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No one really wants to fix the electoral system

The reality is that undertaking major surgery on the electoral system becomes the responsibility of the party or coalition that comes into power courtesy just that process. Somehow, once in government, they lose enthusiasm for such an operation

columns Updated: Mar 17, 2017 21:14 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
EVM

There are plenty chagrined over the BJP’s sweep of Uttar Pradesh who have taken up the mantle of challenging the EVM. Some have even suggested a return to paper ballots, somehow having turned amnesiac over booth-capturing and ballot-stuffing that were once prevalent.(Sunil Ghosh /HT)

The assembly elections in India once again demonstrated a new strain in democracy – that results deliver winners and whingers, and gracefully accepting defeat is passé. Donald Trump’s outraging is echoing loud and clear.

It may also be a factor of social media combativeness that conspiracy theories are going viral and infecting the real-life body politic. In this instance, of course, it featured the cycle’s biggest losers. Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati ranted against electronic voting machines as she trolled Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah on results night. And then Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal chorused that strident song, with regard to Punjab.

Listening to their tantrums, it was a reminder of Donald Trump on the campaign trail last year, warning darkly: “The system is fixed, folks, I’m telling you.” Trump, though, was candid enough to admit later that he liked the system fine once he won. Or that part of the election that got him into the White House — the electoral college. He still has concerns over “voter fraud” that saw him lagging rival Hillary Clinton by a couple of million votes in the popular count.

Many Democrats countered Trump by opting for the “Russia hacked the election” reasoning. There’s a reality check required there: Recounts in a couple of states, Michigan and Wisconsin, disproved that theory and the WikiLeaks dump of Democratic National Committee emails was essentially correspondence during their primary phase. That, however, remains the line to delegitimise a Trump presidency, which, if left alone, he could have achieved himself. The precedent of the 2016 US presidential election, though, is now a global phenomenon, putting another spin to refusing to accept defeat.

In India, the hack attack isn’t particularly new — it was first raised by the BJP itself after it lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Predictably, there was no such carping in 2014. There are plenty chagrined over the BJP’s sweep of Uttar Pradesh who have taken up the mantle of challenging the EVM. Some have even suggested a return to paper ballots, somehow having turned amnesiac over booth-capturing and ballot-stuffing that were once prevalent.

Others have opened another line of opposition, criticising the first-past-the-post system, one that delivered over 300 seats to the new rulers of Lucknow, with less than 40% of the vote share.

Options have often been offered in the past. Among them are the lists or rankings process or proportional representation. The former involves voters listing party preference in order. A formula is used to carve out seats according to the choices. The latter simply translates vote share into a corresponding percentage of seats. Either has the potential of creating such fractured mandates that they could cripple the system.

The reality is that undertaking major surgery on the electoral system becomes the responsibility of the party or coalition that comes into power courtesy just that process. Somehow, once in government, they lose enthusiasm for such an operation.

When the Liberal Party in Canada was contesting the 2015 federal elections, it boldly proclaimed: “We will make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” It asserted that a Liberal government would introduce legislation within 18 months of assuming power “to enact electoral reform”. To give Justin Trudeau’s dispensation credit, it made a show of attempting to follow through — over 14 million Canadians were sent postcards directing them to a website to take an online survey. In February, less than 15 months since garnering an absolute majority, Trudeau appointed a new minister of democratic institutions and her instructions included the following — “changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.”

So, however flawed you may consider a system, expecting change is somewhat like complaining about the weather. You don’t want to suffer through a Canadian winter or an Indian summer (the real thing), but whining about the elements isn’t going to move the mercury.

Meanwhile, the election hack hallucination is getting hackneyed. The system may appear broken to some but the fix isn’t in.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal