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The binomial voting system in an era of hyperpartisanship

As evident in the Chilean and Polish examples of the 1980s and 1990s, the binomial voting system preserves minority power, encourages compromise and helps countries to fully democratise. Today, in a similar period of political uncertainty, this system again may prove beneficial to western political life.

February 20, 2019 - Samuel Kramer - Articles and Commentary

Gdańsk Oliwa voting station nr. 198 Photo: Artur Andrzej (cc) wikimedia.org

As European voters head to the polls this year, they consider how their electoral systems ultimately determine the winning party(ies). The Chilean voting system until 2015 was unique in its binomial structure: each district returned two candidates from different parties, ensuring that the minority was adequately represented. No single political bloc exercised absolute control, either due to a hung legislature or a narrower margin of victory. This system, designed in Poland to protect a formerly empowered political minority, may in fact preserve comity by promoting negotiated solutions.

The binomial system denies electoral “winners” a majority by counting votes for coalition lists rather than individual candidates. Each district returns two representatives. In a hypothetical district of 1,000 people, if 500 vote for candidates from list A, 400 for candidates from list B, and 100 for candidates from list C, then the top vote-getters from lists A and B enter the legislature. Binomialism thus simplifies crowded candidate fields while permitting voters a wider latitude of choice.

Binomial voting in Chile and Poland

The Chilean and Polish examples show how minority power is preserved through binomialism’s greater emphasis on coalitions and party-list voting. In the 1989 Chilean general elections, the largest opposition party, the right-wing National Renewal, won 29 seats, 24 per cent of the 120-seat Congress, despite garnering only 18.3 percent of the popular vote. The overall coalition results matched the parties’ vote share – the pro-democracy Concertacion party (in English, the Coalition of Parties for Democracy) won 51.49 per cent of the vote and 57 per cent of the seats under the binomial system, while the right-wing opposition garnered 40 per cent of the seats for 34.18 per cent of the vote. The latter definitively lost, and could not threaten the new administration’s stability, but retained significant power and required the Concertacion to compromise in order to pass legislation.

The contemporaneous Polish elections were similarly close, resulting in victory for the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR, the communist party), but nevertheless saw Solidarity gain 161 seats, 35 per cent of the total, and driving the PZPR to 173 seats, or only 37.6 per cent of the total seats. Earlier, completely rigged elections gave the PZPR 245 seats or 53 per cent of the Sejm. Ostensibly a predetermined victory, the 1989 results were humiliating for the PZPR leadership. The people expressed non-confidence in the regime and the communists’ poor result forced them to rely on satellite parties for an initial majority. Their plan ultimately failed, since the once-docile satellites defected to support Solidarity and ushered in Poland’s first democratic government since the 1920s. We can thus presume that elections under binomial systems in transitional countries lead to close results. The system favors neither victor nor vanquished, ensuring all get a say in the legal process.

These narrow electoral victories necessitated power sharing and a carefully-plotted out transition in Chile and Poland, which ensured broad-based implementation of essential market reforms. In Chile the victorious Concertacion took pains to distance itself from the radical left and focus on rebuilding Chile following the junta’s cession of power. Peter M. Siavelis argued in Americas Quarterly that “The success of the Concertación, which governed Chile since its return to democracy in 1990, was due to its ability to devise a formula for governing based on consensus among the disparate collection of center-left political parties that opposed the military government of Augusto Pinochet. The strategy also involved negotiation with powerful players such as the military.” This tactic, he adds, “…ushered in high levels of economic growth, impressive strides in eliminating poverty and remarkable political stability – a model example for democratic transition around the hemisphere.” Indeed, between 1990 and 2006, the Chilean economy grew at an average rate of 5.8 per cent and doubled its GDP, greater than the dictatorship-era average of 2.8 per cent – a testament to compromise’s potential.

Poland also managed its transition through a consensus-driven approach to liberalisation. The Round Table Talks which established the binomial system set the tone for initial agreement on market reforms. According to Dr. Stanislaw Gomulka’s research, GDP per capita in Poland grew twice as fast as in the most developed EU countries between 1992 and 2013. Marcin Piatkowski adds that Poland also enjoyed 23 years of uninterrupted economic growth between 1992 and 2015, despite the 2008 economic crisis and 2010 Greek bailout. A notable 80 per cent of Poles reported satisfaction with their lives in 2015.

The abject political and economic conditions Poland found itself in catalyzed the Round Table Talks, leading to the binomial system and ultimate agreement on a market economic path. Grzegorz Ekiert and George Soroka observe that “Poland endured years of crisis before Communist leaders finally sought accommodation with their opponents. Starting in the mid-1970s, the economy faced sizable imbalances, no real growth, and mounting foreign debt. The situation deteriorated further in the 1980s, with skyrocketing inflation, massive consumer shortages, and, after the imposition of martial law in 1981, onerous international sanctions.” The country’s stability was in doubt, so even the most hardline communist understood the balance sheets needed to be righted before ideological concerns could be allayed. This realisation helped the binomial system succeed since the dethroned post-communist minority did not become an impediment to reform; rather, it continued the democratic coalition’s path towards rejoining Europe when Solidarity’s descendants were voted out in 1995.

Without binomialism, Poland struggles

However, the binomial system’s abolition in 1991 along with growing socioeconomic differences fostered a harsher political climate unconducive to growth; Voytek Zubek explains that “… while the left assumed a pro-capitalist and in some cases even free-market, almost neo-liberal position on economic issues, most of the right…began to assume a statist and often populistic socialist-like stand…” This meant that economic reform was conditional on stable, popular governments, resulting in a zero-sum struggle for the state.

The binomial-free post-2015 Polish Sejm is riven by factional differences and a political outlook which threatens the market-oriented reforms of the 1990s. The Law and Justice (PiS) party holds an absolute majority, permitting it to rule alone and unchecked – the first time since the PZPR era that a single party formed a majority government. Central government figure Mateusz Morawiecki condemned economic liberalism, stating “The economic policy should primarily serve citizens, employees, entrepreneurs and Polish families, and not statistics, numbers and percentages…To a huge extent we are dependent on foreigners.” PiS has followed up with attempts at tying the judiciary to political majorities, beginning with President Andrzej Duda refusing to swear in five Constitutional Tribunal judges appointed by the previous legislature. According to Freedom House, “The Tribunal is Poland’s highest constitutional court, the final arbiter on the constitutionality of domestic and international law, and on actions taken by state bodies,” making the refusal a challenge to judicial independence. PiS is enabled by an electoral system which unlike the binomial system overrepresents rural districts and grants the largest party lopsided majorities. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, PiS won 235 seats out of 460 – 51 per cent of the total – with only 37.58 per cent of the votes. This limited the opposition’s ability to influence legislation and weakened the legislature’s role as an overseer of government business – serious threats to governing by law.

Binomial systems fight populism and extremism in politics

Binomialism may help countries like Poland which struggle with majority/minority deadlock and consequent political strife. Hungary also faces accusations of gerrymandering, considering how the ruling Fidesz party formed a two-thirds majority with only 45 per cent of the vote in 2014. The scholarly consensus on populisms of all stripes holds that they arise when voters feel unrepresented and unable to influence legislation. Parliamentary regimes with winner-take-all systems or baked-in coalitions exacerbate this sense of helplessness by limiting the corrective role of the parliamentary opposition. In British Commonwealth states, the second-largest fraction’s official title is the Loyal Opposition for a reason – it is loyal to the people and State, while reserving a right to critique. Granting the non-governing parties a stronger voice will ensure that voters do not feel as though any election could be their last, and foster stable coalitions that reduce the political uncertainty in which extremism thrives. It would also force governments to appeal beyond their constituencies on key pieces of legislation, increasing the likelihood of harmonious policymaking.

While transitioning to full democracy, Poland and Chile used binomial voting’s consensus-driving features to forge a majority in favor of socioeconomic reforms. It did more than encourage elites to compromise with liberal forces; binomialism provided built-in protection to the minority parties and evened the road to full democratisation in a peaceful way. Today, in a similar period of political uncertainty, this system again may prove beneficial to western political life. Central and Eastern Europe saw the changes in 1989 as a move away from totalitarianism towards freedom in all spheres of life – including politics. Sometimes, one must resort to the old tools of rulers past to save present-day liberties.


Samuel G. Kramer is a Master’s candidate at Georgetown University’s Edmund S. Walsh School of Foreign Service in the Center for European, Eurasian, and East European Studies. The views expressed in this article are his own.


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