In response to my brief post on PR recently, PD thinks that there is no difference between FPTP and PR and has now responded to my request that he provide evidence for his arguments. On this blog post I'm copying his comment, for my record, but will provide a response separately.
Sanjeev Sabhlok excerpts from an article in The Australian by Janet Albrechtsen on why proportional representation (PR) is bad (for Australia). He uses this article as to why India should not adopt PR for elections. I counter that all the evils of PR as propounded by the article happen in India too which uses the first past the post (FPTP) voting system
Albrechtsen’s salient points are:
- PR ensures extremist (I read as non-major) parties get representation
- No centrist party gets a majority and thus has to enter coalition government with the smaller extremist parties
- Thus these smaller extremist parties hold the balance of power
- Policies not desirable to the greater centre have to be adopted so as to placate the extremist party.
- Under PR, voters cannot know, when they vote, what the future governing coalition will look like
- It takes months of horse-trading and backroom deals to form a new government
Refutation of Sanjeev Sabhlok’s contention
Each of these above scenarios occur in India too which uses the FPTP system
Table 1. Tally of Seats won by INC and BJP 1989-2009
Lok Sabha INC BJP Total/% of seats Ninth (1989) 195 89 Not calculated Tenth (1991) 252 121 373/68 Eleventh (1996) 140 163 303/56 Twelfth (1998) 142 183 325/60 Thirteenth (1999) 118 189 307/56 Fourteenth (2004) 159 147 306/56 Fifteenth (2009) 210 117 327/60
- Non-major centrist parties get elected to the Indian Parliament.
- The major parties in India closest to the “centre” are the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The last time the INC ever had a majority in the lower house of the Indian Parliament was in 1984. The BJP has never achieved a majority on its own (it was formed in 1980)
- Thus even with FPTP 40-45% of the seats go to the non-major parties
- Thus the smaller parties hold the balance of power
- Smaller parties in India have also forced the government to adopt policies at variance with the major party.
- The Indian government’s policy to allow foreign direct investment in the retail sector was derailed by the TrinaMool Congress (TMC) which has 20 (4%) of seats in the Lok Sabha and is a member of the current governing coalition.
- The Indian government barely survived a confidence motion in the Lok Sabha after the Left Front having 60 (11%) seats withdrew support over the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement
- It is laughable to say that under PR voters cannot know, at the time of voting, what the future governing coalition will look like. Such phenomenon occur in FPTP too.
- In the UK general elections in 2010 no party had a majority resulting in a coalition between the Tories and the Lib Dems. At the time a tory voter or a lib-dem voter voted, s/he had no idea that there would be a future governing coalition (let alone what it would look like).
- Voters who voted for the Lib Dems, after the party pledged not to raise tuition fees, wouldn’t have known that the Lib Dems would vote for a tuition fee increase when in government as a coalition with the Tories.
- Voters who voted for the Tories, believing its manifesto promise to be tougher on Europe, wouldn’t have known that the Tory PM Cameron would make a U-turn on his campaign promise to support a campaign by the European Parliament to reduce its monthly “travelling circus” to Strasbourg.
- In India, due to the emergence of non-major parties on to the national scene, parties usually contest elections as part of larger coalitions, which one may think gives the voter an indication of what the future governing coalition would look like. However such coalitions are extraordinarily fluid and regularly lose and gain members.
- The United Progressive Alliance (of which INC is the major member and which is now in power) has regularly lost members.
- The National Democratic Alliance (of which BJP is the major member and which is now in opposition) has also regularly lost members.
- In fact most of the smaller parties keep switching between the two major parties. Thus even in an FPTP system voters cannot know, when they vote, what the future governing coalition will look like.
- The last objection to PR is that it leads to months of horse-trading and backroom deals to form a new government. Such horse trading and backroom deals are nothing new in India.
- Aaya Ram Gaya Ram politics in India have been going on for decades.
- Horse trading in Uttar Pradesh has a long and (un)distinguished history.
- In 1993 certain MPs of a small party were given “donations” of money to vote for the government and against a no-confidence motion (which the government survived).
Thus given the above evidence I believe, unlike Sanjeev, that India does not need to be wary of proportional representation because any “ills” it has are already manifested in India with its FPTP system. Sanjeev’s position therefore stands refuted.
A Theoretical and Philosophical argument againt Albrechtsen
Turning to a more theoretical and philosophical discussion regarding PR and FPTP, I wonder why Albrechtsen is hostile to small parties. Is it because as a supporter of one of the major Australian parties (the Liberals) she is does not like the feeling of having to negotiate and compromise with other duly elected representatives? It seems to me that the article is arguing that the centre should be allowed to ignore the non-central opinions, that the 60-70% of the electorate has the power to ignore the remaining 30-40% which does not agree with them.
Turning to the issue of smaller parties preventing the adoption of good policies by the centrist parties, what is preventing the centrist parties to come together in support of the good policy and freezing out the smaller parties. e.g. in a 11 seat legislature let’s assume A has 5 seats, B has 4, and C and D have 1 each, with C and D being the non-centrist parties and A being in a coalition with C. If A is pushing a policy opposed by C with C threatening to leave the coalition why doesn’t A solicit support from B? If it is a reasonably centrist (and thus desirable according to Albrechtsen) policy then I don’t see why B and A cannot negotiate some sort of acceptable compromise legislation. It is a failure of the major parties to come together to pass centrist policies and this failure is being disguised, by the likes of Albrechtsen, as the unreasonableness of the smaller parties.
As for smaller parties forcing through undesirable policies, who is letting them? The major parties should be blamed for kowtowing to the smaller parties in their lust for power. If the policy is undesirable to the major party what is stopping it from telling the smaller party to take hike? The fear that it will lose a no-confidence motion? So is staying in power more important to the major party than opposition to bad policy? And instead of blaming the major parties Albrechtsen is blaming the small parties?
One point that should be made is that Albrechtsen wrote this piece in the Australian context. In Australia the upper house is elected by a PR system incorporating a single transferable vote with an “above the line” system. In this system a voter instead of individually ranking each candidate, ranks slates of candidates (each slate comprising of all the party candidates). Since the parties are in possession of these preferences they can then trade them with each other. While such trading agreements are published in advance, they are complicated enough such that it is difficult for the average voter to easily determine the fate of his or her preferences. In such a context parties get enormous power on how to direct the individual voter’s vote. Thus it makes the parties powerful and also it abrogates the link between the elected official and the voters and weakens accountability. I agree with Albrechtsen and Sanjeev that such a system which gives so much power to parties is bad for democracy.
Personally I prefer the Instant Runoff Voting System. This allows voters to show their support for smaller parties without the risk of a major party losing because of a divided vote. Given that the Freedom Team of India (FTI) is a fringe party I am surprised Sanjeev would not be in favour of a system which will allow people to vote for FTI without fears of a wasted vote.
A Note on Language
The last important point I want to note is the language used by Albrechtsen. She uses the word “extremist” and “fringe” to denote the non-major parties. This a point worth noting. By labeling the non-major parties as extremist and fringe Albrechtsen is attempting to confine them to beyond the pale. However what is left unexplained is on what basis should the major parties be respected? Because they are supported by a majority of the public? The smaller parties are to be ignored because they are not supported by the majority? That logic is no different from one justifying the tyranny of the majority; so why constrain the power of a government duly elected by a majority? But is being extremist wrong? In a polity dominated by major parties which do not believe in free trade a position supporting free trade is by definition extremist. In a world where mainstream policy favours protectionism support for free trade is extremist. In a polity where the major parties do not believe in personal liberty a position believing in personal liberty and autonomy is by definition extremist.
A corollary to the above is the combination of Australia’s compulsory voting system with Albrechtsen’s view that fringe parties are not worthy of representation. It is akin to forcing people to go to the voting booth and then making them choose between alternatives which are both repulsive (one may be slightly less so than the other): “You must buy a car and it could be any colour you want as long as it’s vomit green or feces brown.”
By Albrechtsen’s (and by extension Sanjeev’s) logic parties such as Lok Satta and FTI that are fringe (and extremist given the pro-statist ideologies of both the INC and the BJP) do not deserve legislative representation.
And the very last point. Majority government does not magically provide good policy and governance. A majority government is just as likely as a coalition to promulgate bad policy. It even finds it easier to ride rough-shod over individual freedom and liberty because there is no party in the legislature to challenge it. The only good government is a small government (whether minority or majority), constrained by a constitution with enough space for economic freedom and personal liberty to unleash the power of the free markets and free minds — the surest engine of human growth and progress.
 This is a major point which I will come to later. As of now I will restrict myself to pointing out that the label of “extremism” is used to delegitimise the smaller parties. ↩
 As of now its strength is 545 members ↩
 Because the INC and BJP were not the two largest parties ↩
 The minor partner was the AIADMK which had 18 MPs in a house of 545 (3%). It withdrew its support to the governing coalition because certain demands were not met e.g. dismissal of the then Tamil Nadu government run by AIADMK’s arch rival DMK ↩
 A conglomeration of communist parties ↩
 The said agreement is a most complicated agreement and on which I am not an expert. However it goes to original anti-PR point that small parties have a disproportionate influence on policy. My point has been that such disproportionate influence exists in FPTP too. ↩
 One may object to this argument on the basis that it is not an apt analogy because in PR voters know that there would be a coalition, they only don’t know what it would look like and that this was not the case in the UK, since the voters expected their party to win (not the lib-dems surely?). However final polls before the start of voting show that no major party was close to getting a majority of the seats, thus raising the spectre of coalition. ↩
 Coalitions comprising of fringe parties produce “lower-quality policy and politics”. Supra note 1 ↩
 The issue of FDI on retail in India is the example of such failure by the major parties. As has been detailed above the TMC held the governing coalition hostage. The BJP could have supported the governing coalition as it had supported the policy when in power. Of course needless to say it dropped such a policy when in opposition. ↩
 One rationale for why above the line voting was adopted is that since Australia enforces compulsory voting it behoves the administration to make voting as easy as possible. However above the line voting is an attempt to mitigate the impact of a bad policy viz. compulsory voting (based on the same rationale as conscription) by another bad policy such that the net result is even worse. ↩
 Some may object that IRV denies the “one person one vote principle” but I disagree. While it may seem that the voters whose first preference candidate loses get to vote a second time for another candidate, nobody is preventing any voter from ranking any number of candidates. If a voter declines to choose any candidate apart from his/her first preference, it is no different from an eligible voter abstaining from an election in an FPTP system. ↩
 Courtesy Sanjeev Sabhlok. ↩
 Only 25 members of the US House of Representatives in the 108th Congress voted consistently in favour of free trade Free Trade, Free Markets: Rating the 108th Congress ↩
 This is a paraphrase. The actual quote is “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” ↩
 I have purposefully referred to Sanjeev’s writings on the two major parties of India given that his endorsement of the Albrechtsen’s viewpoint would lead to their entrenchment in the Indian polity. ↩
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