Should India adopt the proportional representation system in Parliament?

Should India adopt the proportional representation system in Parliament?

October 30, 2013

As the debate on electoral reforms gathers momentum, many political analysts are upping the ante against the “First past the post” system of conducting elections to both the state and the central legislature. They argue that the system in place since Independence should be replaced by the PR (proportional representation) system, which is widespread throughout Europe and adopted by 57 out of 150 countries worldwide.

Given the fact that even the 170th Law Commission Report discussed this idea, it would be gain worthy for us to analyse, if indeed the PR system presents itself as a more efficacious and virtuous system on the counts of infusing greater representational character, fairness and political stability into our admittedly fractured, opaque and disconnected political system.

The FPTP system , prevalent in 43 countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, India, the United States, and many Commonwealth states , is more like a winner-takes-all arrangement, where a candidate wins the constituency , even if he secures just one vote more than his other rival(s). It isn't necessary that the winner should have secured a majority of the votes cast.

What is the Proportional Representation System

The PR system recommends allocation of seats in proportion to the votes secured by a party. So, if party X secured 20% vote and party Y got 46% of the total popular vote, they would be entitled to 20 and 46 seats respectively in a house of 100. So the PR system, in one way can ensure that every vote counts. But does that mean the PR system is more representative in character than the FPTP system?

Some countries which have adopted the PR system put a condition to the effect that a party must secure at least 5% of the national vote to be eligible for a seat in the legislature. This “cut-off” however, is an arbitrary benchmark and varies from one country to another.

In the Indian general elections held in 1999, 2004, and 2009, the percentage of winning candidates securing less than 50% of the vote was 60.03, 75.87 and 82.68 % respectively. Increasingly, the trend reflects that a major chunk of winning candidates may be victors but not necessarily representatives of the overall mood of the constituency they are elected from.

How has the FPTP system failed to deliver?

A question arises next – does the FPTP system truly reflect the composition of an electorate? Well, honestly it doesn’t. Let us take an example. Every electorate has women and religious minorities; are they represented in proportion to their population in the law-making bodies? To date not even one election managed to ensure that even 20% of the seats in the House consist of women although they comprise almost 48% of the population. In fact, women are grossly under-represented and currently their membership hovers at 10.7% of the 15th Lok Sabha.

Can the PR system bring about a change?

The answer partially lies in the findings of Pippa Norris from Harvard University.

The study says "One central virtue of proportional systems is the claim that they are more likely to produce a parliament, which reflects the composition of the electorate. The main reason is that parties may have an incentive to produce a 'balanced' ticket to maximize their support where they have to present a party list, whereas in contrast there is no such incentive where candidates are selected for single-member districts. (i.e. where FPTP system is practiced). Moreover measures of affirmative action within party recruitment processes can be implemented more easily in systems with party lists."

The study further says "Based on the proportion of women in the lower house in the mid-nineties the results confirm that women are better represented in proportional systems. Women were 7.3 percent of MPs in majoritarian systems and 17.2 percent of members in PR systems. Of course again the pattern was not linear and more women were elected in some majoritarian systems like Canada than in other countries like Israel using highly proportional systems."

How would the Lok Sabha look if PR system was in place in India?

Why the FPTP System suits India

Ever since the 1990s, with the emergence of a competitive multi-party system in India, not only has the number of state based parties in the Lok Sabha increased, their share in the number of seats has also gone up. If in 1989, the number of Lok Sabha members who did not hail from the national parties stood at 46, it has risen to 174 in 2004 and 158 in 2009.
Since the 1990s, smaller state based parties have used the FPTP electoral system to register a significant presence at the national level. The reasons for the same are seen in the nature and structure of the electoral contest in India. The FPTP system has allowed the dynamics of political competition at the state level to be successfully mirrored at the national level.

The states of India have emerged as the true 'centre' of politics as is clearly evidenced from the bi-polar alliance system that exists in most of the Indian states in a Lok Sabha election. The political trends of the last two decades indicate that the FPTP system has allowed the electoral outcomes to mirror ground reality. The present FPTP system has allowed for the multi-track diversity in the political/electoral system to find a legitimate expression which other alternatives may not so effectively achieve.

Parting Thought

It is an election year. Indian democracy is undoubtedly vibrant. But, like all democracies, it not without flaws. Democracy is the best system of governance and there can be no substitute for this. Ultimately, the voice of the electorate gets reflected in the results.

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Comments (2)
Sumit Reply
October 30, 2013
A lot of concepts explained. This is a good primer before the general election.
Sumitava Reply
October 30, 2013
This gives a nice comparison of first-past-the-post versus proportional representation.
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