Beyond the First Past the Post System

By Nikhil Pratap and Abhishek Mohanty, WBNUJS

Editor’s Note: Electoral system lies at the very heart of representative democracy. India has inherited its First Past the Post system (FPTP) from the British. One of the main objectives of the FPTP system is to manufacture an absolute majority by maximizing the share of the leading party which in turn leads to the formation of a stable Government. This system operates on the simple credo of the ‘winner takes it all’. The author begins by first comparing the different types of electoral systems. Recently, there have been calls for reforms in this system. The Law Commission’s 170th report on electoral law reforms had looked at possibility of adopting mixed system with 25% of seats being decided on basis of list system while other seats would be filled by the FPTP system, however this proposal has not been accepted.

INTRODUCTION

Post the 16th Lok Sabha elections, where the Bharatiya Janta Party(BJP) came into power with a simple majority of 282 seats, the issue of electoral process reform has gained more credence. This is due to fact that the BJP managed to win 51.9% of the seats with just 31% vote share in its favour.[1] Further, the issue has gained traction due to the presence of a number of legislators and Parliamentarians with criminal backgrounds, the increasing importance of financial power with regard to contesting elections. Although the issue of money and muscle power has gained a lot of attention, appropriate attention has not been paid to reform of the electoral system.

Electoral system lies at the very heart of representative democracy. India has inherited its First Past the Post system (FPTP) from the British. Although there have been repeated calls for reforms, the issue is generally misunderstood or not grasped by a vast majority. The authors in this present paper will first discuss the popular electoral systems present all around the world and discuss their pros and cons. Subsequently the conundrum of FPTP in India will be discussed and possible reforms to change the system to bring it in line with major problems will be discussed.

TYPES OF ELECTORAL SYSTEMS

There exist myriad forms of electoral systems followed by countries round the world. The Four main types of electoral formulas have been identified are the majoritarian formula which includes the FPTP, second ballot and alternative voting systems; semi-proportional formulas consisting of the single transferable, cumulative and limited vote systems; proportional representation inclusive of both closed and open party lists; mixed systems whose best example is the Additional Member system.[2]  This section discuses some of these systems and analyses their advantages and disadvantages in the Indian context.

First past the Post System

This system is primarily followed by the British Commonwealth countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, and India among others including the United States of America.[3] The notion of territorial representation is a profound feature of this system of voting.[4] The legislators chosen through this model represent the territorial constituency in Parliament from among whom the Government is formed.[5] While the members invariably belong to political parties, the system ensures that the elected legislators owe their primary loyalty to the territorial constituency which further incentivizes the concerned legislators to serve the people of their constituency better.[6]

One of the main objectives of the FPTP system is to manufacture an absolute majority by maximizing the share of the leading party which in turn leads to the formation of a stable Government.[7] This system operates on the simple credo of the ‘winner takes it all’.[8] Thus for any individual to emerge victorious in an election, it is enough if he can garner more votes than his competitors. This system has the single objective of providing effective governance without taking into account issues like the representation of minority interests.[9] Some of the major issues associated with this system like the lack of requirement of absolute majority or a threshold limit and the attendant consequences for the polity and democratic process of the country will be examined in the subsequent parts of the paper.

Alternative Vote

The above system is used to elect legislators to the Australian House of Representatives and in the Irish Presidential Elections.[10] Under this electoral system, a candidate is declared elected consequent to obtaining an absolute majority of the votes cast i.e. 50% of the votes cast plus one vote.[11] The electors are expected to give a preference order for all the candidates contesting for the concerned seat.[12] To illustrate, constituency X has four candidates in the fray, A, B, C and D. In this case the elector would have to give the preference order for the above candidates. In cases where none of the above candidates obtains an absolute majority, which is a common occurrence in Indian electoral, the candidate with the lowest number of votes to his name is eliminated. Assuming C is eliminated, the second preference votes of C are distributed among the other candidates. In cases where absolute majority is not obtained consequent to the distribution of second preference votes, the process outlined above is repeated. This system renders greater legitimacy to the elected candidate, reduces the wastage of votes and incentives to greater voter participation.[13]

Critics of this system believe that the issue of spatial support would not be addressed by this system as parties with support across a large area without a particular concentration would be disadvantaged.[14] Other issues raised include the possibility of elections being decided on the basis of fourth or fifth preferences which could be an issue in India where on an average a large number of candidates contest for each constituency. Electors would thus be forced to make hypothetical choices without any knowledge of possible outcomes which would hamper tactical voting.[15] This system facilitates election of the least disliked candidate rather than that of a candidate with strong support.[16]

Second Ballot Majority Run-off System

Popularly applied in France, this system also sets the attainment of absolute majority as the benchmark for a successful election.[17] In cases where none of the candidates secures an absolute majority, a run-off is held between two candidates with the maximum number of votes.[18] This system of voting is expensive and the repeating polls cause subsequent dip in voter enthusiasm. The applicability of this system in the Indian context with the resultant costs, logistical problems and instability of the Government makes it an unattractive option.

Single Transferable and non-transferable Vote System

These systems are of a semi-proportional nature where the constituency elects more than one member and parties are free to float as many candidates as they please. In the Single Transferable Vote (STV) System prevalent in Jordan, Afghanistan, Malta and Ireland, the number of votes are tabulated and divided by the number of seats to be filled.[19] This process generates a figure which is referred to as ‘quota’ and candidates obtaining the requisite quota are considered elected.[20] The STV functions along the lines of the Alternative Vote system with electors required to give preferences and candidates not making the quota level are eliminated. Their second preference votes are credited to the other candidates in the fray till the quota is reached and the seats are filled.[21]

STV ensures that votes are not wasted and gives greater power to the voters to elect their candidates unlike the list system.[22] The STV system ensures greater democratization as it gives smaller parties and independent candidates a more level playing field by making each seat a ‘marginal’ seat which in effect ensures that no particular constituency can be considered a safe constituency for any major political party.[23] In addition it has been contended by proponents of STV that voters are incentivized to take part in the electoral process and sufficient weight is accorded to minority parties’ representation. The system favours parties with a wider geographic reach rather than parties with narrow concentration of support which leads to parties adopting policies with greater acceptability to people across regions and community backgrounds.[24]

Critics of the STV system point to the complexity of the vote counting process and the practical difficulties in redrawing multi-member constituencies.[25] The system is considered more proportional in cases where there are more members per constituency and the determination of the exact number of seats to be filled is again a contentious and complex process especially in a country as large and diverse as India.[26]

List System

It has already been stated that while majoritarian electoral systems emphasise stability of the Government, proportional electoral system aims at inclusivity by making every single vote count.[27] An inclusive electoral process is considered essential to establish inclusive Governments which look after and speak for the interests of all members of society taking into account the varied and diverse voices in order to truly deepen democratic governance. It has been urged that India, with a vast multicultural and diverse society, needs to switch to this form of electoral system in order to realize the aspirations for inclusive Government.[28]

The principle of proportional system of representation involves filling seats in multi-member constituencies on the basis of the votes polled by the respective party lists.[29] Party lists can either be closed or open forms.[30] In case of the latter, electors are given the choice to choose from among the candidates who find mention in the respective party lists while in case of the former voters are allowed to cast the vote for the party based on affinity to ideology or other factors and the party decides the ranking of the candidates.[31] The ranking order is critical in the closed party list form as it decides the candidates who get elected based on the number of seats to be filled.

Mixed Systems (Additional Member Systems)

The Additional Member System famously followed by Germany for elections to the Bundestag has in recent years been propounded as the ideal model for adoption by India. Under this model half the seats of the Bundestag are filled by candidates elected under the FPTP system from single member constituencies whereas the other half are elected on the basis of regional party lists for multi-member constituencies.[32]Thus voters are allowed to cast two votes, one for the party and the other for the candidate.[33] The final allocation of seats takes place on the basis of the votes obtained by the party.[34] In cases where a particular party is victorious in more number of seats under the FPTP system than it can obtain on the basis of vote share, the party is allowed to retain the extra seats and additional seats to the Bundestag are added on the basis of the extra seats won by the concerned party.[35] A threshold limit fixed at 5%of the List votes or three constituencies under the FPTP system enables the smaller and non-serious parties to be excluded while providing a boost to the stability of the polity.[36] Advantages of this system lie in the fact that it is easier to understand for the voters, retains the constituency-representative bond while bringing in an element of proportionality by making every vote count.

FPTP IN INDIA: AN INHERITED GIFT OR DECAYING IDEA?

Various studies have shown that the FPTP system gives an element of stability in Government as a result of the two-party system, a natural effect of the plurality system of voting.[37] Maurice Duverger in his research found that a plurality form of voting system always generates a two-party system since the voters will not be willing to waste their votes on a small and regional party having a slim probability of winning the election. They would instead choose a party which has a better chance of winning.[38]

However, the Indian and Canadian scenario is seen as exceptions to Duverger theory. This is often attributed to the long time positioning of the Congress party as the centre party (occupying a median position) which has enabled them to emerge as a ‘Condorcet’ winner. [39] The opposition to the Congress consisted of disparate blocks of socialists, communists, right-wing elements and independents who did not come together to form an effective opposition force due to start contrasts in ideology. This theory is no longer contemporary given the decimation of the Congress party in the 2014 party where they managed to win only 43 seats.

Another theory explaining India’s exceptionalism is the phenomenon of ‘party aggregation’. [40] Basically, it is contented that Duverger Rule works at the level of the district with two to three parties cornering all the votes cast at district level. [41] Absence of co-ordination across states results in growing number of smaller parties at the national lever as compared to state level. [42] There is an interesting symbiotic relationship between economic centralization and number of effective political parties at the centre. The centralization of economic power at the centre creates strong incentives for parties across divided lines to form a single entity to stake claim to power. Post 1991 liberalization, there is decentralization of power to states. [43]  Hence, a rise in the number of parties with same ideological bent is observed across different States resulting in problematic party aggregation at the centre. Despite of the differences among the two schools of thought, it is argued that governmental stability, one of the feature of FPTP system is affected at national level.

The decision with respect to competing set of electoral systems needs to be made considering a trade-off between stability of governance and issue of representativeness under proportional form of representation. The Lok Sabha elections have shown that with fragmentation of the polity with greater number of small parties eating away the vote shares of two larger national parties. [44] However while ensuring reduction in disproportionality index, there are valid worries with regard to rent extraction from the system, inability to take hard policy decisions and catering to vote banks. [45] The division of polity allows for multi-cornered elections which might help smaller parties with narrow base of support to consolidate and swing elections their way with significantly small share of overall votes. [46]  In Uttar Pradesh, parties with vote share of 29% were able to garner disproportionate number of seats to form Government of their own. [47] It may be argued that this upholds the support for FPTP since it ensures formation of stable Government, differences between traditional two party FPTP systems and scenarios like that of Uttar Pradesh. Two-party system causes parties to broaden appeal and support base lead to greater representation whereas in cases like Uttar Pradesh, parties appeal to and represent particular castes and communities. This divisiveness leads to skewed policies and increased divisiveness in society since interests of particular castes are promoted over interests of rest of society.

IS IT TIME TO DO AWAY WITH FPTP?

Discussions regarding reforms have centered around financing and curbing muscle power but it is equally important to pay attention to reforming the electoral system. A vocal school propagates in adopting the German model. [48] The Law Commission’s 170th report on electoral law reforms had looked at possibility of adopting mixed system with 25% of seats being decided on basis of list system while other seats would be filled by the FPTP system. [49] This proposal was founded on the need to ensure greater voter participation, to curtail the phenomenon of wastage of votes and check imbalances produced by existing electoral system in terms of conversion of vote share into seats. [50]

An oft-suggested reform measure suggested is to have a threshold limit to be attained to obtain a seat. This move will force parties to broaden their reach across narrow case and community considerations. However, this limit has been a subjective study with proposals ranging from 5% of overall vote share to a requirement that a winning candidate belong to a party with 2.5% of the votes cast at national level. Although smaller parties and independent candidates will be affected greatly, this move would nonetheless lead to ensuring stability in governance and checking further fragmentation of polity.

A prevalent idea existing is that winning candidates must receive majority of votes i.e. 50% +1 case. Here, the issue of alternative voting system would ensure that candidates are elected based on majority of votes cast and there is no wastage of votes either. As contrast to a run-off, this system would be logistically simpler and threat of seat going without representation for a long period of time would be avoided. An innovative approach to this is that of an inter-dependant electorate where the two most important identifiable communities in a constituency are divided into two groups and candidate who wins a majority of total votes polled along with minimum threshold limit from among the two groups is elected as representative of that constituency. [51] However, usage of any new system would require sensitization and education of voters. Similar attempts to introduce proportional representation system in India were blocked by Constituent Assembly on the ground of low levels of literacy which is not the present day case.

CONCLUSION

The paper has highlighted the different electoral systems prevalent round the world, issues with the present functioning of the FPTP system and the need to reform the same. The present system has its shortcomings which can be addressed by adopting an alternative system of voting where the winning candidate requires 50%+1 vote to win. This will go a long way in ensuring stability in the governance system and a suitable representation of the interests of all communities, which are often neglected in the existing system.

 Edited by Hariharan Kumar

[1] Election Commission of India, ‘GENERAL ELECTION TO LOK SABHA TRENDS & RESULT 2014 ‘ (ECI website 2014) <http://eciresults.ap.nic.in/PartyWiseResult.htm> accessed 10 September 2014

[2] Pippa Norris, ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems’ [1997]IPSR 297

[3] ‘Voting Systems: The Jenkins Report’ (Parliament.uk 1998)  <http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp98/rp98-112.pdf> accessed 11 September 2014

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Pippa Norris, ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems’ [1997]IPSR 297, 301

[8] Ibid

[9] ‘Voting Systems: The Jenkins Report’ (Parliament.uk 1998)  <http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp98/rp98-112.pdf> accessed 11 September 2014

[10] Pippa Norris, ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems’ [1997]IPSR 297, 302

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] ‘Voting Systems: The Jenkins Report’ (Parliament.uk 1998)  <http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp98/rp98-112.pdf> accessed 11 September 2014

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Pippa Norris, ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems’ [1997]IPSR 297, 302

[18] Ibid

[19] Pippa Norris, ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems’ [1997]IPSR 297, 303

[20] ‘Voting Systems: The Jenkins Report’ (Parliament.uk 1998)  <http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp98/rp98-112.pdf> accessed 11 September 2014

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] ‘Primer on the Single Non-Transferable Vote System’ (unama.unmissions.org ) http://unama.unmissions.org/Portals/UNAMA/Documents/Election%20System%20in%20Afghanistan%20Primer.pdf accessed 11 September 2014

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Norris (n 2) 297, 303

[28] ‘P.R. Policy for India’ (Campaign for Electoral Reforms in India 2012) http://ceri.in/ElectoralReforms/?p=170 accessed 10 September 2014

[29] Pippa Norris, ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems’ [1997]IPSR 297, 303

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] T. Swaminathan, ‘The German Electoral System: Implications for India ’ [1978] India International Centre Quarterly 92, 93

[33] Pippa Norris, ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems’ [1997]IPSR 297, 304

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

[37] W.M. Dobell, ‘Updating Duverger’s Law’ [1986] CJPS 585

[38] Ibid

[39] Pradeep Chhibber and Ken Kollman, ‘Party Aggregation and the number of parties in the United States and India’ [1998] APSR 329, 330

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid 329, 332

[42] Ibid 329, 337

[43] Ibid

[44] Bhaskar Dutta, ‘The Fragmented Lok Sabha: A Case for Electoral Engineering’ [2009] VOL XLIV NO 17

[45] Ibid

[46] Ibid

[47] ‘Sixteenth Assembly Elections in Uttar Pradesh’ (Economic and Political Weekly 2012) <http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2012_47/14/Sixteenth_Assembly_Elections_in_Uttar_Pradesh.pdf> accessed 11 September 2014

[48] ‘P.R. Policy for India’ (Campaign for Electoral Reforms in India 2012) <http://ceri.in/ElectoralReforms/?p=170> accessed 9 September 2014

[49] Law Commission of India, ‘Reform of Electoral Laws’ (170th Report, 1999)

[50] Ibid

[51] S.R. Sen, ‘Electoral System: Urgency of Basic Reforms’ [1991] <http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/1991_26/6/Electoral_System_Urgency_of_Basic_Reforms.pdf> accessed 11 September 2014

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