Do all countries have by-elections? Filling parliamentary vacancies around the world

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 21st June 2022

This Thursday (23rd June), voters in the constituencies of Tiverton and Honiton, and Wakefield go to the polls in by-elections caused by the scandal-related resignations of their previous MPs. By-elections allow voters to pick a new MP and puts a small group of voters in the political limelight. But how are vacancies filled when they arise in the parliaments of other countries and is it possible to mix by-elections and proportional representation?

Next in line – By-elections with Party Lists

31 out of the 43 countries most often considered to be within Europe elect their parliament using some form of Party List PR, and the lists providing a handy way to fill vacancies. If an MP resigns or dies, the highest candidate on the list who isn’t currently in parliament automatically takes the seat. As being a government minister is a full time job, in some countries, such as the Netherlands or Sweden, if an MP is appointed as a minister, their seat is filled by a substitute from the list for the duration of their time in government.

In Germany, which uses a mix of first past the post and party lists, all vacancies are now filled by the next available candidate on the party’s state list. A by-election would only be held in the case that a vacancy was caused by a constituency member elected as an independent, though Germany has not elected any independent MPs since 1949.

Send in a sub – By-elections in France

France, with their Two-Round system, uses a mix of substitutes and by-elections. Substitutes are elected alongside Deputies to take their place if they die, become government ministers or are appointed to a position that is otherwise incompatible with sitting in the National Assembly. But, if a Deputy resigns, a by-election is held instead.

I demand a countback – By-Elections with STV

The one proportional voting system where by-elections are commonly used to fill all vacancies is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) – by-elections are used to fill vacancies in the Irish parliament and on Scottish councils. Unless multiple vacancies arise in the same constituency at the same time, an STV by-election effectively takes place using the Alternative Vote.

The Alternative Vote isn’t a proportional system though. A better method is ‘countback’, also called ‘count again’, – used in Malta and some Australian states. This involves returning to the original ballot papers from the general election and recounting them without the now retired candidate – effectively continuing the count of the original STV election. This method enables the representation of that constituency as a whole to remain somewhat proportional to its political opinion, and prevents the costly need for new elections.

Other methods of filling vacancies include co-option – whereby either parties or the legislative body itself chooses the new representative (Northern Ireland Assembly and parish councils in the UK) – and substitute lists (Irish seats to the European Parliament).

It seems that having an easy way to replace an MP when they resign, also makes it easy to temporarily replace them when they becoming the Speaker, a minister, or go on maternity leave.

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