Electoral Choices

By Anjum Altaf

Consider two recent electoral results from India: Of the total seats contested, the BJP won 52 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 4 percent in the 2015 Delhi state elections. The first was characterized a sweeping victory; the second a crushing defeat. Yet, in both contests the share of votes cast for the party was the same – about a third.

This is a quirk of the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system in which the candidate with the most votes wins a constituency. A candidate securing one-third of the votes cast could win or lose depending on the number of other candidates and the distribution of votes among them.

Is this problematic? Yes, if one considers it unsatisfactory that a party representing a third of the voters in a state has no say in its governance. It is for this reason that the majority of countries in the world have adopted some form of proportional representation. Only a few of the colonies retain the FPTP system inherited from the UK. Of these, the USA, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the more populous ones.

Proportional Representation

FPTP does have some advantages but they are undermined in countries like India and Pakistan marked by identity-based politics. The representation of a minority in governance depends largely on how its members are distributed across constituencies. The same total population could obtain virtually no representation if thinly distributed but considerably more if geographically concentrated. In an ideal world, where identity is irrelevant to security, this would not matter but where minorities feel the need for representation to protect themselves, FPTP poses a huge disadvantage.

The incentives generated by FPTP in societies with identity-based politics are perverse. It becomes sound electoral strategy to split the opposition either by increasing the number of contenders (by encouraging independent candidates, for example) or fracturing opposing coalitions. It is widely conceded that instigating communal discord for such purposes is an integral part of the BJPs electoral strategy. A perusal of electoral results by states would confirm that a significant factor in its 2014 majority was use of such tactics in the swing states of UP and Bihar to fracture Dalit-Muslim alliances.

A simple mechanism can mitigate the main drawbacks of the FPTP system – a run-off election between the two leading vote-getters whenever the leading candidate in the first round has less than 50 percent of the vote. This guarantees that the winner represents at least half the voters in the constituency. At the same time, the benefits of vote-splitting strategies are eliminated.

Other ways short of full proportional representation exist to overcome the limitations of the FPTP system. For example, allowing multi-member constituencies which elect more than one candidate can reduce the deficit in representation.

The objective here is not to compare electoral systems but to highlight that electoral rules matter very significantly and that such rules offer choices that impact the quality of governance. For that reason alone one might expect a vigorous public debate on the merits and demerits of various alternatives. It is worrisome there is so little awareness that the democratic system is not a pre-packaged bundle to accept or reject. In actual fact, it is premised on sets of electoral rules made by human beings and subject to revision for that reason.

One would expect that an aware society would choose the set of rules best suited to its context and needs and revise them as the needs themselves evolve over time.

The choice between the parliamentary and presidential forms of democratic governance offers another example. The fact that Pakistan has the former and Afghanistan the latter clearly suggests that one is not unambiguously superior to the other. The difference is an arbitrary legacy of the intervening superpower which cannot suffice as an intellectual justification.

Consider some implications of the combination of parliamentary form and FTPT system in Pakistan. Candidates without scruples jostle to align themselves with parties likely to win while voters shun more qualified candidates in order not to waste their votes. Since only elected representatives are eligible for cabinet assignments, the pool of human capital remains severely limited. And, because party representatives failing to obtain acceptable payoffs threaten to defect, the size of the cabinets at the national and provincial levels are grossly bloated. Patronage becomes embedded in the system.

It should be obvious from the above that poor governance is an outcome of the electoral rules in existence and the choices made in their adoption. Good governance will not emerge miraculously to change the rules. On the contrary, the incumbent beneficiaries would be the first to stifle meaningful change. It is only an aware citizenry that can demand and push for more intelligent rules to pave the way for improved governance. An open discussion is the first step in that direction.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University and was formerly dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on March 18, 2015 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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