Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Case for Elections using Weighted Vote Share Method


A Case for Elections using Weighted Vote Share Method 

The cardinal objective of political parties is not to evenly represent discordant voices into the house, but to build a sustainable level of consensus amongst diverse masses to make governance possible and effective.

It is the view of the author that neither the current system of elections nor the elsewhere prevailing Proportional Representation (PR) system of elections serves optimum solutions for a highly diverse country like India. This article conducts a brief analysis of the existing systems and proposes an alternative system christened the “Weighted Vote Share Method” for India. It is pre-supposed that the reader will independently analyse these systems in detail. Thus only major features of each system are discussed.

FPTP – A Brief Analysis:

The constraints of the current method of Indian elections called “First Past The Post (FPTP)” or “Westminster Style” elections has been talked about at length in academic and knowledgeable circles.

The FPTP brings relatively stable governments to power as the winner of the seat is granted the right to legislate on behalf of the total electorate; even those who voted against the winning party / candidate. Though pragmatic, this method has risks which are even more pronounced in a diverse society like ours. A candidate can come to power by antagonising a majority of the people as long as their vote is split amongst various other parties and as long as the balance minority can be appeased to secure their loyalty.

Political appeasement can take various forms. It could be favouritism by religion, region or caste. It could be by buying votes through money bags and freebies. It could also be by misuse of office to provide protection from law to nefarious elements that coerce, encourage or blackmail voters to vote (or not vote) in a pre-determined manner. This explains the phenomenon of how highly controversial and divisive people get elected to power. The need for appeasement also explains the demand for unaccounted money in elections, which in turn promotes corruption in governance.

What this does not explain is why political parties field such candidates at the cost of their own goodwill and credibility? In FPTP system, counter-checks are absent at an aggregated party level as well. As the FPTP system gives power to those with maximum seats rather than those with the vote share, even the party level seems to support candidates who can win seats, even if it perpetuates divisive and unethical politics.

On the principle of universal justice, FPTP falls severely short in India as it is applied on the premise of “appeasement of one at the cost of the other”. The dice is loaded against some citizens more than others. Whether a few modifications to this system can serve the purpose or whether something more drastic is required will be discussed ahead.

Proportional Representation (PR) & Mixed Proportional Representation (MPR)

The Proportional Representation system, takes a more just view as it wants all discordant voices to have a place at the table. There is a variant that involve ranking the candidates, which ensures that the “hated” candidates by the majority are eliminated. But the system is difficult to implement and educate to voters and has limited success globally. While many variations exist, the most commonly used variant states that in an election, voters will only elect the party (not the candidate) of their choice. Based on the party’s total vote share, representatives will be “appointed” by the parties into the house.

This system encourages more parties to emerge and come to a minimum configuration on which their voice and bargaining power will carry political weight. It is likely to encourage representation of more parties after implementation. So in a country like India, proponents of this model presume coalition politics as the only way forward and discount to some measure the need for a directly elected candidate.

The model does present a few safe guards. To reduce the emergence of too many small parties in the house which might make coalitions unmanageable, there can be a minimum threshold vote share that a party must have in order to be represented in the house. On another point regarding equitable geographic representation and transparency in the selection of representatives by political parties rather than citizens, there can be mechanisms to ensure that representatives of geographic areas must be nominated by parties using some pre-declared democratic formula.

Before touching on the shortcomings of the Proportional Representation System, a mention on a compromise variant called Mixed Proportional Representation System is also in order.

The Mixed Proportional Representation system has been recommended in the Indian context by think tanks like the Foundation for Democratic Reforms that proposes a combination of both FPTP as well as PR. Like Proportional Representation and FPTP systems, this system is also in use in few countries. In this system, representation from both FPTP system as well as PR system will comprise the house. The final number of candidates so arrived will determine which party comes to power.

Difficulties in the PR and MPR

Both the PR & MPR solutions are firstly fraught with a few significant operational challenges. The sheer task of convincing an existing system to analyse the ramifications and take so drastic a step will meet delays and resistance at all levels. Though it is claimed that constitutional amendments may not be needed, this too is an area that will come up for extensive study and fatiguing delays.

In MPR, either the size of each house will be doubled or alternatively, the elected constituency size will be doubled to bring fewer directly elected representatives and maintain the current size of the house. The composition of this elected house using Mixed Proportional Representation system makes the upper house like the Rajya Sabha redundant whose members are also indirectly elected representatives (elected by democratically elected representatives of states like MLAs).

Secondly, both Proportional Representation System and Mixed Proportional Representation System conclude that coalitions are the inevitable fate of a nation like India. While this is a pragmatic interpretation of our realities, some thought must be accorded on whether coalition politics is good for the country and whether it is a phenomenon that deserves systemic encouragement.

One may argue that the severest crisis of political propriety has occurred in this era of coalition politics. Back at the electoral battle grounds, coalition partners are engaged in “cloak and dagger” maneuvers and the constant bickering between local coalition party units leads to a lot of diversion from core issues afflicting the people. On the other hand, where ever parties choose to sweat it out in elections and form post electoral alliances (like the UPA-I with Congress and Communists on the same side), the governance is severely hindered because each party went into elections with many positions that were against the agenda of its now coalition partners.

Coalition politics also gives an unreasonable negotiating power to smaller parties who hold the power to blackmail the ruling combine with its whims. This too is fairly evident in the Indian context including the current UPA-II in power led by Dr. Man Mohan Singh. This situation might turn for a nation’s benefit, when one witnesses a smaller party comprising the voice of reason and angels. However, reality often has other plans; all the more so in Mixed Proportional Representation system, where seat share and divisive politics will continue to play a sizable role, though lesser than that in FPTP in its current form.

Thirdly, the assumption of coalition politics as a perpetual phenomenon for India, though grounded in a pragmatic assessment of current realities, rests on the belief that there is never going to be sufficient commonality of purpose and interest amongst people and hence we must resign our selves to a coalition reality into perpetuity. This notion goes against the very grain on which the Indian union was created. The author states this conclusion with great care and does not base it on an interpretation of the current situation but on the principles on which we intend to build our country.

There is no end to the ways in which we can divide ourselves. The only end probably is a solitary island of oneself realising the futility of divisions. The concern with coalition politics in a country like India is that it stokes divisions and drags down nation building from an ideological plane envisaged by our founders to fissures like region, religion and caste. Any system that takes coalition politics as an “acceptable given” opens the door for more fissures and more political parties. As more parties emerge in a coalition, answerability is diluted, thereby deepening the governance crisis.

Even if a minimum vote share threshold for representation is set in the MPR system, the fundamental flaw of encouraging more parties to search for differences amongst them for greater vote share is still promoted in the system. Moreover, the fixing of and amendments to the threshold will not be immune to political compulsions and opportunism, there by hurting the credibility of the system.

Fourthly and lastly, there is the prospect of mass ghettoization without large scale geographic movement. Today, various configurations claiming to be minorities are coming together in localised geographies to strengthen their negotiating power within the system. Given the nature of our electoral system, this voice remains scattered and distributed. Apart from a Hindu right wing representation in the form of BJP, mass divisive hysteria though created is still not very organized at a national level. I take specific reference to the efforts of politically organizing castes and religions, which can quickly acquire national dimensions and have severe ramifications. One must wonder if it will be beneficial to let such voices get consolidated at state levels and further into national levels. Should we create systems to encourage such formations or rather focus on systems that will veer the current divisive parties into a more positive agenda of good governance.

Both PR and MPR may not demotivate the politics of appeasement and hence calls to question whether we have the right solution in them.

“Political Importance” versus “Exclusive Political Representation”

With universal franchise, it is required that every person’s voice is “politically important”. That said, further examination is merited on the inference that political importance can only be gained through unique political formations or “exclusive political representation” which in turn makes coalition politics inevitable.

The affairs of good governance are founded on the bedrock of inclusive reasoned debate, harmonising conflicting diverse opinions and generating consensus so that the executive can conduct its work efficiently.
The emergence of smaller and exclusive political parties is a result of the ineffectiveness of present political parties and the present FPTP system to make sufficient voices “politically important”. This failure and perhaps the increasing impatience associated with the process of corrections have led to the formation of “Exclusive Political Representation” as caste or religion based parties.

It follows that what is failing is our ability to debate, reason and create consensus in an inclusive manner. If this cannot happen within a political party, it will most certainly not follow at a coalition politics level either.

Hence the focus must remain on making more voters “Politically Important” rather than creating mechanisms for “Exclusive Political Representation”.  Somewhere as a collective people, we must learn to engage and be willing to accommodate other points of view, not be driven by compulsion, but by enlightened self interest. That is the burden one must bear for the benefits of universal franchise.

Systemic interventions can certainly help in fostering an environment where greater emphasis is laid on the core tenets of making universal franchise effective, but that need not require the promotion of Exclusive Political Representations.

Presidential System in India

A presidential system accords significant executive powers with the President who is directly elected by the people. The system's relevance for India can make for a good academic study, but realistically this system is the most difficult to implement in the Indian context and calls for significant changes which do not seem possible within a realistic time frame. Hence it has been excluded from this study.

An approach to harmonising conflicting interests

In choosing between the primacy of good governance and balanced representation, the author is inclined to believe that good governance takes precedence. Good governance will require delivery of a better life to as many as possible for greater stability which in turn perpetuates a virtuous cycle of better governance.

A better life to all is also the objective of balanced representation. However a purist pursuit of balanced representation can stall decision taking processes, thereby delaying the delivery of good governance. So while good governance can lead to meeting the objectives of balanced representation, the corollary may not be true. Balanced representation for all may not necessarily lead to good governance for all.

It also stands to reason that stable governments are a vital pre-requisite to good governance. In this light, FPTP will be able to deliver more stable governments with a clearer sense of purpose as compared to a melee of coalition parties envisaged in the PR or MPR systems. The challenge before us is to create mechanisms to ensure that purposes adopted by parties within the FPTP system cater to as many people as possible, thereby strengthening universal franchise.

It is opportune to evaluate whether counter measures can be built within FPTP to dilute the compulsions of divisive politics. The purpose could be served through measures that accord greater importance to vote share rather than seat share, yet operate within the reasoning of FPTP to deliver more stable governments. The author proposes a solution modeled on these lines that can be accomplished with minimal legislative intervention. In this solution, parties can continue to win seats using FPTP but ultimately come to power and legislate based on the power of their vote share weighted at a constituency level.

A “Weighted Vote Share” Method is proposed in this context.

Weighted Vote Share Method

Under the Weighted Vote Share method, the FPTP system winner’s voting power in the house will be based on his/her Vote Share measured amongst total registered voters in his / her constituency. So a Representative is only as powerful as his/her Vote Share. This will create incentives for the candidate to start focusing on likability amongst maximum possible voters rather than with minimum winnable voters. This can deal a significant blow to the current regime of selective appeasement at a candidate level. As vote share is measured on total registered voters rather than votes polled, it will also drive the system towards ensuring updated voter rolls and greater drives for voter turnouts.

The nomenclature of Weighted Vote Share describes the Vote Share of each candidate as a percentage of the combined Vote Share of all representatives in the house. This Weighted Vote Share will determine the winning party and their decision power in the house.

To come to power, a party / coalition will need simple majority of Weighted Vote Share. This will create motivation at a party level to focus not only on winning more seats, but also on winning them with greater vote share.

The system is no purist for representing discordant voices in the house. To facilitate stable governments, it uses the FPTP reasoning of sending the candidate with highest votes to the well of the house. However unlike the current FPTP system, it reduces the candidate’s disproportionate right to legislate on behalf of all the voters in the constituency. This leaves the candidate and party alike with the motivation to keep increasing vote share. The importance of vote share creates a strong disincentive for a candidate to rest with a “vote bank”.

The underlying reasoning is that over time, given the political imperative to drive vote share, the political effort to smarten up the electorate to demand politics of good governance over divisive objectives will get accelerated.

Let’s taken an example:
If a house has 7 seats and the final tally stands as below:
Constituency
Winning Party
Total Voters
Votes Won
Vote Share
Weighted Vote Share
A
ABC
25,000
8,000
32%
16%
B
ABC
25,000
2,000
8%
4%
C
DEF
15,000
5,000
33%
17%
D
DEF
15,000
9,000
60%
30%
E
XYZ
15,000
2,000
13%
7%
F
ABC
5,000
2,000
40%
20%
G
ABC
5,000
650
13%
6%
Total
1,05,000
28,650
200%
100%

Summary by Party:
Party
Seats
Weighted Vote Share
ABC
4
46%
DEF
2
47%
XYZ
1
7%

In this example, a coalition will be required as no party is in clear majority based on Weighted Vote Share. Let us say, DEF and XYZ agree to a coalition there by garnering a combined Weighted Vote Share of 54%. This simple majority will enable them to form the government. So even though their coalition represents only 3 out of 7 seats, they will form the government based on simple majority on Weighted Vote Share.

One may argue that this still does not eliminate coalition politics. The answer is that the Weighted Vote Share method provides for the eventuality of coalition governments, but systemically creates incentives to reduce the number of political parties to more serious and effective players.

In this system, given the undesirability of post-election coalitions and the motivation to reach out for greater vote share, all parties will continue to work towards higher vote share and absolute majorities. It will encourage the merger of small parties with larger ones based on common ground.

The compulsion of vote share will lead to the creation of mechanisms that promote the harmonisation of conflicting interests, which in turn will improve the quality of decision making in the house.

Advantages of the Weighted Vote Share Method:

1.     As power is linked with vote share rather than seats won, candidates will not only have to shun divisive politics, but will enhance their stature within the party and drive their growth prospects by actively building common ground and engagement with even the smallest minority.
2.     The politics of buying swing votes will be discouraged because parties and people will come to power in the house based on Vote Share rather than the number of seats won
3.     The competition for higher vote share will systemically discourage highly fractured representation in the house, thereby making decision taking easier in the house.
4.     No change in the voting experience of the voter. This leads to a tremendous cost saving on the exchequer
5.     Improvements in technology will ensure that weighted voting on any legislation is done smoothly in the house and is not complicated to track or implement.
6.     Election Commission does not need to make any new investments or changes to accommodate the new system
7.     In all probability, no constitutional change required to adopt this system. While further investigation is certainly required, this change may be possible just through a modification to the People’s Representation Act.
8.     The system of calculating Vote Share on total registered voters rather than votes polled (as in current system) creates a need for political parties to ensure updated voter rolls.
9.     The system is equally effective irrespective of whether applied for elections in centre, state or municipality
10.  Subjectivity associated with setting minimum vote share representation thresholds in MPR are not required in this solution
11.  Representatives in the house continue to be directly accountable to the voter and hence will be guided by their constituency’s interests while engaging within the house and with the party to which they belong.
12.  The size of the house will remain unchanged

Conclusion

Instead of magnifying our dissimilarities which know no end, we must create a system that compels citizens and political parties alike to search and build common ground. Rather than create motivations for people to differentiate themselves into select minority groups, there must be reason to work towards coming together.

The Mixed Proportional Representation system comes closest of all existing systems to meet the objective, but it amplifies the perpetual existence of coalitions in the future and sets up a system that will slow down decision taking required for good governance. It also comes with various operational challenges which will make its implementation a prolonged process.

Take for example the recent legislative elections in Bihar. As per MPR, Lalu Yadav would have been a significant force in the opposition, where as within FPTP, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) / NDA alliance has been able to control the house on an election agenda of good governance and reaching out to all configurations of the electoral pie. It is an example of how FPTP could deliver more stable governments in the same electoral situation.

In light of the various aspects related to each system, it appears that improving on FPTP which delivers more stable governments is a better option. The pressing issues related to the politics of appeasement which covers the whole spectrum from buying votes to undermining the law to divisive politics can be addressed if a more important role could be assigned to vote share within the FPTP framework.

With the advent of technology it will be easy to not only form a government based on vote share within the FPTP system, but also pass legislation using the Weighted Vote Share Method propounded here.

Ultimately the strength of any democratic system lies in the hands of aware and enlightened voters. There can be no shortcut to achieving that strength but by traversing the long hard road before each person to realise the merit of working together and accommodating each other. We need to identify a system that is implementable and mitigates the suffering associated with this journey of voter enlightenment. The journey to enlightened self interest may be faster through the FPTP route buttressed with modifications to factor vote share.

The Weighted Vote Share method within FPTP maintains the imperative on people and parties alike to evolve in the way they engage with each other. Such a solution will remain true to the principal tenets of our democracy which professes that it is possible to forge a commonality of purpose amongst such a diverse mass of people. This path is worth the pursuit because in this endeavour rests India’s destined purpose of showing the world the possibilities of freedom and peaceful coexistence.

Note: This is an original work and cannot be replicated or used without permission of the author. The author can be contacted at pankajasthaana@gmail.com

1 comment:

Pankaj Asthaana said...

As a post script, it is also worthy to note that the system actually easily accommodates the requirements around reservations in Indian elections.