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Hamas' victory: It's the election system, stupid

// Published February 7, 2006
FairVote released an analysis of Palestine's January legislative election last Friday, finding (1) the election system grossly overrepresents pro-Hamas sentiment in that country and (2) that it delivered Hamas' majority.

Although some commentators have declared this a sweeping mandate for Hamas and begun to speculate on what this power shift means for Israeli-Palestinian relations, the election results in fact are not an accurate reflection of popular opinion. Instead, the election system itself is at least as important as popular opinion in determining the makeup of the legislature...

...Although vote totals from all districts show Hamas with only slightly more support than Fatah, the nature of a winner-take-all system combined with spoiler dynamics in certain districts allowed Hamas to win a far greater share of seats than votes in the legislature.

Half of Palestine's parliamentary seats are awarded proportionally on a list system. Hamas and Fatah both won seats roughly proportional to their shares of the vote - 30 and 27 seats, respectively.

The other half of seats are elected in nine districts on a winner-take-all plurality basis. Despite being only five percent apart in their shares of the popular vote, Hamas won 45 of 66 seats, while Fatah won only 17.

The resulting parliament: 75 of 132 seats for Hamas, and a majority for that party.

Had the entire election been run under the list system, Hamas would have won 59 seats to Fatah's 55. It would have had to form a coalition with presumably more moderate parties and independent candidates.

The report also gives what-if outcomes of the same election under two other systems - all plurality districts, and proportionally by district.

In five of the districts, Fatah overnominated, thereby spoiling its own candidacies. In each of these cases, Hamas, showing evidence of better organization, never ran more candidates than Fatah - and frequently ran fewer. In two other districts, third parties and independents may have spoiled Fatah's otherwise good chances.

And if Fatah, third parties and independents are closer in policy preferences to each other than to Hamas, the losing program had more support among voters than did the winning party. Experts on regional politics, placing all candidates into one of two categories, could confirm this point.

Had choice voting been used instead of block voting, the spoiler dynamic would not have operated, overnomination would not have been so suicidal, nor would voters have had to "tactically" reject their preferred candidates for predictable winners.

[ Andrew Longman at Renew America cites our analysis. ]

[ Matt Shugart at Fruits and Votes arrives at a similar conclusion but looks more closely at the individual candidate's role in this type of system. ]

[ Steven Hill's op-ed in the Hartford Courant describes the disproportionality. ]

[ Read the report (.pdf 535k). ]