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Proportional representation – the answer to India’s problems

October 12, 2012

A lot of people rightly blame India’s major problems on bad politics but why is politics bad in India despite 65 years of independence and democracy?

I blame it on India’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system that elects its MLAs and Lok Sabha MPs. Its one of the worst electoral systems and a Proportional representation (PR) system can substantially improve our politics and overall well-being over time! Let me explain:

How does PR work?

PR has many variations and I like the closed party list single district PR system.

Lets consider Lok Sabha elections – Every party that contests elections will pre-declare its ranked list of candidates. The whole of India will be one single constituency and every voter across the country will vote for any one party (not a party member) or an independent candidate.

  • If Congress wins 20% of the votes across India, it will get ~20% i.e. ~108 out of 543 seats in Lok Sabha. The top 108 names from Congress’ list will become the Congress MPs in Lok Sabha
  • If a small party wins ~ 0.36% of overall votes, then the first two MPs on its declared list will go to Lok Sabha.
  • An independent needs to win 0.18% (1 / 543) of the total votes across India (actually, lower than that will also do since he might get the benefit of rounding up). For this, he can woo either voters of a particular locality or particular ideology/profession/ caste/religion or any other interest group or any combination of these.

Similarly, in State assembly elections, every voter will vote for 1 party, not a party member.

Why PR?

Duverger’s law: FPTP’s high entry barriers always lead to an uncompetitive 2 party system! (Indian parliament has so many parties only because the smaller parties are among the top 2 parties in their state/region)

Politicians/political parties supply governance services and we consume these services. High entry barriers limit the no. of suppliers and, more importantly, prevent competition and creative destruction i.e. displacement of old suppliers by new suppliers. Result? Poor service and high price for the consumers.

PR breaks this cartel by lowering entry barriers.

How does PR lower entry barriers / help?

PR reduces the role of money, muscle and votebanks in elections !!

FPTP is a ‘winner-takes-all’ system. Suppose each of the top 2 or 3 candidates in a constituency expect ~20-25% of the vote and want ~5-10% more votes to ensure victory. They (and their parties) will do whatever it takes (money, muscle, divide and rule identity politics, booth capturing, etc.) to get the 5-10% ‘swing’ vote since that is the difference between winning (100% power) and losing (0% power).

PR drastically reduces the value of the marginal or the ‘swing’ vote. A vote-share move from 25% to 30% moves the seat share just by 5%. This is very fair and also makes it unprofitable/meaningless to do ‘whatever it takes’ particularly since only some people fall for these tactics.

To get absolute power, a party needs 40-50% vote share across the nation. Even under FPTP, Congress gets less than 30% votes. Since PR eliminates tactical voting (see below), parties like Congress and BJP might just get 15-25% unless they improve. They will not get the kind of massive funding they get now since their ability to provide a good ‘return’ on this funding will be limited.

PR drastically reduces tactical voting and increases voter turnout by eliminating wasted votes

‘Good’ or ‘clean’ or ‘professional’ candidates/parties fail bitterly and routinely complain that people either don’t care to vote or vote for the big parties (for money/liquor, etc.). While these factors are true for a section of the voters, there is a good chunk of voters who don’t vote since they know that that these new ‘clean’ guys have little chance of being the 1st in the constituency. Even those who vote, tactically vote for the ‘lesser evil’ among the 2 main parties to ward off the ‘bigger evil’. eg: Majority of Muslims are believed to vote for Congress. While some may actually like Congress, a substantial no. actually do so to keep the BJP away.

PR allows people to simply vote for a ‘good’ party/candidate without worrying about how many others will vote for them or which party will come 1st or 2nd. eg: If a particular Muslim is wary of a ‘communal’ BJP, then instead of voting for ‘corrupt’ Congress, he can vote for a small party that is neither communal nor corrupt (if he believes that this small party will oppose BJP’s communal agenda and protect Muslims, when needed).

PR significantly lowers the electoral threshold

FPTP has very high electoral threshold for new parties and people –  win 35-40% votes in a geographical constituency. Winning 35% requires much higher support since many of your supporters won’t vote or will vote tactically (see above).  Under PR, the threshold is 0.13 – 0.18% votes across India.

Under FPTP, even when a third party succeeds, as we’ve seen in some Indian states, the quality of governance doesn’t change since the new party, to get the high funding and to meet the high electoral threshold, has to substantially compromise its ethics on its way up. Once there, to ‘payback ‘their financiers, they join the cartel. In the immortal words of the Joker in The Dark KnightWe become the evil we fight!

PR allows new people/parties to compete with and gradually replace the old without becoming like them. This keeps the existing parties on their toes and forces them to behave.

PR encourages inner-party democracy

FPTP  forces ‘good’ candidates/leaders to stick to big parties (and toe the party high-command line) since many people do not vote for independents/ new/ small parties.

Under PR, party high-commands remain important but competition makes them accountable since it is easier both for voters and leaders to dump bad parties. To retain power, parties will have to democratize, promote popular leaders and govern well. Opposition parties will have to support good policies to remain relevant.

(In either systems, we should abolish the anti-defection law that centralizes power)

PR will reduce regionalism. FPTP encourages the Thackerays to badmouth the North Indians!

Under FPTP, a new party with 8-10% popular support might get only 2-3% votes (as people avoid ‘wasting’ their vote on likely losers) and 0% seats UNLESS their supporters are concentrated in one region. Any wonder all new parties in India are regional?

PR allows parties to campaign on broader issues. People can vote on any lines they prefer – anti-corruption or decentralization or libertarianism, etc., …even on region or religion or caste. PR just levels the playing field.


Other PR benefits

  • PR reduces the need for women or SC/ST quota/reservation by giving them better representation. eg:  Sweden’s surge in women’s representation in 1994 followed a threat by major women’s leaders to form a new women’s party if more women weren’t nominated — a threat only credible because of PR. In Germany, in 1994 women won 39 percent of national seats elected by PR, but only 13 percent of FPTP based district elections
  • MAY not need voter registration…any person with any proof of residency in India (or the concerned state) can vote at any polling station (ink mark will prevent double voting)!! Higher voter turnout!
  • Eliminates pre-poll alliances and other tactical considerations allowing parties to focus on winning votes
  • Every vote has equal value. In FPTP, a voter in a constituency with higher population has lesser power to influence the outcome
  • In FPTP, approx 60-65% votes in every constituency go to losing candidates and are ‘wasted’. In PR, almost every vote counts encouraging more people to vote. Its also democratic in the sense that a party with X% votes gets approx. X% seats.
  • Eliminates gerrymandering i.e. manipulating constituency boundaries to favor a political party
  • Lack of  formal allocation of constituency to MP gives one more reason to abolish the non-sensical MP/MLA funds


Common arguments against PR and their rebuttal:

Lack of one-to-one MP-constituency link removes direct accountability:

This is a major concern for many people. In my view, while a MP is not assigned a particular geographical area, he has to be accountable to the people who voted for him (or his party) as long as the voters have enough choice to switch parties (which is the essence of PR). Under FPTP, since the big parties are hard to dislodge, MPs are loyal more to their parties. They can continue winning in their constituency as long as the party and a section of the voters in that constituency like them.

Also, in PR, the voters of an area can still vote for and elect someone from their area as an independent MP. They can also vote for a party that does good work in their area or has fielded candidates from that area. These MPs/parties will obviously know where they get their support from and will have to serve them.

Finally, if people still insist on a MP-voter constituency link, then mixed member PR is a good option. Its my second preference (it’s a somewhat complicated system).

Coalitions slow legislative and executive activity:

Firstly, PR doesn’t necessarily mean more coalitions/fragmentation. It means better chances for new parties to replace bad ones. Secondly, activity is different from progress. Many people, including me, prefer limited government and strongly believe that majority of the legislative and executive activity since Independence has actually harmed India. Finally, legislative and executive activity suffers only if big parties co-operate neither with each other nor with smaller parties. This happens even today since one party rarely achieves a majority. The only key difference under PR is that lower entry barriers and more competition will force all parties to behave responsibly.

Further, irrespective of the electoral system, good Lok Sabha functioning needs Parliamentary reforms. eg:

  1. MPs should select the most acceptable PM using preferential voting (Condorcet winner or IRV method) instead of the top parties first competing for the (generally biased) President’s invitation and then trying to convince a majority of MPs.
  2. To ensure stability of govt. and continuity of parliament, a PM once chosen should stay for 5 years unless >50/55% of MPs agree on another guy. Just agreeing to remove the current PM should not be enough. This single step will ensure stability.
  3. Every party should fully control parliament time in proportion to its strength in the houses instead of continuously fighting for what matter to discuss under what rule. BJP can discuss and ask for voting on ANY issue in its allocated time but if they disrupt time allocated to Congress, then Congress can take the help of security to require shouting members to leave. In Parliament, MPs should discuss and vote. To protest, they should go to the people.
  4. If we indeed want SPEEDY legislative and/or executive action i.e. a decisive governmentthen simply give the PM ~5% extra votes in Parliament instead of just 1 vote.

PR makes parties too powerful (since the party determines candidate ranking on their list) and PR makes parties too weak (by encouraging party fragmentation)

Both can’t be true and I believe the reality is somewhere in between: PR, via more competition, makes parties accountable. In other words, good parties will gradually strengthen and bad parties will weaken.


Which parties support PR in India

The Left parties (not a good sign!) and JP Narayan of Loksatta party (considered as one of the most honest and able politicians in India) have long been advocates of PR system.

How to get PR

  • PR needs Parliament / CG approval (likely doesn’t need constitutional amendment).  Parliament should allow 1 or 2 states to use PR or allow all States to experiment. May the best of the many systems win!
  • Congress, BJP resistance to PR, particularly at the State level, will decrease as they lose Top 2 positions in more (big) states. Already so in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, UP, Bengal, etc.. FPTP is kind only to the biggies.
  • PR is gaining ground globally. We can verify some of above claims by looking at global experience. Slightly difficult since many other factors at play. eg: US prospered despite FPTP because of its sexy Constitution limiting govt power and protecting individual rights. US is now weakening and will struggle since, over the years, politicians and judges have diluted the Constitution. Also, politicians often defeat the very purpose of PR by having various customization like high electoral thresholds (i.e. allotting seats only to parties with more than, say, 5%, of the total votes), giving extra seats to the largest party like Greece does, etc.. This forces people to shun new/small parties 😦

Let me end this long post with this very instructive quote ostensibly from Encyclopaedia Britannica: “The case for PR is fundamentally the same as that for representative democracy.  Only if an assembly represents the full diversity of opinion within a nation can its decisions be regarded as the decisions of the nation itself.”

Other readings on PR:

  1. that day when u mentioned it on the phone the idea did made a lot of sense….but now reading it justify a lot more ….specially the part where the votes are wasted…..thats one of the bigger things as acording to your system the wastage will come down in the range of 5-10% n definitely we can expect a voting of 75% n above……

    • yes brother, wrong to blame the voters for not using their ‘powerful’ vote…we should focus on increasing the power of the vote so that more people want to use it..

  2. The big problem with PR is that extremist parties will also find it easier to get into parliament. Like golden dawn in Greece for example.

    • Golden dawn gets around 7% vote in Greek elections. So, atleast 7% of Greeks are ‘extremists’. Is there any problem created by this party having 7% parliament seats? I don’t think so…all their ‘extreme’ proposals will fail unless they make them acceptable to a wider group. Also, ‘extremism’ is not necessarily bad…in India, a politician who strongly favours capitalism or is a libertarian will likely be termed an extremist just because he is in a minority.

      Now, consider what happens in FPTP. If these extremists are spread throughout the country, they will not have any representation in Parliament and will feel totally left out. Increases the risk of going astray.

      If they form an association and are perceived to vote as a bloc or if they are concentrated in 1 or 2 States, then all ‘mainstream’ parties will do whatever it takes to please them. They will have disproportionate say in Parliament and everything else.

      Best way to deal with people who disagree with you is to treat them as equals. Neither less nor more. Over time, both sides learn from each other and become one.

      By the way, Greece is in such a bad shape despite PR because they give 50 extra seats to the largest party (total seats are 250 + 50 = 300) defeating the very purpose of PR and making it a dictatorship of the largest party!

  3. Shailesh: I do not agree with PR system. In fact it will produce more harm than good. I concur with what Sanjeev Sabhlok has summarized about PR system:

    • Thank you Munish. Do let me know which specific points you like about FPTP vs PR.

      I have had piecemeal unproductive discussions with Sanjeev on this topic. Sanjeev has refused my numerous requests for a focussed 15 min discussion.

      Anyways, Sanjeev’s argument seems to be that dictatorship is better than democracy as long as we have the opportunity to change dictators every 5 years. I completely disagree with that and am a believer in democracy (India struggles because we have very little democracy).

      Further, our current system doesn’t even give us a proper choice among dictators. Every 5 years, we just have 2 dictators to choose from and this choice remains the same for decades.

      I am convinced a good PR system can single-handedly reform India. South Africa became a democracy just 15 years ago but they chose a good PR system. The world will see the difference in the next couple of decades.

  4. May i know why India adopted FPTP in first place? there must be some reason

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