Via IFES’ ElectionGuide, the Pacific island of Nauru will hold a February 27 referendum on whether to switch to direct presidential elections. Currently, Nauru’s president is essentially a prime minister, elected by and subject to no-confidence votes of its Parliament.
Why the change? According to the Australia Network News, the idea is to shake a history of cabinet instability:
Nauru’s Justice, Health and Sports minister, Mathew Batsiua, says it is hoped that change will help end the volatile nature of Nauru’s politics, which has resulted in around 36 changes of government since independance [sic] in 1968.
“[I] think this is the right structure to gain political stability, and I think that’s what Nauru badly needs,” he said.
I’m no expert on Nauruan political history, but 36 governments in four decades is a lot.1 According to the CIA Factbook, the most recent change of government was in December 2007, when a no-confidence vote sacked President Scotty.
Unfortunately for those who support reform as a remedy for cabinet instability, the proposal for direct elections does not come with a complementary proposal to end presidential dependence on legislative confidence. Features of the Nauruan electoral system, moreover, may magnify the country’s stated troubles.
It may be a stretch to emphasize institutions in this 21,000-person country with its 18-member legislature, but some points are worth note. First, Nauru uses a candidate-based and effectively majoritarian electoral system: a modified Borda Count in two- and four-seat districts (seven and two, respectively) that weights voters’ higher rankings more heavily than lower ones. Second, elections in Nauru are non-partisan, whether by law or by fact. Notwithstanding, from what I can tell, candidates tend to line up behind one of two de facto party leaders,2 an outcome consistent with the country’s electoral rules. It’s also an outcome that may resonate with PR advocates who cite the tendency for ‘pendulum swings of government’ in parliamentary systems with majoritarian electoral formulas.
By contrast, the Netherlands Antilles
, only twice Nauru’s population, uses an open-list PR system within a parliamentary framework. If we accept that Nauru has two de facto parties, there is much more diversity in the Netherlands Antilles’ party system, an outcome consistent with its low-barrier voting system. My impression is that cabinets there generally have been more stable. Of course, the Netherlands Antilles are made of several islands – Nauru is not – and the Netherlands Antilles enjoy less sovereignty than Nauru, which could imply that the former’s domestic politics carry lower stakes. On the other hand, Nauru’s economy appears much more dependent on natural resource extraction, a fact that often coincides with extensive patronage and, as a result, governments less apt to change.
The Republic of Nauru has been quite a laboratory for institutional experimentation. It is one of three countries I know to use the Borda Count in national elections. The other two are Kiribati and Slovenia (for two ethnic minority seats in its legislature). According to Ben Reilly, the adoption of Borda Count appears to have been a reaction to “complicated” preference transfers under the previous alternative vote/IRV system.3 Its weighting of higher rankings is also novel. As Reilly notes, this modifies Borda’s original plan for a system in which preferences decreased in weight by a constant value. Within the context of the low-magnitude multi-member district system, then, this system has a strong MNTV (a.k.a. “winner-take-all at-large”) flavor.
The direct election proposal is one of four constitutional amendments coming before voters in the country’s first ever referendum. Regardless of the underlying drivers of Nauruan cabinet instability, the proposed institutional remedy is unlikely to address it because it would not end executive dependence on parliamentary confidence (see Article 24 of the aforelinked). Nor is any reform proposed that would address the essentially majoritarian character of elections in Nauru.