parties that are just starting up must have a significant financial base in order to secure a seat, which could then give the party some funds to start off with for the next election. It seems, at every turn, that the larger, more established parties have a significant advantage over any grassroots political movement. One member of the Sabor commented to me that this system was vital in the beginning–in the years immediately following the declaration of independence, stability was key. “However,” he went on to say, “Now is not the time for stability.” Stability, he argued, was a non-issue. Croatia is a EU and NATO member state, clearly stability is not a concern. The Sabor member was more concerned with the lack of diversity of opinion in politics. He was more concerned with the media circus politicians utilize for minuscule political gains. He was most worried about the entrenchment of two complacent parties that do not have to worry knowing they are the only viable options for the country. Does this sound familiar?

He concluded: “Now is not the time for stability. Now is the time for change.” Perhaps, we should be thinking this way too.

 

Sources:

Notes:

  [1]That is to say, HDZ does not focus on smaller government and lower taxes; a better descriptor than “Conservatives” would be “Christian democrats”.

  [2] The platform consists of protecting the welfare state and the size of the public sector. They tend not to have very responsible fiscal or monetary policy.

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