No. 37




Would Estonia’s Electoral Law Allow for a “Polish Outcome”?

  • Rein Taagepera

    Professor Emeritus of University of Tartu and University of California, Irvine

Various circumstances combined enable a party in Poland to win a majority of parliamentary seats with 38 per cent of the votes. It is now using this fluke outcome to ensconce itself permanently, following the Hugo Chavez path in Venezuela. In Estonia, the largest party has rarely reached even 30 percent of the seats, and fond opinions have been voiced that Estonia’s electoral law supposedly prevents a one-party majority. This article reviews Estonia’s electoral history and the desiderata for adequate electoral rules. It presents the universal laws that connect the number and size of parties to the number of seats available, as documented in Shugart and Taagepera, Votes from Seats (2017).

Given Estonia’s electoral rules (nationwide proportional representation plus a 5 per cent threshold), one would expect its largest party to have around 42 per cent of the seats, with an occasional 51 per cent quite likely. Cultural-historical features have kept the largest party unusually small. This need not be permanent. When people become bored with stability and vote massively for a populist party, no electoral law can prevent this party from gaining a majority. Only when this happens shall we find out whether democratic culture is more resilient in Estonia than it proved to be in Venezuela or Poland. Electoral rules do matter, and their average outcome can be predicted. But political culture and sheer random chance weave a widely varying fabric around this average.