Throughout the world of democratic presidential and semi-presidential systems, the party of an incumbent president almost always loses votes and seats in a midterm legislative election. For example, that was always the case in the USA from 1934 (when FDR’s Democrats gained at his first midterm in the midst of the Depression and “realignment” to a Democratic majority) until 1998 (when Clinton’s Democrats gained slightly as Republicans were demoralized by the unpopularity of their bid to impeach the president for lying about his sex life and late revelations of a sex scandal in their own leadership). In 2002, for a second consecutive midterm, the president’s party gained votes and seats (in a very low turnout election when Bush’s popularity spike from having been president when the country was attacked by terrorists had yet to wear off).
2006 has already seen a case of dramatic midterm gains by the party of the incumbent president–in the Dominican Republic.
Actually, most “pure” presidential systems have only concurrent elections, so the phenomenon of midterm loss (or gain) is unknown. The Dominican Republic was one of these systems of no-midterms from 1962 through 1994 (interrupted by coups and a US invasion between 1963 and 1966). Then, after a highly contested and possibly fraudulent reelection (yet again) of the old cuadillo Joaquin Balaguer in 1994, the parties agreed to hold a new presidential election after only two years (with consecutive reelection banned), for a full four-year term, but to let the congress elected in 1994 serve out its full four-year term. This constitutional reform resulted in the world’s first all-midterm electoral cycle.
While several presidential (or semi-presidential) systems have terms for president and assembly of different lengths, the DR since 1996 is the only case ever that I know of in which terms are fixed and of the same length, but each branch is elected at the halfway point of the other’s term. So, how has it worked out?
In the first midterm congressional election in the DR, the party of incumbent president Leonel FernÃ¡ndez (PLD), elected in the “special” 1996 election, gained trivially–about one percentage point of the vote–on its 1994 showing. The party had won only 15.8% for congress in 1994 (a year from which published results should be taken cautiously), and 13.1% for its presidential candidate, the ancient opposition caudillo, Juan Bosch.1
In the first midterm assembly election, 1998, the biggest winner was the main opposition party, the PRD (Bosch’s original party2)–the same party that had very narrowly lost the 1994 election to Balaguer. Prior to the post-1994 reforms, the DR elected the president by plurality, and other than 1990 (a close three-way race that Bosch barely lost to Balaguer), the plurality system had largely kept third parties from being a serious factor.
So, the separation of presidential and congressional elections, along with the adoption of two-round majority to elect the president, benefitted the former third party, the PLD, and its new leader, FernÃ¡ndez, in 1996. Yet the midterm election in 1998 worked very much to the PRD’s favor: as the main opposition to a sitting president, it won a majority of the vote by gaining about ten percentage points compared to both its 1994 result and its first-round showing in the 1996 presidential election.
The PRD won back the presidency in 2000 for its candidate, HipÃ³lito MejÃa. The 2002 midterm election saw the now-incumbent PRD lose significant support–from 51.4% of the vote in 1998 to 42.2% in 2002, and from 83 deputies to 73.2 The big winner in 2002 was the now-main opposition party, the PLD (Fernandez’s party, though originally founded by Bosch after he split from the PRD). The PLD in 2002 gained more than ten percentage points in the vote from four years previous.
So far, so typical. Despite the slight PLD gain (from a very low base) in 1998 when it held the presidency, the dominant trend was what we expect: The main result of the midterm election in both 1998 and 2002 was a loss for the president’s party relative to the main opposition.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to 2006. First of all, with Balaguer finally dead and presumably unable to run for president again, the constitution was re-amended to allow presidential reelection. So ex-president FernÃ¡ndez ran against the incumbent MejÃa and defeated him–one of only a handful of cases in Latin American history of a sitting president defeated in a reelection bid. (Besides the one previous DR example, when Balaguer was defeated in 1978, the only other case that comes to mind is Daniel Ortega’s loss in the 1990 Nicaraguan election.)
Now, in the 2006 midterm congressional elections that were just concluded, President Fernandez’s PLD has gained spectacularly. From only 28.8% of the vote in 2002, it won 52.4% in 2006. Fernandez now has majorities in both houses of congress with which to work for the remaining half of his term.4
So, the DR and Fernandez have defied the Iron Law of Midterm Loss!
1. Bosch was the social-democratic leader, elected freely in 1962 but overthrown by the armed forces in 1963. When the “constitutionalist” wing of the Dominican military sought to return Bosch to power in 1965, US President Johnson declared the idea a Castroite plot and sent in the marines to pave the way for ex-dictator Rafael Trujillo’s right-hand man, Balaguer, to come to power. Balaguer would go on to win five of the next seven elections, many of them of highly dubious democratic standards.
2. And, after Bosch split from it, the only party ever to defeat long-time president Balaguer (in 1978, and again in retaining the office in 1982).
3. The PRD actually gained senators, on account of the election of one senator per province by plurality and the party’s continuing strength in several provinces even as it was collapsing nationally.
4. Can he run again in 2008, or is he now a lame duck? The wording of the relevant article (49) of the 2002 constitution is less than crystal clear to me:
El Presidente de la RepÃºblica podrÃ¡ optar por un segundo y Ãºnico perÃodo constitucional consecutivo, no pudiendo postularse jamÃ¡s al mismo cargo, ni a la Vicepresidencia de la RepÃºblica.
That could be interpreted to mean that a president who is serving a second, nonconsecutive term could run for immediate reelection to a third term, but once he has served two consecutive terms, he’s done.
UPDATE: Below, a former student of mine with considerable insight into DR politics has information on the Dominican government’s interpretation of this clause.