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Electoral Systems, Political Process and Political Outcomes. What are the differences between majoritarian and proportional representation electoral systems and what are the political consequences of these different electoral rules?
Modern societies are characterized by their commitment to establishing and maintaining a Democratic state system. The origin of which can be traced back to the ancient Greek city-states. The Athenian leader Cleisthenes in 507 B.C introduced this political reform called demokratia,'rule by the people’.
Through this reform, every citizen of the city-state enjoyed the right to legislate and make decisions by directly voting on various legislative, administrative and executive issues affecting the city-state and its citizens. Every citizen was treated equally and he enjoyed the right to make his own decisions about how he is supposed to be governed by casting a vote. The decision was then taken on the basis of the majoritarian votes.
This system was based on the understanding that every individual has the right and the ability to makes his own decisions regarding the way he wants to be governed. It was the citizen himself rather than a monarch or a group of individuals who enjoy the right to rule his own actions and the way in which he wants to function in society. The democratic form of government is based on the idea of consent and the belief that every individual has the right to and the ability to make decisions about the way he wants to live his life rather than someone else.
Thus, over a period of time various movements and agitations were fought to achieve this right to choose; be it in the right to choose the rules that govern the society, the to choose one's government or the right to remove the rulers. This right for an individual citizen to exercise his own liberty and to live a life where he is treated equally has been the founding principle of the French revolution, England’s Bloodless revolution, American Revolution etc. These principles were then imbibed in various forms within the democratic systems throughout the world.
However, in the modern democracies, however, the large population makes its difficult for every citizen to take a decision on every issue or determine every governmental function. Hence, every citizen would then select a representative by participating in an electoral process where each citizen has an equal right to cast vote and decide upon a candidate who would represent the citizen at different levels of government. The representative is expected to make decisions that would be beneficial to the said citizen and express the views that the citizen believe in. In the situation where the representative fails to do there are provisions that provide for the ‘right to recall’, which is asking the representative to step down from the position that the citizens have elected him to or not cast a vote in his favor the next time the citizen has to vote.
Thus, the democratic system provides for something that Abraham Lincon explicitly describes as, ‘The government by the people, for the people, of the people.’ The citizens of the nation-state choose from among themselves a representative who would represent them in the government and whose is ultimately responsible for the people whose vote got him elected to that position of power. In different parts of the country, the manner in which the electoral process is conducted differs.
Different Electoral Systems:
Maurice Duverger and Douglas Rae have classified and organized different electoral systems according to some significant key dimensions. Accordingly, the electoral system available in a liberal democratic system can be classified in the following types:
- Majoritarian formulas
- Semi-proportional systems
- Proportional representation
- Mixed systems
Though, here I would like to focus my study on the two most popular electoral system in the world- the Majoritarian electoral system and the electoral system based on Proportional representation.
Majoritarian Electoral System/ First-Past-the-Post System (FPTP):
Majoritarian System or Plurality systems is also popularly known as, the ‘first-past-the-post’ system. This is the oldest and also the simplest form of the electoral system. This category can be subdivided into those requiring candidates to win a plurality or an absolute majority of votes to be elected. This is having been practiced in many countries to elect candidates for the lower house of parliament including in countries like the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, India and many others.
This electoral system provides for the dictatorship of the majority. As the candidate in order to win only needs to secure the electoral support of the majority. Thus, the views espoused by minority gets ignored and underrepresented over the more dominant views of the majority population in that particular constituency or the entire country as a whole.
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The process that underlines for a simple majoritarian electoral system can be roughly described as follows. During the election, the entire country is divided into multiple or single-member constituencies. These constituencies are divided on the basis of demographic population calculated on the basis of data collected through the study of the census. Voters in each constituency then exercise their right to cast a single vote for a candidate of their choice. They cast their vote through a secret ballot that ensures the voters can exercise their right to have a free and fair election.
The candidate who then manages to secure the largest share of the vote gets elected to the office. However, under the first-past-the-post system, the winning candidate only needs to secure one more vote than its competitors. There is no minimum required votes than a candidate needs to secure to get elected. The only condition here is that the candidates vote count must be more than its other competitors. The difference of margin between the votes secured by these candidates can be as less as one vote.
In this system the number of parliamentary seats secured by the political party and not the share of the popular vote that a significant role in the formation of a government. And the political party that manages the secure the majority of votes in the house gets the chance to form the government. The Government then enjoys the power in the house as long as it enjoys the support of the majority.
An example can be given of the 1951 UK elections; here the British Conservative party won the election with a majority of only sixteen seats with 48.0 percent of the popular vote, though the Labour had won the slightly more popular votes by securing 48.8 percent of the vote. A similar situation can be observed in the recent American Presidential elections were Hillary Clinton in spite of winning a majority of popular votes couldn’t defeat Donald Trump in the majoritarian electoral system.
The Majoritarian systems and Plurality electoral system provide for a more stable government. As it is the party winning majority of seats at the legislative house who forms the government. Thus, this ensures that the party would enjoy the support needed in enacting various legislative policies and programs. Through this kind of electoral system, the possibility of occurrence of a coalitions government is rare through it.
Another benefit of the Majoritarian systems is its simplicity. This proves most beneficial especially in the countries that were newly introduced to the values of democracy. In countries like India which possess a significant number of the illiterate population, the majoritarian electoral system has proved very valuable in establishing and strengthening the system of democracy within the country.
The most significant disadvantage of the majoritarian and plurality electoral system ironically is that this system needs to the candidate to secure only the majority of votes. The candidates in this system represent the majority. Thus, the minority views can get ignored or under-represented. Thus, this system does not provide for the government that represents every section of the society. Also, the majority government many then enact various policies and programs that aren’t beneficial for the minority and may at times prove to their disadvantage.
Also, the majority that this system provides for doesn’t actually represent the majority of the country, as the candidate can get elected even by securing slightly more than that of its competitor. The margin of difference of votes secure between the two candidates can be as less as a single vote. Hence, this electoral system in spite of its significant advantages may not be an ideal electoral system in representing the voters.
As already discussed, the biggest disadvantage of a majoritarian system is its inability to represent the minority. The proportional electoral system, however, provides for the representation of the minority within the society. This system is very popular and followed by many European countries.
Within proportional representation, the seats are divided in various multi-member or single-member contingency and the vote is cast on the basis on party lists and it is based on the principle of the single transferrable vote. However, there are many variations along which the system is based.
Party lists may be open as in Norway, Finland, Netherlands and Italy where voters can express their preferences for particular candidates only included within the party list. While, in states like Israel, Portugal, Spain and Germany voters vote for the party and not the candidate. Here, the voter can only give preference for a specific political party and it is the political party that allows the position to the candidate.
The candidates or the political parties under the system of proportional representation then gets ranked on the basis of performance as indicates by the voter. The electoral formula used to calculate the votes varies among across different countries. Votes can be allocated to seats based on the highest averages method. Where the number of votes secured by each political party gets divided by using a series of divisors and parties that secure the highest resulting quotient wins the electoral seat.
Here, the d’Hondt formula is most popularly used to calculate the votes secured by a political party or a candidate by using divisors (such as 1,2,3 etc). The 'pure' Saint-Laguë method divides the votes with odd numbers (1,3,5,7 etc). The 'modified' Saint-Laguë replace the first divisor by 1.4 but is otherwise identical to the pure version. An alternative is the largest remainder methods, this method requires a minimum quota. There are various ways to calculate a minimum quota, the simplest of which is the Hare quota system used in Denmark and Costa Rica This system requires the total number of valid votes in each constituency to be divided by the total number of seats to be allocated in a constituency.
Single transferable vote:
The single transferable vote is another system used to calculate votes secured by a candidate into a Semi-proportional system. Here, the voters aren't supposed to rank the candidates by indicating their preference. The candidates that gain the first preference then secure a vote than in the next round the votes of candidates that had secured the second preference gets calculated. And the system continues until a candidate ends up with a specific quota of votes. This quota of minimum votes to be secured is calculated through a method. The most common method used is by calculating it through Droop quota.
Hence, the system of proportional representation provides for the representation of all sections of the population within society. However, it’s a very complicated method and proves to be a very costly affair. The government formed through this system may very be based on a single party but formed from a coalition of different political parties. And the practice of this electoral system may prove very difficult in the countries with a large demographic population.
In the exercise of the democratic form of government both the process of be it Majoritarian or the proportional representation system suffer from no of disadvantages. Each system has its benefits which makes its popular in the countries with specific socio-economic characteristics while making its unpopular in some other. Every country that follows the system of democratic state structure use the method that is suitable to it and at times tailor it in accordance to its own specific needs.