51% = legitimacy

With the elections around the corner, the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) election system used in India is being blamed for most of the ills in the Indian political system. This post is the outcome of some of the discussions and conversations that Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute and I have been having regarding the FPTP system.

Briefly, the FPTP system is based on the principle of  “winner-takes-it-all” i.e., the candidate who gets majority of the votes is declared victorious. One of the most common criticisms made against the FPTP system is that candidates win by very narrow margins.  It has been suggested that candidates must get at least 51% of the votes in order for their victory to be deemed as legitimate. It is interesting to note that so far in the history of elections in India, not a single candidate has been dismantled or at least challenged on the grounds that s/he won by 20% of the votes in  the constituency. Therefore, is the criticism misplaced?

Both Barun and I want to suggest that narrow victory margins are in fact the strength of the Indian electoral system. This is because:

Typically, only 50% of the population in the constituency votes in any election. If the victorious candidate has won by 20% of the votes, he has actually received 40% of the votes (given that only 50% of the people are voting).

  1. The narrow victory margins keep the threshold of entry naturally low. This encourages aspirants to enter the electoral fray. If candidates won by 51% of the total votes, it would mean that political parties would have to field heavyweights and stalwarts and it would also discourage novices and independents from contesting the elections.
  2. The narrow victory margins intensifies political competition and keeps candidates and parties on their toes. New aspirants can cut into the vote bases of popular candidates and parties. Moreover, the narrow margins makes it imperative for candidates and parties to attract voters from various backgrounds and widen their appeal instead of confining themselves to gathering votes on the basis of identity and particularistic appeals.

4 thoughts on “51% = legitimacy”

  1. Pingback: 51% = legitimacy
  2. I am not aware of “narrow victory margins” being a problem with the first-past-the-post system. Rather, concerns are that (i) with a fragmented polity and multiple parties, one can get elected with a very small percentage of the votes, and (ii) some sections of the population may have no representation at all. The first-past-the-post system is also liable to manipulation via gerrymandering where constituencies are drawn to deliberately favour one or the other party.

    With regard to (ii), I might note that this is a problem even in other systems with FFTP. In the US, a fairly famous case Shaw v. Hunt centred on this issue. Concerned with the low level of Black representation, North Carolina proceeded to create a new constituency by deliberately redrawing the electoral map so that it had a Black majority. This type of electoral gerrymandering was challenged and the US supreme court shot it down (albeit only with a 5-4 majority) ruling that race could not be a criterion for redrawing electoral maps. (Note, by the way, that Muslims are around 13.4% of the Indian population but the proportion is around 6.7% in the current Lok Sabha. I am sure other minorities are even more under-represented.)

    In general, there is no “perfect” voting system. Hence, pointing to the deficiencies of the FFTP doesn’t get us very far. If someone has another system, then we can discuss the pros and cons of that system vis-a-vis FFTP and see which is better on the whole for our situation. (Those pointing to the virtues of something like proportional representation forget that it has defects too.)

    My personal preference: Leave the FFTP system alone for the time being. Among the advantages it confers is simplicity which is important in a society like ours where illiteracy is still huge. We could possibly think of a superior system to the FFTP but it is almost surely going to be more complicated and I think the added complexity will outweigh any other advantages.

  3. One of the reasons for writing this post was to point out that for the Indian conditions, FPTP is much better suited. PR leads to fragmentation of the polity along very base identity lines. The presence of multiple parties and candidates is in fact a good thing because it increases political competition and prevents parties and candidates from becoming complacent about their “vote banks”. Regarding illiterate masses, they surely do know who to vote for – after all, there is much more at stake for them than for you and me.

  4. 1. Fragmentation of the polity along identity lines – well, it’s just a reality of our polity. Any voting system is bound to reflect that reality. It’s already a reality under our FPTP, so why is PR going to be any worse? However, one of the possible advantages of PR is that it will provide a greater say in policy making to small groups. Note that our constitution does recognize that under FPTP, small groups may get no representation at all. It was exactly this argument that Frank Anthony used in the Constituent Assembly to get two *nominated* members for the Anglo-Indian community in the Lok Sabha – something which persists to this day even though most of the community has migrated abroad.

    2. Multiple parties is not particular to FPTP. Germany has lots of political parties – six major ones along with 22 minor ones according to Wikipedia and it uses PR. Even better, check out the list of Israeli political parties. Political competition again is not particular to FPTP. To see this in PR, note the rise of the Greens in Germany, a party which came into existence only in the 1980s. On the other hand, to see complacency in FPTP, well, don’t you think that’s happening to an extent with a party like the BSP? I may be wrong but it looks to me that the party is taking its Dalit core for granted.

    3. You’re right about illiterate voters; of course, they are not ignorant. What I should have is said is that we should not change our current system to another, possibly more complicated one, unless there is a clear advantage from doing so. It is not clear to me that any of the proposed alternatives are overwhelmingly superior: they may be superior in some dimensions, but not in others. Hence, I would agree with your conclusion – that we should stick to FPTP for the time being.

    4. One interesting tweak on FPTP is “Approval Voting” where voters for as many as candidates as they like, the winner being the one who receives the most votes. Check the Wikipedia page on Approval Voting. If we are to change the FPTP, I would most likely advocate changing it to Approval voting rather than go for something like PR.

    Apologies for the length of the comment.

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