First Past the Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR) Debate

Under First Past the Post (FPTP) system, a candidate who gets one vote more than other candidate (who comes second) is declared as winner. In proportional representation, number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received.

First Past the Post

In India, all key representatives except President, Vice President, Members of Rajya Sabha and Members of state legislative council are elected via FPTP system.  In recent times, questions have been raised as in 2014 election, NDA won only 31% of the total votes cast and that, therefore, 69% of those who voted did not vote in favor. Due to this system, the groups of parties which managed to get less than 50% of the total votes polled have managed to get more than 75% of the total seats in the parliament. The argument is that due to FPTP, certain groups of people will never get a share in the power structure.

Merits of FPTP system
Simplicity

The most significant advantage of the FPTP system is its uncomplicated nature using single-member districts and candidate-centred voting. Moreover, the FPTP system allows voters to choose between people as well as parties, with voters having the opportunity to assess the performance of a candidate rather than having to accept a list of candidates presented by a party, as under the list system.

Stability

The FPTP system has been known for stability in the electoral system of India. The Supreme Court in RC Poudyal v. Union of India (1994) had categorized the FPTP system as possessing ‘the merit of preponderance of decisiveness over representativeness’. This implies that the FPTP system presents the advantage of producing a majority government at a general election by being decisive, simple and familiar to the electorate. This, at least in theory, assures stable terms for the party in power, with the requisite numbers in the House to ensure implementation of its policies.

In practice, India has seen both stable majority and unstable coalition governments under the FPTP system, indicating that it is not this factor alone that assures the stability of the electoral system in India.

Other Merits

FPTP system encourages political parties themselves to have more broad-based participation. Moreover, it ensures that there is a link between a constituency and its representative in the legislature, and incentivizes representatives to serve their constituents well.

Demerits of FPTP

The principal criticism leveled against the FPTP system is that it leads to the exclusion of small or regional parties from the Parliament. There is commonly a discrepancy in the vote share and seat share in results, where votes given to smaller parties are ‘wasted’ since they do not gain a voice in the legislature.

FPTP system, which boasts of the fact that it provides a majoritarian (and hence more democratic) government, is itself not able to adequately uphold majoritarianism in a multiparty system, since the winning candidate wins only about 20-30% of the votes. For example, the Indian National Congress won only about 49.10% of the total vote share in the 1984 General Elections to the Lok Sabha, but had a sweeping majority of 405 out of 515 seats in the House.

Smaller parties, when they have a broad base across constituencies, rather than a concentrated following in a few constituencies, may fail to win even a single seat even if their vote share is significant.

Analysis of FPTP System

FTPT is useful because it is simple to use and easy to understand. It provides clear-cut choice for voters between two main parties. It allows voters to choose between people rather than just between parties. Thus, voters can assess the performance of individual candidates rather than just having to accept a list of candidates presented by a party. It gives a chance for popular independent candidates to be elected. However, the issue is that the victorious party has most often not secured the majority of votes. It is possible for a party to win majority of the seats with just 20-26% of vote share; by the same token, a party may not get a simple majority even with 74% of vote share. There is, hence, a mismatch between the number of seats won and the percentage of vote secured by the party.  Further criticisms of FPTP are as follows:

  • Distortion of electoral process
  • Excludes smaller parties from fair representation
  • Encourages caste, religion, Ethnicity and regional politics.
  • Exaggerates the phenomenon of ‘regional fiefdoms’

We note here that during the drafting of the Constitution, various systems of proportional representation were considered, but the FPTP system was eventually adopted to avoid fragmented legislatures and to facilitate the formation of stable governments.

Proportional Representation (PR)

Proportional representation (PR) is a concept in which the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received.

Key Variants of PR

The system of proportional representation has many variants, out of which two systems are most popular viz. List system and System of single transferable vote.

List system

In the list system, political parties present lists of candidates in advance, who are awarded seats in proportion to their party’s vote share, usually with some minimum prescribed thresholds.

Method of the single transferable vote

In this system, the voters make an electoral college and while voting, they rank candidates in order of preference. Their vote is allotted to their first preference, and if no one emerges with a majority, the least voted candidate is removed from consideration and the second choices of those who voted for him are taken into consideration. This process continues till a winner with a majority emerges.

PR System in India

India is not new to PR system; in our country, the following elections are held on the basis of proportional representation:

  • President
  • Vice President
  • Members of Rajya Sabha
  • Members of state legislative council
Analysis of Proportional Representation

Proportional representation undoubtedly falls second in competition with the FPTP system in terms of simplicity in voting, but it scores higher in terms of convenience during campaign. Candidates can simply focus pointed attention on defined groups to appeal to, and consequently, the problems of campaign financing do not feature as prominently in the process.

Proportional System and Stability

Because parties are granted seats in accordance with their vote share, numerous parties get seats in the legislature in the proportional representation system, without any party gaining a majority. This detracts from the stability of the system. Coalition government becomes inevitable, with challenges to such governments also becoming frequent. This is also why the Constituent Assembly decided that proportional representation would not be suited to the Parliamentary form of government that our Constitution lays down.

Proportional System and  Representativeness

Proportional representation, tries to ensure that the election results are as proportional as possible, by curbing the inconsistency between the share of seats and votes. It ensures that smaller parties get representation in the legislature, particularly when they have a broad base across constituencies. It also encourages new parties to emerge and more women and minorities to contest for political power.

Proportional representation ensures honesty in the election process both from the side of the candidate, who can choose their ideological commitments freely, and from that of the voter, who can vote freely.

Proportional System and Voter-Candidate Connect

One potential drawback of this system is that the relationship between a voter and the candidate may dilute, for the candidate may now be seen as representing the party and not the constituency. The other way of looking at this is that a constituent could approach any representative of their choice in case of a grievance, which plays out as an advantage of this system.

Conclusion

As the discussion above has demonstrated, both electoral systems come with their own merits and demerits – proportional representation theoretically being more representative, while the FPTP system being more stable. It can be suggested from the experience of other countries to follow a hybrid pattern combining elements of both direct and indirect elections. This, in turn will necessitate an increase in the number of seats in the Lok Sabha, which raises concerns regarding its effective functioning.

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