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  • Crafting Constitutions
  • John M. Carey (bio)
Comparative Constitutional Engineering: An Inquiry into Structures, Incentives and Outcomes. By Giovanni Sartori. New York University Press, 1994. 219 pp.

The massive wave of democratic reform that has swept so many parts of the world over the past 20 years has brought a flood of books and articles on the proper design of democratic constitutions. Giovanni Sartori, who has long been one of the world’s most distinguished scholars of democracy, offers in the present volume bold and specific advice on “constitutional engineering,” proposing institutional arrangements that buck the conventional wisdom embraced by academics and political reformers alike.

The first of the book’s three parts deals with electoral systems, the second provides an overview of constitutional provisions shaping relations between the legislature and the executive, and the last addresses an eclectic mixture of topics, although its core is Sartori’s proposal for “alternating presidentialism.” Much of this ground—especially in the first two parts—has been covered before. Yet Sartori makes the trip worth one’s while by emphasizing some points that are commonly overlooked —even if he sometimes drops his arguments just short of their most interesting implications.

Sartori opens by contending that analysts of constitutional design must take into account electoral rules. Even though not generally written into constitutions, these rules shape the nature of representation and the incentives facing politicians in every branch of government. Moreover, electoral systems are particularly difficult to reform because the bodies [End Page 166] that have the power to change them—legislatures and constituent assemblies—are filled with people who are naturally averse to altering the rules under which they themselves won office.

In the nearly half of the book that is devoted to an overview of systems for electing assemblies, a couple of sections stand out. Sartori is careful to distinguish among proportional-representation (PR) systems according to the incentives that each variant offers for intraparty competition among candidates. He is right to emphasize the role of open party lists in fostering personalistic representation even under PR (pp. 17–18), yet his account of the effects of electoral systems becomes confused when he introduces the “strength of parties” as an independent variable completely separate from electoral rules (p. 43). By “strength,” Sartori means the extent to which party labels give voters clear and consistent information about policy. The clarity of party labels, in turn, depends on the degree of discipline that a party’s legislators show in acting together to make policy. Highly disciplined behavior of course precludes rampant personalism. Yet if this is so, as Sartori convincingly argues, then the strength of parties should be largely a product of electoral systems rather than an entirely distinct factor.

Sartori’s discussion of two-tier (or “mixed”) electoral systems also warrants attention. These attempt to combine the proportionality of large districts with the local ties between citizens and legislators fostered by small districts. Although the lower tier does not have to be composed of single-member districts (SMDs), the combination of SMDs and highly proportional upper tiers has become the most popular format for electoral reformers in recent years, and has been adopted in systems as diverse as those of Italy, Japan, Venezuela, Mexico, Hungary, Russia, Albania, and Lithuania. More often than not, this format is simply equated with the longstanding German system. Yet Sartori rightly emphasizes that the impact of two-tier systems depends fundamentally on whether the proportional seats are allocated separately from SMD seats, as in Japan and Russia, or explicitly to compensate for disproportionalities at the SMD level, as in Germany and Venezuela (pp. 19, 74). In the latter case, the impact of electoral rules on party-system fragmentation is scarcely different from that of PR elections in the upper tier. In the former case, the results are likely to be far less proportional.

Although Sartori is diligent in spelling out the myriad possible effects and incentives implied by two-tier systems, he rejects such systems out of hand as too confusing to voters and “likely to obtain . . . a bastard-producing hybrid” that combines the defects of both SMD and PR systems (p. 75). Sartori’s disapproval of two-tier systems...

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pp. 166-170
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