The constitutional council has begun publishing its proposals for sections of a new constitutions. So far these sections include human rights, the work of parliament, and the judiciary. With this post, I start reviewing some of the proposals concerning the organization and work of parliament. I will focus on the proposals that may be considered consequential or controversial. In translating the proposals I focus on what are the key issues rather than provide a full translation.

2. Greater role of the speaker of parliament. Alþingi elects the Speaker with 2/3 of the vote at the beginning of each electoral term. The Speaker organizes the work of parliament. The Speaker vacates his seat in Alþingi (replaced by another member from his/her party).

The goal is to increase trust in parliament by requiring broad support for the Speaker in parliament and, as a consequence, to strengthen Alþingi as an institution. This strikes me as an odd proposal for several reasons. First, I’m not aware of the Speaker having caused much controversy so I’m not sure this will help much even if it works out the way that the Council thinks it will.

Second, the electoral rule is problematic because it is not resolute – meaning that it doesn’t always produce an outcome. What happens if no candidate wins two-thirds of the vote? Try again? From the Council’s explanations that accompany the proposals, I gather that these are not final proposals as the do address this possibility – the longest serving MP serves as Speaker during the election of the Speaker and the council suggest that s/he becomes the Speaker in the event Alþingi fails to elect a Speaker by two-thirds majority but what constitutes ‘failure’ here is not defined. Is it failing to elect Speaker on a single vote? Or just when everyone has had enough? The Speaker of the U.S. House used to be elected by majority rule (also not resolute if there are more than two candidates). In 1849 and 1855 it took, respectively, 62 and 132 rounds of voting to elect the Speaker – and only after adopting plurality rule (Stewart 1999). Perhaps the Council should read up on papal elections, which also use two-thirds majority. Between 1878 and 1978, from three to fourteen rounds were needed to elect the pope (Toman 2004). That doesn’t seem to excessive but it is probably aided by the fact that the cardinals are essentially placed under house arrest for the duration of the election. Before the ‘lock up’ procedure was instituted, the election of Pope Gregory X took over two years and nine months. John Paul II changed the rules for papal elections so that if a certain number of rounds of voting is reached, the only plurality instead of two-thirds majority is required. Perhaps the Council should consider adopting a similar rule? Or, at the very least, burn the ballots after each vote to make things a little more exciting. The fact that there is a default Speaker in the event of a failure of electing a Speaker by two-thirds majority also affects the government’s (and opposition’s) incentives. If the longest sitting member of parliament is a member of a government party, the government has no incentive to find a ‘unifying’ candidate that a supermajority can agree on. The same argument holds with respect to the opposition. Thus, the ‘default’ option always favors one side or the other, it appears likely that Alþingi will rarely elect a Speaker by two-thirds majority, it will be a source of conflict after each election, and will, therefore, be counterproductive in terms of increasing trust in parliament – which brings me to my third point.

Third, the proposal fails to recognize that its goals are, sort of, conflicting. The idea is to make the Speaker more powerful (although it is not clear what about the proposal achieves that) and for the Speaker to have broader support within Alþingi. Well, the more powers the Speaker has, the more sought after his position will be by both the parties and the individual candidates. Thus, the more powerful the Speaker, the less likely it will be that government and opposition parties will be able, or willing, to support the same candidate. Especially when at least one of these actors doesn’t have to (see above). The opposite is true – if the position of the Speaker is utterly irrelevant, then government and opposition parties will find it relatively easy to settle on a candidate and the potential for conflict at the beginning of each term is removed.

Fourth, if the Speaker holds important agenda setting powers it may have more wide ranging effects than just surrounding his/her election. The types of coalitions that form may be affected. There may, e.g., be an impetus to form surplus coalitions that don’t need to rely on the opposition to elect a Speaker. Is that a bad thing? It depends on what you want. The evidence suggest, e.g., that larger governments are more likely to spend more (Bawn and Rosenbluth 2006). The Speakership election also provides the opposition with an additional bargaining chip – it may only agree to vote for the government’s candidate (or to elect a Speaker at all) if the government agrees to some policy concessions. It is possible to think of these outcomes as signs of more consensual politics but it is equally easy to see them as providing a minority with a potentially important veto power.

Fifth, the introduction of a seniority rule (assuming that the parties will generally ‘fail’ to elect a Speaker) could even affect the parties’ decisions about how to set up their party lists for elections. If the role of the Speaker is an important one, the parties have an incentive to give senior members a secure spot on the party list – although I suspect other considerations are likely to trump these. Thus, it may serve to increase the incumbency advantage and reduce renewal in the legislature.



For references: See Required Readings

Some additional notes on related readings.  Caplin and Nalebuff (1994) demonstrate that a supermajority requirement of 64% is sufficient to guarantee that the  preferred alternative of the mean voter can not be beaten.  Indridason (2008) demonstrates that in the context of run-off elections with no threshold or participation requirements (similar to what is being proposed here – I think), the outcome is close to the median voter when only a majority is required.  The presence of ‘default’ Speaker selected on the basis of seniority would alter these results.