Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The significance of the floating vote in the 2019 elections

In the 2018 Karnataka state election, the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), with 37 MLAs, bagged the chief minister’s chair in a coalition with the Congress, which had 80 MLAs. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with 104 was kept out of the government. Does this outcome hold lessons for the 2019 national elections?

Duverger’s law states that countries with single representative plurality systems tend to favour a two-party system. The theoretical justification is that voters vote strategically, preferring ‘winnable’ candidates to those who they may like more. This hurts the prospects of smaller parties.

However, voters may care not just about the prospects of a party in their constituency, but also about its possibilities in terms of legislative power. The power of a party in a legislature is often disproportionate to the number of members it controls. For instance, in a hung assembly comprising three parties, where a simple majority is required to pass a resolution, any two parties combined would suffice to achieve the 50% mark, and each party would enjoy equal power. Further, if the two major parties cannot align with each other, then the small party that can align with both enjoys the highest power. If voters expect a hung assembly, strategic voting could involve voters misrepresenting their preferences to vote for the smallest party.

However, the power of the smallest party is dependent on the presence of the right number of floating voters and the choices they make. To illustrate this in a simple manner, let us take the example of a country that follows the proportional representation rule. The number of ministers of a party in government is proportional to its vote share. Every decision requires the assent of 50% of ministers. There are three parties, Alpha, Beta and Gamma. Supporters of each party are divided into ‘diehards’, who will always vote for their party, and ‘floaters’, the strategic voters who want to vote for the winning party, defined as the party that has the maximum power in the ministry. Alpha has 38 diehard supporters and 2 floaters. Beta has 33 diehard supporters and 3 floaters. Gamma has 20 diehard supporters and 4 floaters. Alpha and Beta would always oppose each other’s policy positions, but Gamma can ally with both.

In the game defined above, there is a unique equilibrium in which all floaters vote for Gamma giving it a vote share of 29, of which 24 votes come from its own supporters and 5 from floaters of Alpha and Beta. Alpha ends up with 38 and Beta with 33 votes. Even though Gamma continues to remain in third place, it ends up in the top spot in terms of power, and could bag the prime ministerial position. This is the scenario that members of non-Congress, non-BJP parties are hoping for in 2019.

However, the 2019 scenario is better described by the following game. Let Alpha and Beta’s supporters be divided as before between diehards and floaters. However, let Gamma’s support base consist of 16 diehards and 8 floaters. The larger number of floaters could represent voters who want to vote for a national party in a central election even though they vote for a regional party in state elections. In the new scenario, Alpha can cross the 50% mark and enjoy 100% power by attracting the floaters of the other two parties, but Beta cannot. This is the Duverger’s equilibrium where a large party attracts the strategic voters.

But there is another equilibrium with a hung executive in which Gamma acquires the maximum power by attracting the floaters of the other two parties. Assuming floaters care about sticking to their party of choice, the total welfare of floaters is maximized in this equilibrium, although the floaters of Alpha are worse off.

The importance of floating votes is borne out by data showing that the BJP’s wins in the wake of the Modi wave have been a result of attracting floating voters from regional parties rather than from the Congress. Hence, the crucial question is: How do the campaigns of the ruling and opposition parties measure up with respect to the floaters?

The government is attempting to paint the opposition as a cabal of corrupt politicians who are getting together to save their necks. This is an old issue—victory of the BJP in 2014 could be explained by a large number of floaters moving to it on the basis of the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement.

The recent Congress wins in the Hindi heartland indicate that these floaters now seem to be more sympathetic to the issues of farm distress, youth unemployment, and the condition of the small and medium enterprises sector.

It would also be safe to say that the percentage of floaters who would be swayed by the Ram temple or cow politics is low. Beyond economic issues, local issues will play an important role. For instance, the Citizenship Bill has found significant resonance across the northeast, Assam and West Bengal.

We regularly hear reports of the Congress and its supposed allies deciding to fight independently. However, as per the above scenario, in most such cases, the Congress is unlikely to cut into the votes of the regional parties as floaters will strategically vote for the regional party in the expectation of a hung Parliament. Hence, one expects the non-Congress, non-BJP parties to acquire a sizeable number of seats. The fight for 2019 will go down to the wire, but as of now, it is clear that a non-Congress, non-BJP party storming to power on the back of the disenchantment of the population of floating voters is highly possible.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI Gurgaon. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory

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