Westminster may give up on First Past the Post

Britain has taken the first step to move away from the First Past the Post System (FPP) with the Prime Minister promising to initiate legislation giving the people the right to switch to an ‘alternative vote’ (AV) system in a referendum. Under an AV system, voters are asked to rank candidates by preference rather than putting a cross by a single name. It ensures that the winner has the support of a majority of the electorate. The Tory party, which benefits the most from the FPP system predictably opposed the move, while the smaller parties like Liberal Democrats want a fully proportional representation system (PR), which tends to be more conducive to smaller parties.

I am not a psephologist, and don’t know what figures will say about India. But one would expect the Congress Party, with a relatively diffused rather than concentrated vote base, to do much better in an AV system or a PR system, compared with the FPP system. Further, as we saw in the last UP elections, FPP can sometimes allow smaller parties like the BSP to form governments in a multi-cornered contests. But for a stable say in politics, PR should favour smaller parties (although it will rarely allow them to form governments). Does anyone know of interesting empirical studies in the Indian context?

Whatever be the party-political impact of electoral reform, what is clear is that FPP, by allowing someone who has as little as 25% of the votes to get elected, is not a very representative system. A voter does not know whether her vote will affect the final outcome, and is therefore encouraged to vote tactically – here, she acts not only the basis of her own choices but also on the basis of what she expects to be the likely choices of others. A voter who prefers candidate A, but really dislikes candidate B, may yet be tempted to vote for candidate C (who is more likely than A to defeat B). We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that exit and opinion poll information is so valuable to voters – the FPP system requires such information on the part of the voter if she is to ensure that her vote is effective rather than ineffectual.

What alternative system we should choose will depend on what we envisage the role of an MP to be. If we see them only as policy-makers/legislators, then a PR system is perhaps the best one. On the other hand, if we see them as performing a dual role of policy-makers and as constituency leaders (as our constitution does), we have to consider alternatives like the AV system which retain the constituency-nurturing function of an MP. The AV system may not do away with the need for tactical voting entire, but should certainly reduce the incentive to do so significantly. At least no voter will feel that their vote did not count in the election, and the winner will have the support of a majority of the electorate. It may also result in a less antagonistic political process, which accommodates loyalty to multiple parties.

Incidentally, Article 80(4) Constitution specifically mentions that Rajya Sabha MPs should be elected by the proportional system. Article 81(1)(a), on the other hand, provides for election of Lok Sabha MPs through ‘direct election from territorial constituencies’. While this appears to rule out any list-based PR system, both the FPP and the AV systems satisfy the requirement of ‘direct election from territorial constituencies’. This is why I fail to see the basis of Raju Ramachandran’s claim that:
the basic structure doctrine prevents us from switching over to a better system. It is not just the Westminster model, but also the “first past the post system” which are the results of conscious and informed choices made by the Founding Fathers after considering other alternatives.

If my reading of Article 81 (admittedly, I have not looked at the jurisprudence that may have developed around it) is correct, FPP is not even part of the Constitution, let alone its basic structure. So, a proposal to change from FPP to AV system for Lok Sabha elections should not even require a constitutional amendment – a statutory amendment to the Rpresentation of People Act should suffice.

Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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  • The problem is that "basic structure" is what the Supreme Court says it is, and now even ordinary legislation and government orders can be reviewed for violation of basic structure. Unless done with a lot of thought and discussion, a sudden switchover by made by the party in power could be struck down by a Court suspicious of the Government's motives.

  • Vikram is probably the best authority for this, but the PR was actively debated upon in the Constituent Assembly. The Muslim League members had actively pushed for a PR system, the argument being that it ensured better representation of minorities. Unsurprisingly, the Congress attacked it as being divisive.

    Amongst South Asian countries, both Nepal and Sri Lanka have versions PR systems. The Sri Lankan system has been accused of hardening ethnic faultlines, since Sinhalese parties feel that they don't need the Tamil votes to gain seats (unlike in India, where the limits to BJP growth in several states is their inability to get minority votes).