First-past-the-post system: Not ‘truly representative’ but practical, say experts

By Uzmi Athar and Asim Kamal

New Delhi, May 9 (PTI) Can winning candidates polling 15 per cent of the votes, 12 per cent or even less be called true representatives of the people of their constituencies? It may sound like an anomaly but that is the reality of the first-past-the-post system.
Constitutional experts and former chief election commissioners feel the system may not give true representation to the people but it is the most practical in the Indian context given the large number of voters and limited resources.
Under the first-past-the-post system, a candidate only needs to get more votes than any other candidate to win a seat.
Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap said “so-called representatives” of the people sometimes “do not represent the people at all” under the system.
“About 70 per cent of all Lok Sabha members and members of state assembly are elected by a minority of votes,” he told PTI.
“There have been instances when people getting 12 per cent, 15 per cent votes, have been elected and become occupants of higher posts,” Kashyap said.
The system has been debated and deliberated for long, particularly after the BJP got a thumping mandate of 282 of 543 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 with a vote percentage of a little more than 31 per cent.
It was after three decades that a single party had won a clear mandate.
Asked if India could explore the possibility of systems such as ranked choice voting prevalent in developed countries such as Australia, Kashyap said India needs its own solution and a system that is specific to it.
He said the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) recommended in its 2002 report that a runoff could be held the next morning between the top two candidates if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent.
“It is entirely feasible. We had spoken to the then election commissioner also. Now with electronic voting we could know who has got elected in the evening and next morning repolling can be held….the NCRWC report was considered with several recommendations accepted, but first-past-the-post system was maintained,” he said.
The first-past-the-post voting system for election to national legislatures is prevalent in places such as the UK, the US, Canada, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
V S Sampath, who was the chief election commissioner during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, said the first-past-the-post system is the “best option among the available options”.
“Conducting one round of election, we are putting the country in election mode for 75 days. Having runoffs will prolong the process. It will become cumbersome. Country should have stability,” he told PTI.
Syed Nasim Ahmad Zaidi, who was chief election commissioner from April 2015-July 2017, said all sections of the society are not represented under the first-past-the-post system as a large number of votes get divided and the percentage has come down.
After independence, the vote share used to be 50 per cent and has now come down to a mere 15 per cent.
“The winner takes it all,” he said.
Moving to an alternative ranking system will require detailed evaluation and debates to decide the pros and cons of it before it could be implemented, he said.
Former Lok Sabha secretary general P D T Acharya also believes the first-past-the-post system may not give candidates that truly represent the people, but it is the most practical in the Indian context.
“In certain cases even with 10 per cent votes people have won. Most candidates don’t get more than 50 per cent votes. From that point of view, this system is faulty. The point is that there are other systems such as the list system. But every system has its own merits and demerits,” he said.
The first-past-the-post system is not a perfect system but should be continued with improvements to make it more representative, he added.
Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Kamal Mitra Chinoy also hailed the first-past-the-post system, saying it has improved over time.
“This system is applicable because these are heavily populated regions and it rarely happens that a candidate wins by a vote share of less than 20 per cent until people are boycotting and that is a very rare case,” he said.
AAP leader Atishi said the first-past-the-post system has many flaws which need to be improved over time, but it is a big country and it would be difficult to switch to a different system right now.
She gave the example of the 2013 assembly elections in which AAP won 28 seats but lost by narrow margins on many seats in the 70-member House.
She said the similarity of party’s election symbol ‘broom’ and ‘torch’, given to some “dummy” independent candidates, was also another reason for the loss.
If some other system was in place, AAP would have had a majority, she claimed.

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