How do elections work in the Baltics? Lessons for Holyrood and Westminster

By Richard Wood

The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – all gained their independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The famous Baltic Chain of Freedom of 1989 was vital in ending Soviet control of the region, paving the way for three independent republics.

There are striking similarities between the three Baltic democracies and some crucial differences too. All are republics, all use list systems to elect some or all of their MPs who have four-year terms, and all have written, codified constitutions.

Having recently visited Latvia and Lithuania (previously visiting Estonia in 2019), I’ve taken the time to highlight the electoral systems of each of the Baltic state and comparing them to Holyrood and Westminster.

Latvian flag (via Pixabay)

Estonia

Estonia has a population of 1.3 million and is most northern of the three Baltic states, bordering Latvia to the south, as well as Russia to the east.

Since gaining independence in 1990, the Estonian Parliament – the Riigikogu – has had eight elections. Members are elected via a Closed List Proportional Representation system with multiple constituencies and no levelling seats, a model similar to what was used to elect UK Members of the European system. It also resembles the expected new system for the Welsh Parliament, as proposed by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru.

A total of 101 members are elected to the Riigikogu across 12 electoral districts ranging from five to fifteen members. This gives the country highly proportional elections while also retaining a reasonable degree of local representation. The three largest districts by representation cover Tallinn (the country’s capital and home of the national parliament) and the surrounding area.

It’s worth highlighting here that unlike at Holyrood and Westminster, when an MP joins the Estonian government they leave they stop being an MP. This gives a more formal separation of the legislature and executive than what we’re used to in the UK. The idea is an intriguing one although it only works due to the country’s list system: when an MP joins the government, the next person on their party’s list replaces them as an MP. This of course has the consequence that when a minister returns to the legislature, their substitute MP vacates their seat.

The country last voted in 2019, following which a coalition was formed led by the centre-right Centre Party. However, the government collapsed less than two years later; liberal Reform Party, led by Kaja Kallas, subsequently formed a cabinet with the Centre Party as the junior coalition partner. That arrangement didn’t last long either, but Kallas remained prime minister, after forming a coalition with the conservative Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party. The next election is expected to take place in March 2023.

As an independent, democratic republic, the country also has a non-executive president as Head of state. Unlike some other European countries with a similar set-up, Estonia’s president is elected by members of its national parliament rather than by a nation-wide vote. Its Baltic neighbours have also have non-executive presidents, but more on that below.

READ MORE: New Zealand and Scotland – proportional but imperfect voting systems

Estonian Riigikogu

Latvia

Latvia has a population just shy of 2 million, and like its less populous northern neighbour, the country uses a closed list proportional system to elect its members. The Saeima, the country’s parliament, has 100 members, one short of Estonia’s Rijikogu, and is based in the capital city of Riga.

Proportionality is a key principle in Latvian democracy. So much so that Articles 6 and 7 of the country’s constitution enshrine it in law:

6. The Saeima shall be elected in general, equal and direct elections, and by secret ballot based on proportional representation.

7. In the division of Latvia into separate electoral districts, provision for the number of members of the Saeima to be elected from each district shall be proportional to the number of electors in each district.

Latvian Constitution (Article 6)

While Latvia uses a Closed List PR system like Estonia, the system is rather different in design. The Saeima’s 100 members are spread across just five electoral districts. The capital Riga elects 36 members – that’s over a third of representatives. The other four districts elect 26, 13, 13, 12 members respectively.

This voting system leads to highly proportional elections, however, local representation is less than in Estonia, especially in the super-constituency of Riga.

The next Latvian election is scheduled to take place on 1 October 2022. The previous election saw three previously unrepresented parties gain representation in the Saeima. The pre-election governing coalition led by the centre-right, agrarian Union of Greens and Farmers since 2016 lost significant support, leading to a new government. After months of negotiations, a five-party coalition was formed with the centre-right New Unity’s Krišjānis Kariņš becoming prime minister in early 2019. New Unity is the smallest party in parliament, making Kariņš very much a compromise prime minister for the diverse coalition he heads.

Two final things. Like in Estonia, Latvian MPs formally exit the legislature when they join the government, making way for substitute MPs. And finally, Latvia’s non-executive president is elected by members of its national parliament just like in Estonia.

READ MORE: How proportional was Portugal’s election? Lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

Latvian Saeima

Lithuania

In line with it having the largest population of the three Baltic states (2.8 million people), Lithuania’s parliament (called the Seimas – not to be confused with Latvia’s Saeima) has the largest number of members of the three Baltic states. The country votes for 141 deputies every four years. However, unlike its northern neighbours, Lithuania doesn’t use what can be characterised as a proportional system.

The Seimas’ has 141 members (although the chamber has 142 for the sake of symmetrical design!) are elected in two ways. Just over half of MPs, 71, are elected from single-member districts. Candidates are only elected if they win a majority of votes in their constituency; if no candidate does then a run-off is held two weeks later to determine the elected representative.

The remaining 70 members are elected via proportional lists with a 5% threshold. There is also a degree of openness to the list element where voters can express a preference for a candidate of their choosing.

Unlike similar systems used in the likes of Scotland, Germany and New Zealand there is no link between single-member seats and the proportional element. This results in a Mixed-Member Majoritarian system where overall results are only somewhat proportional. This is also known as parallel voting.

This limited proportionality is best shown via the Gallagher Index, which provides a standardised measure of proportionality to compare different systems at different elections. The closer to 1 an election is, the more proportional it is. The 2019 Estonian and 2018 Latvian elections yielded Gallagher scores of 5.28 and 5.51 respectively. Lithuania’s score was 9.49 overall. Lithuanian elections therefore have proportional elements but are far from fully proportional.

The 2020 election led to the formation of a government headed by popular independent MP Ingrida Šimonytė. This is an interesting situation, which follows the 2019 non-executive presidential election (which unlike Estonia and Latvia was a nationwide election) which Šimonytė lost. However, she remained a popular figure, winning the most preference votes in the 2020 parliamentary election, and has a strong relationship with the centre-right Homeland Union. She now leads a centre-right cabinet consisting of independents, the Homeland Union, Liberal Movement and the Freedom Party.

READ MORE: Malta’s proportional election – a strong alternative to First Past the Post

Lithuanian Seimas

Lessons for Holyrood and Westminster

When it comes to comparing the electoral systems of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Westminster, the Baltic states come out on top. Even the semi-proportional Lithuanian system is significantly more representative than First Past the Post.

Of the three Baltic states, Estonia has the best balance of proportionality and local representation whereas Latvia’s mega-constituencies reduce local links and Lithuania’s mixed-member majoritarian system limits proportionality. Of course, all three are significantly more representative than First Past the Post, which distorts the link between seats and votes, leads to countless wasted votes and encourages tactical voting.

Were Westminster to adopt any of the three systems from the Baltics, representation would improve significantly.

The situation is somewhat different when making comparisons with the Scottish Parliament, which has used the proportional Additional Member System (AMS) since the advent of devolution in 1999. Unlike the mixed-member majoritarian system of Lithuania, Holyrood’s AMS is mixed-member proportional (MMP) as the constituency election results directly impact the distribution of list seats to compensate for lack of proportionality. The system has some significant flaws – which I’ve written about extensively here – but overall it delivers broadly proportional outcomes. Take a look at the most recent Scottish and Lithuanian elections. The Gallagher score for Scotland was 7.03, making it more proportional than Lithuania’s 9.49.

However, when comparing Scotland’s Gallagher scores to Estonia and Latvia, it is clear that the northern Baltic states have more proportional elections. This highlights the flaw that Holyrood elections are only broadly proportional (due to the balance of MSP types and the fact that votes are only regionally representative).

That said Scotland’s AMS means better local representation that Estonian and Latvia (with all constituents eight MSPs – one constituency MSP and seven regional MSPs). I should say here that I am of course in no position to call for reform in other countries, but the purpose of this to to show comparisons between Holyrood and Westminster with electoral systems around the world.

First Past the Post is significantly flawed. The UK needs to adopt a proportional alternative. Scotland’s AMS is a significant improvement but is in need of reform. When looking to make democratic improvements it is vital to look outward and see what other countries offer. That is a key part of the Upgrade Holyrood mission.

READ MORE: 3 alternatives to Scotland’s proportional but flawed voting system

The Christian Wakeford question: should defecting MPs and MSPs face by-elections?

By Richard Wood

It is almost certain that Boris Johnson will not lead the Conservative Party into the next UK General Election. The not so closed secret that Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and others are gearing up to take over down the line is more open than ever as all vying candidates speed up their operations to take the reigns from someone who really should never have been there in the first place.

January 2022 has been a rocky month for the prime minister. The dramatic defection of Christian Wakeford from the Conservatives to the Labour Party may have bought the prime minister some time (by uniting the Tories against what in their eyes must be seen as a “beytrayal”) but Johnson will certainly be gone by the end of the year if not the summer.

It is that dramatic defection of Christian Wakeford, which has brought up an age-old question. Should there be a by-election?

The case for mandatory by-elections post-defection

Whenever someone defects, the argument that defectors should test their decision with their electors is always brought up. Often it is relative to party positions at the time. If for example, a Conservative defects as in this case, then Conservatives will largely call for a by-election while Labour will not rule it out (as they know the public often feel strongly on this) but will obfuscate or say it’s probably not necessary. This is exactly what happened in Christian Wakeford’s case.

The main argument for an immediate by-election is that voters tend to vote for parties and leaders, not to mention tactical voting, with local candidates playing a very little part in determining how exactly people vote. This infers that when someone switches allegiance, they have gone against the wishes of their constituents. It is worth saying again this point we are only talking about First Past the Post elections and I am couching language in traditional FPTP terms for ease.

There is a strong logic to this case: voters generally vote for a party and therefore a change in party is unfair on voters who resultantly deserve to have a say.

This is backed by public opinion. A YouGov poll in the wake of the Wakeford defection indicates that 62% of voters support a by-election if an MP switches party – compared to 17% of voters who disagree. Some of that support may be circumstantial due to recent events, with party loyalty playing a key role, but it is clear that most people would prefer to see by-elections in these cases.

Fuethermore, there is also the case that at Westminster voters only have one MP. It follows that with only one voice in parliament, constituents deserve a say when a defection takes place.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates for MPs and MSPs

Reasons why mandatory by-elections have never been legislated for

So if the call for by-elections happens every time someone defects, and if public opinion supports by-elections, why hasn’t any government mandated it in law?

The simple answer is that probably a mix of four things. Firstly, such defections are relatively rare in the grand scheme of things, especially in the Scottish Parliament. Secondly, most parties have benefited from defections at some point or and other and each party recognises the political capital gained when a member leaves one party to join theirs. Thirdly, in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t a priority for any government. And lastly, perhaps cynically but more likely the brutally truth, is that fact that defectors fear they will lose a by-election. This would be bad for the party they joined as well as their own career, further putting or governements from ever mandating by-elections in legislation.

These factors probably indicate why no change has been brought forward in legislation either at Holyrood or Westminster. But is there also a case to bring made for the status-quo?

READ MORE: Holyrood should introduce a recall rule for MSPs

Arguments for the status-quo

The argument that voters elect MPs or constituency MSPs based on candidates holds very little water. Party preference is overwhelmingly the largest factor in determining how exactly people will vote, alongside tactical voting in FPTP elllections, unless in extreme circumstances. This means that those calling for no automatic by-elections on the basis that voters voted for the candidate not the party really are kidding themselves.

There’s also the argument that this is how it’s always been. Winston Churchill crossed the floor- on no fewer than two occasions. The formation of the SDP in the 1980s largely came from Labour defections while Change UK emerged from Labour and Conservative defections in 2019, with many going on to join the Liberal Democrats.

But just because something has always been one way doesn’t mean we should keep it. For example, Holyrood’s Additional Member System has largely worked well for 23 years but there are better alternatives. Keeping something how it has always been for the sake of keeping it that way is not demicratic best practice at. Therefore, this argument also fails to stand up to scrutiny.

However, one argument that does make sense in favour of the status-quo comes down to the practicalities of it all. Ask yourself this question, if an MP or list MSP had to call a by-election, would they risk it? Clearly some would, such as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless in 2014 (from the Conservatives to UKIP) but others probably would be nervy about it. In which case, often there would be parliamentarians making speeches on topics and voting for legislation without believing what they are doing. This would ultimately be wrong. Keeping the option to defect but not cause a by-election allows MPs and MSPs to be honest about what they believe in rather than being stuck in a party with no realistic way out. This is arguably fairer on voters who deserve honest representatives.

There is also the argument that it should be up to the MP or MSP themselves to cause a by-election. This is partly on the basis that MPs and constituency MSPs are elected individually – which they are, but again it is worth highlighting the importance of party preference rather than preference for individuals at the ballot box. Christian Wakeford clearly feels he doesn’t need to call a by-election but the 2014 UKIP defectors did (and it even paid off). One could argue that it is ultimately up to each MP or MSP to make the decision to call a by-election with the hope of securing their constituents’ seal of approval.

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What is the solution?

Calls for automatic by-elections will always be made in the hours following an MP or MSP’s defection. Public opinion clearly backs this and the logic that voters should be given a say on their representative’s new allegiance is undeniably strong. In purely theoretical terms, automatic by-elections should probably be standardised for single-seat members. However, the world is more complicated than that. There should surely be some mechanism that allows discontented MSPs/MPs to leave their party. The prospect of a by-election would discourage these representatives from ever following their believes which would be unfair on voters.

Perhaps one way to square the circle would be to introduce automatic by-elections for MPs/constituency MSPs if they directly defect to another party. That would give voters a say in their decision. However, perhaps representatives should still be allowed to voice their change in views while being allowed to remain in parliament. A compromise solution would be to allow MPs or constituency MSPs to become independent without causing a by-election. They could be allowed to stand for a new party at the next election, perhaps, even join them six months ahead of it to show their new allegiance if they choose so. This overall approach would allow outright defectors to face the electorate while also allowing a route for independent minded MPs and MSPs to express dissatisfaction with their party and not insult their voters by joining a new party.

There’s probably no right answer to this but this is a solution that would strike the balance between allowing representatives to be true to themselves and giving voters a say when there is a significant and direct switch in support.

That all said, it goes without saying that MPs should not be elected by First Past the Post and that the above relates to the status-quo not the ideal representative democracy. The same goes for constituency MSPs at Holyrood – the Scottish Parliament also needs a new, fairer and more representative voting system. However, while we have these systems the above could be an answer to constant calls for automatic by-elections.

READ MORE: Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance

List MSP defections

This article has so far only focused on MPs and constituency MSPs. But what about list MSPs?

The main difference is that there are never by-elections for list MSPs. If a list MSP resigns their seat or dies, then the next candidate in their party list takes the seat. In the case of independents, the seat is left vacant until the next election. This obviously means that a defecting MSP cannot call a by-election. They could defect and resign but the next candidate on their original party’s list would replace them.

The most prominent recent example of a list MSP defection was Conservative Michelle Ballantyne’s defection to Reform UK during the last parliamentary term.

One solution to list MSP defections would similar to above. A list MSP could become an independent and keep their seat but if they wanted to change party they would have to resign their seat – but surely in practice very few would take this route. The truth is this is an incredibly difficult square to circle but it’s also worth saying that because constituents have multiple regional representatives it’s less of an issue if a list MSP defects as they have other MSPs to turn to in order to represent them in parliament.

Overall, the issue of defecting parliamentarians is a tricky one to handle. It will always happen. Just as voters change their opinions, so to do MPs and MSPs. There is no obvious answer to calls for automatic by-elections, but this aspect – that our representatives are complicated individuals with unique and often changing perspectives on the world – should not be lost.

READ MORE: The route to reforming Scotland’s struggling voting system