What a difference an electoral system makes! If the Lok Sabha was constituted through a perfectly proportional (PR) system of converting a party’s national vote share into seats, and without any minimum vote percentage or ‘threshold’ required for securing seats, India would never have had a single-party majority government.
Our first-past-the-post system in single-member constituencies (SMC) not only ensured governments with clear legislative majorities, but a single party-dominated democracy for four decades. Thus, the Congress won 74% of the Lok Sabha constituencies in 1952 (with 45% votes), 77% in 1984 (with 48% votes).
In 1954 a young Frenchman, Maurice Duverger, advanced a proposition that quickly became famous in the study of politics as ‘Duverger’s law’. He argued that democracies in which representatives are elected by their winning a plurality of the votes cast in SMCs produced national two-party systems and single-party majority governments, while those with PR rules produced multi-party systems and coalition governments. Sixty years later, Duverger, now aged 97, would realise that his law hasn’t worked in the Indian case.
The return of single-party majority government is welcome to many and distressing to others. Predictably, those on the losing side of an election acutely feel ‘the political consequences of electoral laws’ (the title of another famous work published in 1967 by Douglas Rae, an American).
In 2014, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won 89% of the state’s 80 constituencies with a 42% vote share. In the UP assembly elections of 2007 and 2012, the BSP and the SP, respectively, won single-party majorities with a much smaller 30% popular vote. In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress won 81% of the 42 constituencies with 39% of the votes polled in the state while the Left Front got two seats (5%) with nearly 30% of the votes. Unfair? Well, in seven consecutive assembly elections between 1977 and 2006 the CPI(M)-led alliance secured three-fourths or four-fifths majorities (except 2001, when it got two-thirds) while polling just less than half the popular vote.
Arend Lijphart, a Netherlands-born American political scientist, writes: “[T]he electoral system is the most easily manipulated element of a political system. If one wants to change the nature of a democracy, the electoral system is likely to be the most effective instrument for doing so.” True, but fundamental changes to an electoral system are very difficult in practice. Richard Katz, an American scholar who has studied electoral systems globally, notes that “major reforms of national electoral systems remain quite rare” and there are only 14 such instances in mature democracies since 1950 (of which one country, France, accounts for five occasions).
Those aggrieved with the existing electoral systems tend to give up over time and adjust to life as it is. Consider the Liberal Democrats, the third-largest party in British politics, who stressed the urgency of reforming Britain’s first-past-the-post model through the first decade of this century. Quite understandably: They got 18% of the national vote in the 2001 House of Commons election and just 8% of the seats, in 2005 the vote share rose to 22% and the seat share was under 10%. Meanwhile, Labour, elected for a third consecutive term in 2005, got 55% of the seats with 35.2% of the vote, just 2.8 percentage points more than the main opposition, the Conservatives. The 2010 election produced an anomalous result — a hung parliament in which the Conservatives fell just short of a majority. The Liberal Democrats then joined the Conservatives in a coalition government, shelving the electoral reform agenda in favour of a slice of the spoils of office.
The two genres of electoral systems — plurality and PR — have numerous sub-types across the world. But the genres have different priorities. Plurality systems seek to encourage the ‘stability’ — for better or worse — of single-party majority governments. PR-based systems are concerned that the composition of governments reflects the spread of the popular vote; if that means coalitions, so be it. Each genre has strengths and limitations.
Several countries seek to combine the strengths by operating hybrid systems. Thus, Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, is elected on a 50/50 formula: 299 members are directly elected in SMC contests across Germany and then another 299 seats are allocated from party candidate-lists in each Land (state) on the basis of the national vote share of every party that has won more than 5% of the nationwide votes. Each voter has a double-vote: For the constituency contest and for the national PR race. The allocation of the non-SMC seats is done through a procedure which ensures that the final proportion of seats a party gets in the 600-plus legislature is very close to its share of the vote in the national PR race. Unsurprisingly, coalition governments are the norm in Germany.
A thought-experiment: What if the 543 constituency-based Lok Sabha seats were supplemented by another 271 seats allocated by the vote share of parties in each state, with a 5% vote share in each state the eligibility threshold? Parties at the receiving end of the first-past-the-post system would gain modestly, making the overall seat tally a bit more ‘balanced’.
Fairer? Yes. Possible? Not likely. Necessary? Probably not. The nation has more pressing priorities than re-designing the electoral system. Checks to the majoritarian pull of the electoral system are embedded in the quasi-federal structure: The Rajya Sabha, and the autonomy of the states of the Union. There is one scenario, however, in which majoritarian rule could become unchecked. That is if one party — likely led by a charismatic figure — were to become the leading party across most states.
Sumantra Bose is professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy
The views expressed by the author are personal