By Angelos Anastasiou
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: DISY leader Averof Neophytou’s proposal to increase the so-called ‘electoral measure’ from 1.8 to 5 per cent is not what the smaller parties would have you believe.
It is not the minimum percentage of votes a party must win to secure at least one seat in parliament. Nor does it stifle democracy by eliminating pluralism – on the contrary, one could argue that it strengthens democracy by setting the bar higher for aspiring pluralists and preventing phonies from cluttering the marketplace of ideas.
On the other hand, it is almost certain to leave the leaders of the three bigger parties – DISY, AKEL, and DIKO – with more seats than they might earn under the current system, and thus more power over who represents the people in parliament. Such concentration of power is perhaps unorthodox by modern standards, but may prove a necessary evil in combating the weaknesses produced by the existing system.
The Constitution of Cyprus does not prescribe an electoral system for parliament. So the Cypriot legislature opted for a system fairly close to unregulated proportional representation across the island’s six administrative districts – also designated as electoral districts.
According to the rules, direct election to parliament is decided locally, not nationally. Parties and candidates will secure election if they attract sufficient votes in any given district, even if they win not a single vote elsewhere.
Just how many votes are required is a variable figure that generally hovers around 7,000 – it is the quotient of the total number of valid votes cast in each district, divided by the number of seats allotted to the district in question. For example, Nicosia has 20 parliamentary seats. Assuming 140,000 valid votes cast on election day in the Nicosia district, the minimum a party or candidate must win to secure a seat there is 7,000. Obviously, every additional 7,000 votes in Nicosia will earn the party one additional seat. In each parliamentary election, seats can be seen as a solid bundle of votes – in this case, each parliamentary seat equals a distinct bundle of 7,000 votes.
Where it gets tricky is what happens next. Unsurprisingly, the numbers are never going to be as neat as in the example described above. Barring a freakish fluke of probability, no candidate or party will ever win the exact number of votes required to get into parliament, or secure the exact number of bundles in a given district to win as many seats. Consequently, seat distribution will never be perfect, meaning a few seats will always go undistributed under this regime.
Approximation of bundles (i.e. rounding the number of votes won upwards) being disallowed, a departure from the initial principle of local representation was decided. Thus, after initial sorting and distribution at district level, unallocated seats go to the parties with the most votes nationally, excluding the bundles that won them seats already – that is, by comparison of each party’s ‘leftover’ votes, aggregated on a national scale. This is an important point: all deputies are chosen directly by the districts in which they run, except when the numbers aren’t perfectly harmonious (that is, always). In such a case, voters in Famagusta, Nicosia, Paphos, Kyrenia, and Larnaca, will dictate which candidate will win a Limassol seat in the second distribution of seats. This doesn’t make much sense, but there you have it.
In any case, the number of votes won on a national scale – in an electoral system ostensibly designed to facilitate local representation – ends up mattering a great deal. But there’s an additional catch: parties qualify to win seats left unallocated from the first round of distribution if they have secured at least 1/56th – that crucial 1.8 per cent – of the total popular vote nationally.
Parties that fail to clear this bar are disqualified from participation in the second distribution. This is how the Green party and EVROKO won seats in parliament – one and two, respectively – in the 2011 elections: they failed to attract enough votes locally, but were included in the second distribution of unallocated seats because they won more than 1.8 per cent nationally.
This is the infamous ‘electoral measure’ Neophytou wants to raise to 5 per cent: the eligibility criterion for the second distribution of parliamentary seats, with the impact on the first distribution – the truly ‘proportionally representative’ part – being exactly none.
DISY’s leader wants the increase because the 1.8 per cent threshold has proven a backdoor shortcut for entry to parliament. In the 2011 elections, 6,942 votes in Limassol would get you a seat in the House – EVROKO got 3,201, and the Greens got 1,689; they won the minimum required for direct entry in no districts. In a 56-seater House, a single vote carries much more weight than in larger bodies – all the more so in a hung parliament. Legislative votes routinely come down to the votes of minor parties, which jump at the opportunity to exploit the circumstantial – and disproportional – limelight they find themselves in.
“Everyone speaks of the foreigners’ blackmail in that black March in 2013, and I don’t disagree,” Neophytou said last month in defence of his effort.
“But the blackmails to the system, the country, and its stability, over the last two and a half years, because the salvation of the country rested on a single vote, very few have been privy to.”
Opposition arguments for democratic pluralism don’t hold much water. It is hard to recall any substantial contributions made to public discourse by smaller parties that would otherwise have gone unaired.
In contrast to the grandiose tone of their declarations, their interventions have usually been little more than trite generalisations and exercises in wishful thinking. The bigger parties usually make sure they have all similar bases covered, including those of mindless populism and cheap patriotism. Besides, the Green party has concerned itself with the environmental aspect of issues only on occasion, and the European Party’s interventions are seldom linked to the European facet of a given matter at hand. Niche parties have proven largely irrelevant, not necessarily in and of themselves, but because they have had little to add to the debate.
“I can’t say that a deputy with two or three terms in parliament under his belt has gone unnoticed,” one prominent MP told the Cyprus Mail on condition of anonymity.
“Everyone’s contribution is valuable.”
But pressed for specific examples of such valued contribution, none was forthcoming.
Dissenting parties have also raised the issue of timing. Some have acknowledged that the electoral law needs to be modernised, but added that change should come through “exhaustive dialogue and with ample time” – a fancy way of saying “never”, especially as they conveniently failed to clarify which weaknesses in the existing law need to be addressed. In any case, they have fallen short of demonstrating why seven months – the period until May’s elections – is not time enough to hold “exhaustive dialogue”. Instead, they insist on an obscure traditional gentlemen’s agreement that parties should not attempt to change electoral law in the year leading up to elections.
“The real issue isn’t the debate – the issue is passing a new measure so close to the election,” said EVROKO’s Andreas Televantos.
“It would put smaller parties in a position of campaigning under new circumstances, which it has neither prepared for nor had time to assimilate into their strategies.”
This argument also seems to escape logic. It implies that, given an abundance of time, parties with a narrow voter base could come up with some new strategy that would miraculously earn them 5 per cent of the national vote, which they choose not to devise at the moment because it is not required by the rules.
As suggested by the ineffectual effort by several party formations to crush Neophytou’s lone-man campaign, the level of parliamentary representation could use a hefty boost. The proposal to raise the ‘electoral measure’ may well not be the optimal way to get there, and it may yet prove an uninspired half-measure. But the current regime has produced disappointing mediocrity – not to say failure – and some kind of change is certainly long overdue.