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Examining proportional representation

What Parliament would look like in a system of proportional representation, using data from the 2009 general election
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First Published: Fri, Sep 27 2013. 10 12 AM IST
India has its fair share of critics of the first-past-the-post system it currently uses to elect members of Parliament. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
India has its fair share of critics of the first-past-the-post system it currently uses to elect members of Parliament. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Updated: Fri, Sep 27 2013. 10 17 AM IST
How would the Lok Sabha look if India followed a system of proportional representation?
In the recently concluded federal election in Germany, Angela Merkel-led coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) won a near-majority by securing 311 seats in a parliament of 630. What makes the situation interesting, though, is that the Bundestag doesn’t have small parties or independents (the smallest party in parliament, the Greens, have 63 seats), so the CDU/CSU coalition will have to rely on one of the other large parties for a majority in parliament.
That there are no small parties or independents in the Bundestag is an artefact of the German electoral system. Germany uses what is called a mixed-member proportional representation system. Each voter casts two votes—one for a candidate and the other for a party. Thus, 299 members of parliament are elected directly, in a first-past-the-post system, while 299 other seats are allocated among parties in proportion to the total votes that the parties get. It is possible that some parties may have got more seats (in total) than their vote share would determine, in which case additional seats are created and allocated to the other parties (thus giving a total of 630 seats in this session).
India has its fair share of critics of the first-past-the-post system it currently uses to elect members of Parliament. The criticism is that in a multi-cornered polity, a party or coalition can win a majority in Parliament without necessarily getting a majority of the votes. Every time this comes up for discussion, ideas such as proportional representation are thrown up.
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This analysis uses data from the 2009 general election (ignoring subsequent by-elections). In the case of proportional representation, there are several methods of translating votes to seats (different countries use different methods). This analysis uses the simplest method, which is known as the Hare-Niemeyer method.
In the 2009 election, a total of 417 million votes were cast. Given that India has 543 constituencies, by the Hare-Niemeyer method, this translates to about 768,000 votes per seat. What we will do is to divide the number of votes obtained by each party by this number to give the number of seats per party.
The table looks like this for the top six parties:
According to the “largest remainder algorithm” that is part of the Hare-Niemeyer method, each party is allocated the whole number of seats that it has “won”. So that way, the Congress will get allocated 155 seats, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 102 seats, and so on.
However, this process will lead to allocation of only 478 seats. How are the remaining 65 seats allocated? For this, the parties are sorted by the fractional portion of the number of seats they have obtained (for the Congress this number will be 0.92, for the BJP it will be 0.10 and so on), the top 65 parties are picked and allocated one extra seat each.
The final tally will look like this:
Yes, it is a long list indeed. The problem with such proportional representation is that a large number of small parties will end up getting representation in Parliament. For example, several parties which have just over 100,000 votes will end up getting representation, which is probably undeserved, given that the average number of votes per seat is over 700,000.
For this purpose, usually in proportional systems, there is an arbitrary cut-off imposed, so that parties that fail to clear this cut-off in terms of vote percentage will not have any representation in parliament. In Germany, this cut-off is 5%. How will the composition of Parliament change if India were to have a proportional system of representation with no representation for parties getting less than 5% of the total national popular vote?
Once again, the above process is followed, but only restricted to parties that get over 5% of the total national vote. It turns out that there are only four such parties.
The next highest party, the Samajwadi Party (SP), got only about 3.4% of the total national popular vote. Taking into consideration only the above four parties, the “quota” per seat comes to 450,000 votes (this shows you the cumulative effect of the number of votes gained by “small” parties). The total parliamentary position will look like this:
Bizarrely now, a party that scored just 29% of the total vote share has a near majority in Parliament, while one that barely scraped through with 5% is the fourth largest party in Parliament, with 49 seats. This is in fact similar to the current situation in the German parliament, where the CDU/CSU is just five seats short of majority, but the smallest party has 63 seats.
Perceptive readers may notice that this bizarre situation is a function of the arbitrary cut-off of 5% that was imposed on parties entering parliament. What if the cut-off were at 2%? Or at 1%?
The following table gives the seat distribution among parties in various such situations:
From this analysis, it is clear that proportional representation is not without its faults. For one, an arbitrary cut-off needs to be imposed. From the table, it can be seen that the choice of cut-off results in massive differences in the number of seats per party. Not imposing a cut-off results in the entry of extremely small parties and an extremely fractured Parliament.
Next, the system is biased in favour of large parties. Notice that when the 5% cut-off was imposed, the only parties that make it to Parliament are the four big “national parties”. Unless state-wise quotas are imposed (complicating the system further), this system is inherently biased against regional parties. And then there is the problem that if the cut-off is too high, there will not be any small parties in Parliament. To illustrate why that is a problem, we will return to Germany.
Writing in Pragati last month, Mint columnist Narayan Ramachandran had explored the idea of a “grand coalition”, i.e. an alliance between the Congress and the BJP, coming to power in India. While this proposal seemed absurd, it has happened earlier in Germany, when Merkel led one such coalition in her first term between 2005 and 2009. And it may happen again.
Among the four parties in the German parliament, the Left (with 64 seats) is a political untouchable, and the CDU/CSU is unlikely to ally with the Greens. The only viable combination that can get a majority in parliament will be a coalition of the CDU/CSU with its main rival, the Social Democratic Party. So Germany is likely to end up with a government that controls 503 of the 630 seats in the Bundestag.
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First Published: Fri, Sep 27 2013. 10 12 AM IST
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