July 17, 2013, 4:10 p.m.
Daniel Rueth Since February 2013, Bulgaria has been mired in a series of nationwide protests against government corruption, the price of energy, stagnant living standards and a variety of other grievances. The first protests sparked the resignation of the center-right Citizens for European Development (GERB) cabinet, setting off early parliamentary elections in May. But those elections saw a staggering level of disproportionality between the distribution of votes and seats, with a Least Squares (LSq) score in excess of 30. In all other post-communist legislative elections, Bulgaria has scored somewhere between 3.94 and 12.5 on that index – levels far closer to what we usually see in established parliamentary democracies. But in this election, since some 25% of electors cast ballots for 32 parties that did not pass the 4% national threshold to enter Parliament, a wide swath of voters ended up without representation in the legislature. Consequently, many protesters have started calling for electoral reform. GERB, now in opposition but still in control of the largest seat share in the legislature, has jumped on this issue. In late June it proposed a bill meant to ensure greater representation in Parliament. It envisages a mixed electoral system with 31 of the 240 Members of Parliament, one from each electoral district, to be elected by majority vote. This would replace today’s proportional representation (PR) system. The bill would also slash fees and required signatures for participating in elections and lower the nation-wide threshold for entering Parliament to 3%. If approved, this would represent the third major electoral overhaul in five years, begging the question: Would this scheme ensure higher proportionality in future elections? Probably not. Restrictive electoral rules do not appear to be the cause of high disproportionality in the Bulgarian legislature. The current system is actually designed for high proportionality. It just isn’t performing as designed. Instead, Bulgaria’s non-inclusive legislature is a result of the fractionalized and uncompromising electorate, which itself is a result of widespread discontent with the party system. As one observer says of Bulgaria, “Realistically, no electoral formula could compensate for the complex legitimacy problems in current politics.” Electoral Design Isn’t the Problem Changing Bulgaria’s electoral formula, by itself, is not likely to significantly decrease disproportionality. With the exception of the reduced electoral threshold, most of the measures could actually exacerbate the problem. The majoritarian aspect would put all but the largest parties at a disadvantage and the reduced barriers to join the race would encourage too many small parties to run. More to the point, the whole issue of electoral reform fails to address public mistrust of the party system, which is the root cause of legislative non-inclusiveness. First, majority formulas (even those transposed onto PR systems) are not designed to foster inclusiveness. They are designed to reward the largest party, leaving other voters unrepresented. This is why PR systems tend to experience lower disproportionality than majoritarian or mixed systems. So it makes little sense to add a majoritarian dimension to future elections if the problem is a lack of inclusiveness. On the other hand, when Bulgaria briefly instituted a mixed system with 31 single-member-district seats in 2009, the LSq score did not sky-rocket, although it did tick up. However, this is mostly because the electorate was less fractionalized then. In 2009, 92% of votes went to parties passing the 4% national threshold. This helped compensate for the added disproportionality infused by the majoritarian scheme, which disadvantaged all but the two parties winning those seats: GERB and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Second, reducing the fees and signature requirements for electoral participation would do away with effective tampers on the number of party choices for electors and would fuel wasted votes. The electoral deposit, now at 10,000 BGN per party, was introduced in 2001 and steadily increased until 2009, where it peaked at 50,000 BGN. Likewise the signature requirement, now at 7,000 per party, peaked in 2009 at a 15,000 minimum. These rules helped the political system shed most of the smallest of parties with no realistic chance of participating in the legislature. In 1994 there were 34 parties that received less than 1% of the vote and that number declined steadily until 2009, when it was down to 10. It is no coincidence that the number of parties below 1% jumped up to 23 in 2013, the first parliamentary election to occur after the electoral deposit dropped by 40,000 BGN and the signature requirement was cut in half. Third and finally, with a pure PR arrangement and a median district magnitude of six seats, the existent Bulgarian system should be at a “sweet spot” for fostering inclusiveness without encouraging party fractionalization. One recent study finds that PR systems can reach close-to-peak levels of proportionality, without setting off a race to form smaller and smaller parties, when districts award between three and eight seats. In these moderately-sized PR systems, parties that can win around 10% of the electorate in a district have a good chance of gaining a seat in the national legislature. This encourages moderately-sized parties to join and stay in the race, which leads to greater representation of minority opinions. But since the number of seats to be awarded isn’t too high, voters can still accurately evaluate each candidate’s chances of winning, “especially for those candidates close to the likely threshold of votes needed to win a seat.” This encourages strategic defection, where a voter casts a ballot for a non-optimal candidate in order to avoid an even less optimal electoral outcome, and thereby winnows down the number of parties and wasted votes. The difficulty here is that Bulgaria, unlike more established democracies, seems unreceptive to the restraining influence of this electoral scheme. This should come as no surprise, since strategic defection is less common in new democracies with poorly developed party systems. But while the conventional explanation says voters in these countries lack clear information and expectations about party performance or policies – or even a reliable gauge of which parties are likely to exist from year to year – the main issue from the 2013 election seems to be that Bulgarian electors purposefully wasted votes. In the run-up to voting day, scholarly and popular media sources consistently (and for the most part accurately) pointed out which parties were close to or above the electoral threshold. Almost all of those parties were already represented in Parliament, which in 2013 had an abysmal 6% positive approval rating according to one poll. But even armed with this knowledge, many supporters of upstart parties still refused to defect to their established, shoo-in counterparts. Considering one source finds that only about 14% of Bulgarians trust the party system, it’s plausible these “wasted” votes were a form of silent protest against the status quo, meant to encourage new and emerging parties to challenge established parties in future elections. Unfortunately, in the short term these silent protesters remain unrepresented because they have not found a manageable number of parties to integrate their diverse opinions. Voter Disillusionment Is the Problem As protests in Bulgaria continue to gain momentum, the topic of electoral reform seems like a good place for the parties in power to build bridges with protesters. But is electoral reform worth the effort? If the hope is to ensure higher proportionality, the current plan falls short. Shifting any seats from PR to a majoritarian scheme would only bolster the largest parties and marginalize more voters. Lowering the hurdles for electoral participation would splinter the party system even further, reducing the effectiveness of a 3% threshold. But regardless of these technicalities, no amount of electoral reform can counteract the power of a truly disillusioned electorate. A large number of Bulgarian voters in 2013 effectively voted against their own party system by refusing to strategically defect to established parties with a better chance of gaining legislative seats. Until those voters change their minds or coalesce around a few viable alternatives to the established parties, legislative disproportionality is not likely to drop significantly no matter how many changes Bulgaria makes to its electoral code.