Monday, September 23, 2013

The odd interpretation of election results in the media

I really have little interest to discuss party politics here but one thing that I found odd in the last few days is how election results are interpreted in the media, entirely regardless of the merits of each individual party. First we had the Australian election which was interpreted as a resounding victory for the Coalition (liberals and allies). But the funny thing is, they only got 1.9% more of the vote than the last time. So if I were to discuss this, I'd say that what mostly happened was that Labour and the Greens lost votes, and they mostly lost them to small parties instead of to the Coalition. It does not change the outcome but it gives us a better understanding of what is really going on.

But okay, due to the peculiarities of the voting system the country inherited from Britain the Coalition obviously won a vast majority of the seats, and many more than in the previous election, so it is easy to understand why the Australian media would look at those changes in the composition of the parliament and speak of them in they way they do. The same explanation is not available when discussing the very different German system.

The German election was yesterday, and they ended as can be seen at this finely crafted website. The conservative Union (that word means something very different in English than in German, just as coalition means something different everywhere outside of Australia than within) got 41.5% of the votes, 7.7% more than in the previous election. That is a historically good result for them and sounds much more like a resounding victory than a gain of 1.9%. So at first sight it might not be surprising to see all and sundry talk of a conservative triumph; I have even read a piece somewhere that already concluded the current chancellor and finance minister were now guaranteed to keep their jobs although sadly I cannot find the link at the moment. And obviously it is common practice in Germany for the party who got the greatest share of the vote to claim the mandate to form the government. Hey, that's what I would do.

But well, there are a few problems with this interpretation. First, the conservatives do not have a majority of the seats. If they want to form a government, they will have to search for a coalition partner. Now I will be the first to admit that it is not very likely because even more than 20 years after the end of the GDR everybody still feels obliged to pretend that the Left party is run by Erich Mielke and that the Gulags would be reinstated if they ever were made part of government, but theoretically the three parties of the left could form a coalition. And in other countries, they probably would do so in a situation like this because being the junior partner of the conservatives may not leave you in a great position come next election.

And that brings us to the second issue. Until the election, the conservatives were ruling together with the FDP, a small libertarian party, as their junior partner. That party has now dropped out of parliament because they failed to get 5% of the vote. This already could be interpreted as a defeat not, of course, of the conservatives, but of their coalition government. I mean, that is what loosing your majority usually means.

But it gets better. Why did the FDP lose so many votes, and to whom? Well, if one had followed the news over the past twenty years or so one could suspect that they are not actually quite as popular as the results of the previous election made it appear. Often enough, they only make it into state or federal parliaments because of what is called Leihstimmen (borrowed votes) from the conservatives: Concerned that 4.8% of the votes for a conservative-lead government could be lost if their preferred junior partner narrowly missed the 5% hurdle, conservative voters tend to toss a few votes towards the FDP to make sure they are in.

And now look at the voter migrations between parties this election: more than 2 million voters swung, as they say in Australia, from FDP to conservatives. This is likely a whole bunch of Leihstimmen from last election coming back, or, in other words, the conservatives did not so much win new votes for a centre-right government but merely transferred them within it. Seen like that, does it still look like a victory?

Finally, let's take a glance at swings overall. At the moment, it looks like this: conservatives +7.7%, FDP -9.8, social democrats +2.7%, greens -2.3%, Left -3.3%. Summing up, the centre-right coalition government as a whole actually lost 2.1% of the vote and the three opposition parties lost 2.9%, much of those votes going towards minor protest parties instead. So how can one look at numbers like these and speak of a resounding victory for anybody?

Again, this is not about the politicians, this is about the journalists. Of course Angela Merkel would claim victory, she would be silly not to do so. I would merely wish for more nuanced reporting, and more acknowledgement of the fact that the real trouble still lies ahead: how now to form a functioning government?

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