Thursday, 26 January 2012

Popping the question

Spot the loading in Alex Salmond's proposed referendum question:
Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?
Salmond described this question as "simple, straightforward and clear", somehow forgetting to also mention its not-so-subtle bias in favour of independence.

Still, could be worse. Salmond's question is indeed a model of clarity compared to the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence. Presumably he realised he couldn't get away with this world-class level of obfuscation:
Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?
There is something in common though. Do you agree that Salmond got his idea for loaded phrasing from the Quebec question?

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Jesus pulls out of GOP race

SOUTH CAROLINA - Jesus Christ became the latest Republican candidate to pull out of the primaries Saturday in the wake of polls showing him trailing behind even Jon Huntsman.

Mr Christ's gaffe-prone campaign finally collapsed after a YouTube video surfaced showing him healing sick people with no health insurance. It is thought that he has performed many such treatments across the country without accepting payment, a revelation that has enraged Republican donors from the insurance industry. The video has been played a number of times on Fox News where it was described as "an affront to American values" and "worse then Obamacare".

The Son of God entered the race on a wave of popular enthusiasm last year, but like so many of the runners has found the media spotlight unforgiving. In the first Republican debate he was booed by the audience when he said that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God", declared that "you cannot serve both God and money" and described the poor as "blessed". Frontrunner Mitt Romney denounced the words as "class warfare".

Mr Christ's popularity declined further when asked whether he would go to war to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear missiles. He replied that the US "should turn the other cheek", "love our enemies" and that "those who live by the sword will die by the sword". Further, peacemakers were also "blessed". Several of the other candidates accused Mr Christ of giving succor to America's enemies.

Jesus has also been perceived to be weak on social issues. He refused to be drawn on homosexuality, stating only that Americans should "love their neighbor", a response many activists regarded as unsatisfactory.  One Republican commentator noted "that was the moment He lost the South".

In his concession speech Mr Christ thanked his followers and expressed hope that he would be able to make a second coming in 2016.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

"Devo max" and the right to self-determination

It's a longstanding principle of international law that nations have a right to choose their own political status, and therefore Scotland has a right to vote on independence from the UK. But does it also have a right to dictate the terms under which it remains inside the UK? Or to put it another way, if Alex Salmond's "devo max" proposal included a pony for every Scottish resident, should the UK government be obliged to breed them?

Unlike full independence, devolution is a concern for the whole UK. For example, if Scotland was given full powers to tax, spend and borrow, but stayed within the pound, we could potentially end up with a "Poundzone" every bit as unstable as the Eurozone. Any change in the devolution settlement within the UK should surely be a result of negotiation between Westminster and the Scottish government, rather than a unilateral decision by a Scottish referendum.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Hungarian electoral calculus

As if the EU hasn't got enough problems to worry about at the moment, the Fidesz government in Hungary is busy removing checks on its rule. It can do this because it achieved a two-thirds majority in parliament in the last election, which allows it to modify the constitution.

Hungary's electoral system is, to put it mildly, complex.There is a mixture of first-past-the-post seats and two types of PR, one of region list seats and another of "compensation seats" for runners-up in the first-past-the-post seats. Not to mention the two rounds of voting with three-candidate runoffs in the second round.

But have you ever wondered how such a bonkers system came in to being? Of course you have! Who hasn't? Certainly not Kenneth Benoit and John W. Schiemann, who wrote a paper about it: Bargaining Over Hungary's 1989 Electoral Law (PDF).

In summary, the major opposition parties sat round a table and hammered out a compromise between their favoured systems, which they then took to the communists who were forced to compromise their own intentions. Naturally all the parties were interested in a system that would maximise their own seat numbers. Hence peculiarities like the three-candidate runoff, which came about because the communists realised that a two-candidate round would consolidate the opposition against their candidates.

The result is something like splitting the difference between a PR system and a majoritarian system. Fidesz was by far the dominant party at the time of the 2010 election, receiving 53% of the vote, and so gaining 68% of the seats is not a massive distortion of the popular will. In the UK similar voting shares would have resulted in a far more dominant position for the winner.

Nevertheless, because the system has boosted their seats past the two-thirds magic number, Fidesz have evidently decided that they have a special mandate to reshape the Hungarian constitution for their own benefit. Unsurprisingly this includes changing electoral law to suit themselves.

The public apparently disagree about their mandate, with recent polls showing them dropping to 20-25% of the vote. Presumably the thinking behind the two-thirds requirement is that there should be a broad consensus for changes to the institution, which is clearly not the case for the changes Fidesz are making. That smallish distortion in seats has resulted in a massive distortion of power.

Moral: letting a committee of politicians design their own electoral system isn't a very good idea.