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The Westminster turn

How Britain’s ambitious parliamentary reform speaks to the Indian experience.

The UK Parliament is in the process of enacting a few bills that have significant impact on its electoral process. Given that India follows the Westminster model,and shares some of the same challenges,it is pertinent to understand the implications of these proposals.

There are two important bills that are under consideration. One bill fixes the length of every Parliament at five years,and removes the prime minister’s prerogative to call for early elections. The second bill changes the electoral system for the House of Commons from the first-past-the-post system to a form of transferable vote system. It also redraws constituency boundaries to equate population sizes.

The Fixed Term Parliament Bill states that the term of Parliament will be five years and a general election will be held on the first Thursday of May every fifth year. There are only two conditions in which Parliament may be dissolved earlier — if two thirds of the members of Commons vote for dissolution,or if the government loses a vote of no-confidence,and no other person can win a confidence vote within 14 days.

India has seen early elections on a number of occasions. The Deve Gowda/Gujral and the Vajpayee governments lasted less than two years — it is conceivable that a fixed term system would have resulted in more stable governments. Such a system,if extended to states,would also enable aligning of state elections with national elections. Such alignment would provide the national government the room to take important medium term reforms without worrying about short term electoral implications.

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The parliamentary voting system and the Constituencies Bill changes the method by which members of Parliament are elected. Currently,UK follows the first-past-the-post system,that is,the person who wins the highest number of votes in the constituency is declared elected. This can result in the overall tally of seats for major parties to be significantly different from their national vote share.

One alternative often used is proportional voting. In this system,parties get the number of seats based on their vote share,and MPs are decided by the party. This system has the drawback of delinking MPs from constituencies and reducing accountability at a local level. It also increases the power of political party leadership with respect to their members.

The UK proposes a middle way. Individual candidates will still contest at the constituency level. All voters will fill in a preference list stating the candidates in their order of preference. If any candidate gets over 50 per cent of the first preference vote,she is considered elected. In the absence of such a result,the second preference vote of the candidate who came in last will be counted,and so on,till one candidate gets at least 50 per cent of the votes. This system ensures that the candidate who is elected is the least disliked (even if she is not the most liked).

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India follows the first-past-the-post system for Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assembly elections. In several states of India,there are three to four parties with a significant vote share. In the last Lok Sabha elections,just 120 of the 543 winners got above 50 per cent of the votes in their constituency. In 326 seats,the vote share of the candidate who came in third was higher than the difference between the winner and the runner-up.

In 62 per cent of the seats won by the Congress and 55 per cent by the BJP,the margin of victory was smaller than the votes polled by the third candidate. Or to see it another way,the Congress with a 29 per cent vote share won 38 per cent of the seats in Parliament; the BJP polled 19 per cent of the votes and won 21 per cent of the seats; the BSP with 6 per cent of the votes won 4 per cent of the seats. These results may have been very different had a system such as the alternative vote system been in place. The second preference of the third-place candidate could become pivotal — if many of them preferred the current runner-up to the winner,then the final result would be different.

The other proposal in the UK bill is to redraw constituency boundaries every five years in order to equalise the population within each constituency. The Indian Constitution provides for such a system through the delimitation process. However,after the 1971 process,the number of seats for each state have been frozen,with adjustments only within the states. The next review will be for the 2026 elections. Population projections suggest that the population of a Delhi constituency in 2026 will be more than double that of an average constituency in Tamil Nadu. The 11 Hindi-speaking states and union territories will have 37 seats less than their population share while the six southern ones will have 28 extra seats.

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The UK-style reforms,if carried out in India,could have major consequences. That makes it important for us to follow the outcomes of these changes in the next few years.

The writer is with PRS Legislative Research,New Delhi

First published on: 19-02-2011 at 02:53:17 am
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