An electoral system impacts the quality of representative democracy and the nature and extent of voting behaviour. Different electoral laws produce different results and representatives of various types. The ideal electoral system in a representative democracy permits all eligible citizens to cast an equally weighted vote. It also allows united groups of voters to elect one or more of their candidates to a governing body.
The first-past-the-post (hereinafter FPTP) system is also known as the simple majority system. Herein, the entire country is divided into small geographical units called constituencies. Each constituency elects a representative. A candidate who obtains more votes than other candidates is proclaimed as the winner in a multi-cornered contest. It is not necessary for the winning candidate to get a majority (50%+1 of the votes).
The FPTP system accounts for terms like “relative majority”, and “plurality formula”. The plurality formula makes an election a contest in which the winner is to outscore the best of the opposition. This, of course, introduces an element of “chance”, since the number of votes required to win cannot be predicted from the formula and the vote total alone.
A party may obtain more legislative seats than electoral votes in the FPTP system. If every other contender secured just one vote then a candidate could theoretically win the election with two votes. Alterations to this rule transform the system into the Block Vote, the Two-Round System, or the Single Non-Transferable Vote. India conducts direct elections for the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies using the FPTP voting system. This can even result in the election of a candidate who received a minority of the votes (less than 50% of the total votes cast). At the national level, it causes an imbalance between the number of seats gained by political parties and the percentage of votes won. In the history of general elections in independent India, these two have never been matched. Analysing all general elections from 1952 to 2019, no government at the centre had crossed the 50% mark to claim the absolute majority of the voters as well as gather popular support. Other countries that follow the FPTP system include UK, Canada, etc.
FPTP: OPERATION AND CRITIQUE
Compared to other voting systems, such as the Proportional Representation (hereinafter PR) method, FPTP is significantly less byzantine. In a PR system, the number of seats won is proportional to the number of votes received. India elects its president and vice president using the PR system. The FPTP system is simpler to conduct, use and comprehend, particularly in a diverse and highly populated nation like India. This system offers the voters a candidate-centred approach by giving them a choice to select between parties as well as specific candidates. Therefore, the elected representatives are held accountable for their actions. The FPTP method aids in the smooth operation of the parliamentary system by making it simpler to create a stable government. With the FPTP method, voters from various social groups are invigorated to come together to contest a local election.
However, the FPTP System has some drawbacks too. It is not truly representative, as a candidate who gets less than half the votes can also win the election. For instance: In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP won 336 seats with only 38.5% of the popular vote. A majority of Indian voters live with a feeling that they are not represented in the parliament. This electoral system does not make an endeavour to ensure that women, marginalized groups, and socially and politically backward groups are adequately represented in the legislature. This lamentably affects the quality of representation in Indian democracy.
Smaller parties have a lesser chance of winning in the FPTP system and they are compelled to support the objectives of larger parties. Thus, municipal self-government and federalism take a backseat. However, an important feature of India’s party system is that, despite the country’s FPTP system, it has enabled new and smaller parties to participate in elections due to formation of coalitions. Though this method typically produces a two-party system, but India’s FPTP experience is a little disparate. Following India’s independence, a single party came to dominate, but after 1989, multi-party coalitions began to operate in India.
THE INDIAN EXPERIENCE
In the first general elections of 1952, 1957, and 1962 the Congress party had bagged 75% of seats each in Lok Sabha with 45%, 48%, and 45% of votes respectively. In 1967 and 1971 the Congress won 54% and 68% of total seats with a vote share of 40% and 44% respectively. This happened again in 1977 when the Janata Party won 55% of the seats with only 43% of the vote share. In 1980, when the Congress party regained control, it received 43% of the votes but won 67% of the seats. Even though the Congress party received only 48% of the ballots in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, it still managed to secure 415 of the 543 seats, thereby bringing it to power. In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party won 336 seats with only 38.5% of the popular vote. In 2019, BJP won 303 seats with only 37.6% vote share and formed the government.
This suggests that all of India’s winning political parties have, till date, received a larger proportion of seats than votes. These facts have been played up by some critics of the new government, who have argued that despite the numbers in the Lok Sabha, this government does not represent the majority of Indians. At the same time, many parties which have recorded substantial vote shares have won few or no seats, thus questions have been raised about the FPTP system of Indian elections and calls for proportional representation. The Indian Law Commission had advised the Centre to revamp the election system by combining FPTP with PR in its 170th Report in 1999. Yet, one should be aware that PR is not a panacea for every problem plaguing our election system. It has its own bunch of drawbacks, such as unstable regimes, representation for radical organisations and other logistic and computation challenges. A PR method, according to some experts, would make decision-making a sluggish process.
Most nations in the globe have PR voting systems, which means that if a party receives 50% of the vote, they will receive 50% of the seats in parliament. However, since India has over 800 million electors, the FPTP system has thus been adopted.
Even Dr. B.R. Ambedkar concurred with the argument against PR stating that it threatens political stability and puts the representation of the nation’s oppressed classes and minorities in jeopardy. He thought that a system with reservations would better protect the interests of minorities, which would in turn protect the interests of minorities and the oppressed class. Both of India’s potential electoral systems (FPTP and PR system) have advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, FPTP is more stable, and on the other hand, PR is potentially more representative. From studying the experiences of other nations, it can be concluded that a hybrid design should be adopted, combining aspects of both direct and indirect elections. The PR system was taken into consideration while drafting the Indian constitution, but the FPTP system was ultimately adopted in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies to prevent fragmented legislatures and to make the formation of stable governments easier.
India’s party system has evolved from a single party system to a regionalised, federalised multiparty system that well represents the social, regional, linguistic and ideological cleavages in India’s society. This has been made possible by the FPTP system which has allowed political forces moored to smaller regions and sub-regions to win seats in those areas by defeating the incumbent heavyweight. This ability of regional parties to defeat the previously dominant party in a particular region is an important positive feature of the FPTP as weaker voices have to be accommodated by the larger national parties. The need for a PR system is justified only if there is a systemic anomaly that prevents smaller parties from winning seats.
The skewed seat share in the present Lok Sabha does alert us to the problems with the FPTP system but does not seem to be a strong enough argument to switch to a PR system. If some parties have been rendered weak in elections, this has more to do with their politics, government record and inability to stop a fall in vote share and less to do with the vagaries of the FPTP system. There is no one objectively “best” system. Thus, a country like India has adopted both FPTP as well as the PR system as a voting method for different electoral posts.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.