Are legislative elections really useful?

The polls and debates around the legislative elections of this Sunday, June 12 and then June 19 perhaps reveal renewed interest for parliament and what is at stake, even if, because of the importance given to the presidential election, this election has been pushed into the background for years.

Debates on the results of the legislature elected in 2017 were rare, as were questions relating to the nomination of candidates for deputy or the programs of political parties for the next five years. The only notable difference perhaps on this ballot: we have seen the emergence of the confirmation of the political forces present, in particular with the campaign led by the Nupes who would place her shoulder to shoulder with the presidential majority.

Should we deduce from this that the legislative elections have no real stake and that in the end they are useless?

While they are everywhere else in Europe the key moment of political life, the legislative elections generally pass in France in the background of the presidential election. The lack of interest they arouse is very clearly reflected in the low level of participation. In the last ballot, 2017, less than one out of two registrants had come to vote in the first round.

Legislative elections, second-rate elections

It must be said that electoral mobilization has been steadily eroded since the beginnings of the Ve Republic. While it was around 80% in the 1970s, it was 70,7% in 1981, 78,5% in 1986, 65,7% in 1988, 68,9% in 1993, 67,9% in 1997, 64,4% in 2002, 60,4% in 2007, 57,2% in 2012 and therefore 48,7% in 2017. A decline in voter turnout is not an isolated phenomenon on a European scale but it is particularly marked here, especially since France was already one of the most abstentionist countries.

More significantly still, in terms of voter turnout, France not only differs from traditional parliamentary regimes: it also stands out from semi-presidential regimes (i.e. those where, as in France, the president is directly elected). So the participation differential between the legislative and presidential elections rub shoulders with the summits. In 2017, it reached a record 25,9 percentage points!

The political scope

Beyond participation, it is the political scope of the legislative elections that is in question. Since the adoption of a five-year term for the presidential term in 2000 and the inversion of the electoral calendar which saw the legislative elections follow the presidential one from 2002, voters have systematically ensured a majority for the newly elected head of state. Political science has clearly shown the mechanisms at work here. First, because of the temporal proximity between the two elections, the president's party benefits from an effect honeymoon.

Voters, whatever their political preferences, may indeed be tempted to give the president a chance at the start of his term, especially if they wish to avoid a weakening of executive power. This then leads some of the opponents to support the presidential party or, more likely, to abstain during the legislative elections. This phenomenon is also reinforced by an effect of anticipation: opponents – measuring through the result of the presidential election their low chances of success in the legislative elections – are weakly encouraged to vote to reiterate their opposition to a newly elected president. In short, the legislative elections appear to be a second-rate election and, more precisely, as a confirmation election.

A parliament on the cheap

But if the voters shun the legislative elections, it is not only because of the electoral calendar, it is also and above all because they perceive that the National Assembly produces a very distorted representation of political opinions and that it is not (or is no longer) the most decisive place of power in French political life.

It is here the deliberate lowering of the Parliament in the institutional architecture of the Ve Republic which is in question. Faced with the procrastination of the IVe Republic, the rationalized parliamentarism theorized by Michel Debré consisted precisely in restraining parliamentary will in order to ensure greater governmental stability. Despite the constitutional reform of 2008, voters are not mistaken: the French parliament remains one of the weakest in Europe.

However, France is not the only country to have strongly framed the powers of parliament. In fact, the weapons generally described as the most characteristic of the Ve Republic such as, for example, the strict framework of the right of parliamentary initiative, the close control of the legislative agenda by the government or the possibility that the latter has to proceed with a "blocked vote" are not unknown to other comparable political systems.

View across the Rhine

Better still, the German Basic Law goes in certain respects further than the French Constitution with the requirement of a constructive censure motion under which a motion of censure must automatically provide for a head of government to replace the one it proposes to overthrow.

If we extend the comparison to regimes in which the President is elected by direct suffrage, the French situation does not appear to be totally exceptional either. To give just one example, while the French constitution does not provide for the President to be able to put an end to the functions of the Prime Minister on his own initiative, in Austria, the Federal President has the constitutional capacity to appoint but also to dismiss the Chancellor and his government as a whole.

In other words, the constitutional provisions which certainly contribute to the lowering of the French parliament and give free rein to the executive, in particular to the president, are not enough to explain the eclipse of the legislative election.

The voting method in question

A second factor at the origin of the lesser centrality of the legislative elections relates to the voting method. The French singularity is real here since France is the only country in Europe, with the United Kingdom, to practice a majority ballot.

If this method of voting has the advantage (at least in theory) of ensuring a large majority for the party that comes out on top in the votes and therefore of allowing greater governmental stability, this is done at the cost of a distortion of representation. Thus, with regard to the current legislature, while the Republic on the move and the Modem totaled around 32% of the votes on the evening of the first round of legislative elections of 2017, these two parties won 350 seats in the National Assembly, or 60% of the 577 seats. This low representativeness, coupled with the weak political anchoring of the elected representatives of 2017, undermines the legitimacy of the deputies unable to weigh politically against the President to whom, as we have explained, they partly owe their election.

Elections without stake?

Should we conclude that the legislative elections are elections devoid of any stake? That would be going a little hastily. Let us emphasize, first of all, that despite the strong institutional constraints that weigh on the functioning of the National Assembly and on the election of its members in the wake of the presidential elections, the lowering of Parliament is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy. . Nothing in fact condemns it to being a simple recording room, but the bad image of Parliament in public opinion and the low level of trust citizens place in it contribute to its weakening.

It is also because they do not perceive him as a major player in the political system that the media pay less attention to him and that the voters abstain in large numbers during the legislative elections – thus transferring all their expectations to the president. The resulting loss of legitimacy contributes in turn to effectively diminishing the ability of MPs to provide an effective counterweight to the executive.

However, without going into a very thorough constitutional analysis, the fact remains that it is the government - and not the president – which is constitutionally vested with the mission of directing the policy of the nation under the control of parliament, which can withdraw its confidence through a motion of censure.

A new period of cohabitation?

One way to convince yourself of this is to imagine what would happen if voters elected an assembly in June of a different political color from that of the president – ​​or if the president did not have a stable majority within the the assembly. The President would have no choice but to choose a Prime Minister with the support of the majority of MPs. We would then enter a new period of coexistence and rebalancing of powers in favor of the government and ultimately of parliament. This is certainly not the most likely scenario, but political life is full of uncertainties and elections with a majority voting system, given the current strong partisan fragmentation, conceal many unknowns.

Ultimately, even if this does not really show through in the public debate, the legislative elections have a real importance and it is not without reason that as soon as the result of the first round of the presidential election was announced, calls to make the legislative elections a " third round" with a view toimpose a cohabitation to the future president began to emerge. Such a prospect, if it were to occur, would not only modify the orientation of public policies for the next five years: it would profoundly transform the way in which the various organs of power are perceived and therefore, ultimately, the deep nature of the Ve Republic.

Julian Navarro, Research Fellow in Political Science, Catholic Institute of Lille (ICL)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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