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Games Statisticians Play With Figures
|by H.N. Bali|
That Was a Poll That Was - Part II
Continued from “ End of a Dishonest Decade”
“Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge.” These wise words of Lao Tzu, the 6th Century BC Chinese poet explain what made me to hazard a guess that awkwardly proved right. And in the bargain, I emerged to be an amateur psephologist. But that’s the beginning of my troubles. Now, I’m called upon to explain why and how did the party that won minority of popular vote, is the winner. This, actually, has been happening all through the last six decades. No body minded it because the winner was Congress. This time, however, the benefit goes to BJP, and hence, the demand for an explanation.
Winner with 31 % Vote Share
An interesting – actually, intriguing - fine print in the 2014 election statistics reveals that the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party was the first to have ever reached the halfway mark of seats in Parliament with only 31 percent of the votes. Modi, thus, has led his party to the biggest victory with the smallest vote share of a single-party government. (The previous lowest vote share for a party that achieved a simple, single-party majority in the Lok Sabaha was for the Congress in 1967, when the party won 283 out of 520 LS seats, with a vote share of 40.8 percent.)
In an election of many an extreme – for example, the highest voter turnout ever and the most expensive election so far that has been widely described as one of the most polarized - this low-to-middling percentage of the vote share won by the BJP brings to the forefront several new aspects of how India really voted.
Added to the Congress’s dismal and lowest ever vote share of 19.3 percent, the BJP and Congress have together won only about 51 percent of the votes polled. So, nearly half of the record-breaking turnout of voters opted for neither national party i.e., BJP or Congress. And therein lies the much-debated rub. It means 49 percent of the vote was thoroughly splintered, giving the BJP its highest ever tally and a simple majority entirely on its own without the support of its election allies.
So, after the 1991 PV Narasimha Rao Government - a minority government with outside support in which the Congress had won just 38.2 percent of the vote share – Modi’s will be a government with the “lowest popular support in terms of vote share”, unless of course the BJP leader reaches out and invites other allies to participate in the government, which he is very likely to do.
According to the Election Commission of India website, the BSP won 4.1 percent, the Trinamool Congress won 3.8 percent, Samajwadi Party (though it has only five MPs) won 3.4 percent and the AIADMK won 3.3 percent. This establishes how fractured is the voting pattern of the 2014 poll, even if there is, fortunately, a clear mandate.
Our intellectual class has shown profound dismay with the present electoral system which hasn’t this time worked to their advantage. It was deemed to be excellent till it worked in their favor. Hence, the spotlight on its inherent defects.
The current system is based on the-first-past-the-winning-post takes all. This is popularly called the FPWP and has been adopted or adapted like most of our institutions from their existing British counterparts.
Every electoral system has its pluses and minuses. Take two alternatives.
The German democratic system originally framed in 1949 by the war-time Allies overseeing the country’s transition to a Western-style democracy, provides for two houses of parliament.
The German parliament’s lower chamber called Bundestag has at least 598 members. Under Germany’s mixed proportional and direct electoral system, 299 members are directly elected in their districts and the other 299 members enter parliament via party lists through proportional representation.
Under Germany’s proportional representation system a party that wins at least 5 percent of the vote gets seats in the Bundestag - even if it fails to win any directly contested seats. This aspect of the German political system was put in place to give representation to smaller parties and has been crucial for the pro-business Free Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party, all of which emerged as heirs to the East German communists.
Unlike our FPWP system, all Germans cast on election day two separate votes. The first vote is for a representative for their constituency. Whoever receives the most votes in each constituency wins a seat in the Bundestag. Half of the Bundestag’s roughly 598 members are elected in this way.
The second vote is for a political party. This vote decides the level of representation each party will have in the Bundestag. To give a simplified example, let’s say the Green Party wins 15 percent of the second vote. It’s thus entitled to 15 percent of seats in the Bundestag, or about 90 MPs. In reality, this calculation is slightly more complex.
If the Green Party already won, say, 40 constituencies in the first vote, then the party would be entitled to send an additional 50 MPs to the Bundestag. These MPs are chosen based on lists of candidates drawn up at the state level. The other half of the Bundestag members is elected from these party lists.
Sometimes, a party may win more seats at the constituency level than it is entitled to based on the proportion of the second vote they received. In this case, the party will keep these extra seats. As a result of these so-called “overhang mandates”, the Bundestag often has more than 598 members.
As you’ll see from the above simplified outline the German parliamentary system is indeed fairly complex. The logic behind what political scientists call a “mixed member proportional system” such as Germany’s, is to fulfill two goals: first, to ensure that Germans throughout the country have someone representing the interests of their local district (hence the first vote); while simultaneously, ensuring that each party is represented in the Bundestag in proportion to its overall support nationwide: hence, the second vote.
The voters, however, don’t get to elect members of Germany’s upper house of parliament, called the Bundesrat. The upper house consists of delegations sent by the governments of Germany’s 16 constituent states.
Perhaps, the most original feature of the French Fifth Republic is the use of a two-round electoral system for both presidential and legislative elections. The system is not exactly the same in the two cases. For presidential elections only the top two candidates are allowed to run on the second ballot while in legislative elections one needs the support of at least 12.5 per cent of registered electors in the first ballot in order to be eligible for the second. But the basic rule in both elections is that it takes an absolute majority to be elected on the first ballot and that a second ballot takes place if that condition is not satisfied.
In fact, France is the only established democracy with two rounds for the election of the lower house.
The French voting system is a single-member majoritarian system in two rounds. A candidate is elected in the first round if he/she obtains an absolute majority of the total votes cast, provided this amount is equal to a quarter of registered voters in a given constituency.
Protest vote and abstention are somewhat taken into account: to be elected in the first ballot, a candidate must receive the absolute majority of the votes cast and a number of votes equal to a quarter of the number of registered voters.
To be a candidate at the second round, one must have been a candidate in the first round and obtained a number of votes equal to 12.5% of the registered voters.
At the second ballot, a relative majority of cast votes is enough to get elected.
There are two stages to elect the French President. First is more like a primary where all candidates compete and then the top two candidates stay in the race while others get out. The next stage is set to choose one of the two remaining in the race to be president.
Advantages of FPWP
Back to our own First Past the Winning Post system. Like other plurality/majority electoral systems, it is defended primarily on the grounds of its simplicity and its tendency to produce winners who are representatives beholden to defined geographic areas and governability.
Among the most often cited advantages are that it provides a clear-cut choice for voters between two main parties. This inbuilt advantage in many cases leads the party system to gravitate towards a party of the ‘left’ and a party of the ‘right’, alternating in power. Third parties often wither away and almost never reach a level of popular support above which their national vote yields a comparable percentage of seats in the legislature.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it gives rise to single-party governments. The ‘seat bonuses’ for the largest party common under FPWP (e.g. where one party wins 45 per cent of the national vote but 55 per cent of the seats) mean that coalition governments are the exception rather than the rule. This state of affairs is praised for providing cabinets which are not shackled by the restraints of having to bargain with a minority coalition partner.
Disadvantages of FPWP
However, FPWP is frequently criticized for a number of reasons. These include:
First, it excludes smaller parties from ‘fair’ representation, in the sense that a party which wins approximately, say, 10 per cent of the votes should win approximately 10 per cent of the legislative seats. That doesn’t happen. For instance, in 1993, in federal election in Canada, for example, the Progressive Conservatives won 16 per cent of the votes but only 0.7 per cent of the seats. This pattern tends to be repeated time and again under FPWP. This is exactly what has happened in our own elections.
Secondly, it excludes minorities from fair representation. As a rule, under FPWP, parties put up the most broadly acceptable candidate in a particular district so as to avoid alienating the majority of electors.
Ironies of the System
In fact whichever system we adopt we have to live with its imperfections. Remember the famous lines of Alexander Pope:
Maurice Duverger, the 97-year old French sociologist and political scientist, now settled in Bordeaux — famous for its red wine and its life-enhancing properties - is generally regarded as an international authority on study of political parties. While at Princeton, he authored in 1951 his monumental study, The Political Parties. In it, he analyzed in detail the evolution of political systems in the Western democracies and the institutions that operate in diverse countries, showing a preference for empirical methods of investigation rather than philosophical reasoning.
He devised a theory which became known as Duverger’s law, which identifies a correlation between a first-past-the-post election system and the formation of a two-party system. While analyzing the political system of France, he coined the term semi-presidential system.
All that is for specialists. Let’s learn to live with the following ground realities:
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