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Electoral Systems And The Chronicles Of Unfavored Governments

Electoral Systems

Electoral Systems In New Zealand

On 26th October, Jacinda Ardern will be sworn in as Prime Minister of New Zealand, heading a coalition government of three parties – Labour, Green, and New Zealand First.

New Zealand’s House of Representatives has 120 seats, and any party requires 61 seats to form a majority government. The election saw the National Party win 56 seats, falling short of the majority by just five, but Ardern’s Labour Party, with 46 seats, happens to be the one that will form the next government with the Greens, having 8 seats, and New Zealand first, which has 9 seats – a total of 63.

If the fact that a lot of people, even if not most of them, voted for one specific party does not guarantee that party the next few years in power, then what actually does?

Personalized Proportional Presentation

New Zealand uses an electoral system called ‘Personalized Proportional Presentation’. This is basically a combination of the ‘First past the post’ system that India follows, and a bit of the ratio and proportion chapter from the CBSE eighth grade mathematics textbook. Under this system, if a given political party wins 10% of the vote, then it is guaranteed to win 10% of the seats in parliament. In a house of one hundred, if this given party were to win 9 seats, it would be awarded an extra seat; but if this party wins 11 seats, then it gets to keep that extra seat as well.

In the end, this system is also one of many that are essentially meant to make sure elected representatives who form governments are truly representative of the people’s verdict. But given Ardern’s new rise to power, is it really doing a great job? It is not implied that Ardern or Labour are undeserving to form the government, or that it is unconstitutional for them to do so. But from a moral perspective, playing with numbers is an issue that many electoral systems have failed to address.

The Electoral System In India

The pure ‘First Past the Post’ system is, when historical track records are referred to, arguably worse off than this kind of proportional representation.

India’s examples can be considered – when not a single majority government was formed at the central level from 1989 to 2014. In fact, the 90s witnessed very absurd coalitions arrive in Delhi and quickly depart.

The Westminster System

India follows the traditional Westminster system, and every member of the Lok Sabha is elected when they win more votes than any other competitor in their constituency. A candidate may win by one vote or one lakh votes. So, if most people vote for one candidate, that candidate wins. But a candidate a does not require a majority of votes to win.

In the 1989 general elections, the Indian National Congress emerged as the largest party with 197 seats out of 529, but Janata Dal, the second largest party, with 143 seats; formed the union government; heading a hastily put together coalition of multiple regional parties that suddenly went from being minute players no one paid attention to, to kingmakers. This sudden rise to power, was, however, short-lived, and the Congress party came back to power in the 1991 elections.

General Elections

In 1996, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 161 seats, and was the largest party in the Lok Sabha, falling short of the parliamentary majority by a massive 112 seats! The BJP stayed in power for thirteen days, and their cabinet then chose to resign rather than face a vote of confidence.

A scattered and sputtering ‘United Front’ of otherwise irrelevant political parties formed the government, and HD Devegowda became Prime Minister with external support of the INC. His party, the Janata Dal, had won just 46 seats in the elections. With all due respect, India had never projected him as her Prime Minister. His government lasted for barely a year, and he was then replaced by IK Gujral as PM.

Three governments in less than two years forced India back to the elections, and the National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP managed to hold onto power for a year; until they (in)famously lost a vote of confidence by just one vote. Elections were held again, and the NDA was back for a full term. The coming years would see more stable governments last in Delhi.

It was during these unstable years, that Prime Minister Vajpayee had famously said, “Loktantra toh bas sankhya ka khel hai” (Democracy is just playing with numbers).

The Solution?

Hung parliaments and indecisive verdicts can never be avoided, but perhaps the seizing of power by otherwise irrelevant agents can. This is one of the problems a good electoral system needs to address.

It is not implied that the First Past the Post system or anything else that has been criticized be scrapped, or alternatives be found to them. A system having a few flaws does not result in the system being abandoned. But there is a need for reform. Thoughts need to be focussed upon developing an electoral framework that will see the rightly elected people in power. But having moral science classes in Parliament every week seems to be a viable idea in comparison!

Perhaps a better arrangement between actual seats and proportion can be worked out, and a better way to get work done in the event of a hung parliament can be found. As of now, however, all we can do is read such articles as something to consider, write such articles, and wait; not really having an impact on anyone.

Oh, democracy!

-Parth Kulkarni


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