What Electoral Systems Are
Electoral systems convert the votes cast in an election into results – the offices/seats – won by parties and candidates. The key variables are:
- The electoral formula used (i.e. whether a plurality/majority, proportional, mixed or other system is used, and what mathematical formula is used to calculate the seat allocation),
- The ballot structure (i.e. whether the voter votes for a candidate or a party and whether the voter makes a single choice or expresses a series of preferences) and
- The district magnitude (not how many voters live in a district, but how many representatives to the legislature that district elects).
The choice of Electoral System is one of the most important institutional decisions for any democracy. The choice of a particular electoral system has a deep effect on the future political life of the country concerned, and electoral systems, once chosen, often remain fairly constant as political interests solidify around and respond to the incentives presented by them. However, while conscious design has become far more prevalent recently, traditionally it has been rare that selection of electoral systems be conscious and deliberate. Often the choice was essentially accidental, the result of an unusual combination of circumstances, of a passing trend, or of a quirk of history, with the impact of colonialism and the effects of influential neighbours often being especially strong.
The Guiding Principles of Electoral System
There should be some guiding principles used for consideration when choosing an electoral system. Some of the important principles are:
The basic duty for an electoral system is to translate votes into seats; to transform the expressed will of the voters into people who will represent it. There are many views of what fair representation is – geographic representation, demographic representation, ideological or party political representation. Regardless of the view that is prevalent in each country, representation as a principle is a crucial guide when developing the most suitable electoral system.
It is important that the mechanisms of the electoral system be as transparent as possible and known to both voters and political parties and candidates well in advance in order to avoid confusion and distrust in the results they produce at elections. Moreover, the process used to determine choice of electoral system also benefits from transparency for the same reasons. The chosen electoral system will gain more legitimacy if stakeholders have an open forum to articulate their views and arguments.
The electoral system will have a greater chance of being accepted as fair and legitimate if it is considered to work in an inclusive manner. This means not only that the electoral law allows as many as possible citizens to vote (including inclusive suffrage, making sure that the system is easily understandable, and assuring access for all to the polling station), but also that the mechanisms of the electoral system do not overtly discriminate against any one group in society, minority or otherwise.
Criteria for Designing/Reforming Electoral Systems
The selection or reformation of any electoral system should attempt to maximize the following objectives:
- Providing representation
Any electoral system should accurately reflect the free choice of the voters on different counts such as geographic/regional, demographically and ideologically/political party preference. In the Pakistani context due to First-Past-the-Post System (FPTP), sometimes the results do not reflect the true mandate of the people as political parties either are over or under represented in the assemblies. In the 2013 general elections, PMLN obtained 32% of the total popular vote but won 48% of the total general seats in the National Assembly whereas PTI secured 17% of the popular vote but only won 10% of the total general seats.
- Making Elections Accessible and Meaningful
Elections are fine, but they may mean little to people if it is difficult to vote or if at the end of the day their perception that their vote makes no difference to the governing of the country. The ease of voting is determined by factors such as how complex the ballot paper is, how easy it is for the voter to get to a polling station, how up-to-date the voter list is, and how confident the voter is that his or her ballot will be secret.
- Facilitating Stable and Efficient Government
The prospects for a stable and efficient government are not determined by the electoral system alone, but the results a system produces can contribute to stability in a number of important respects.
The key questions are
- Whether voters perceive the system to be fair,
- Whether government can efficiently pass legislation and govern, and
- Whether the system avoids discriminating against particular parties or interest groups.
- Holding the Government Accountable
Accountability is one of the foundations of representative government. Its absence may indeed lead to long-term instability. An accountable political system is one in which the government is responsible to the voters to the highest degree possible.
- Encouraging Political Parties
Democracy’s long-term stability lies in growth and maintenance of strong and effective political parties. Most experts also agree that the electoral system should encourage the development of parties that are based on wide-ranging political values and ideologies as well as specific policy programs, rather than narrow ethnic, racial or regional concerns.
- Promoting Legislative Opposition and Oversight
Effective governance depends not just on those in power but almost as much, on those who oppose and oversee them. The electoral system should help ensure the presence of a strong and viable opposition grouping which can critically assess legislation, question the performance of the executive, safeguard minority rights, and represent its constituents effectively.
Current System Used in Pakistan-First-Past-the-Post (FPTP)
The electoral system currently used in Pakistan is the oldest system from the twelfth century, is the Majoritarian or First-past-the-post (FPTP) system. It has however, not been found completely satisfactory and as such is under consideration for reforms in some countries.
In an FPTP system, the winner is the candidate with the most votes but not necessarily an absolute majority of the votes. FPTP system is the simplest form of plurality/majority system, using single member districts and candidate-centred voting. The voter just ticks off the name of his/her preferred candidate in his/her constituency. The winner is simply the candidate who wins the most votes.
Advantages of FPTP
The main advantage of FPTP is its simplicity and producing winners who are tied to geographically defined districts. The other advantages are as follows:
- FPTP provides a clear-cut choice for voters between two main parties.
- Most of the time, it produces single party governments despite not winning an absolute majority of the popular vote.
- It gives rise to a clear opposition in the legislature.
- It promotes a connection between constituents and their representatives, as it produces a legislature made up of representatives of geographical areas.
- Voters get to choose between people rather than parties.
- Popular independent candidates have a chance of being elected.
- FPTP systems are simple to use and understand.
Disadvantages of FPTP
- It excludes smaller parties from ‘fair’ representation, in the sense that a party that wins approximately, say, 10% of the votes should win approximately 10% of the legislative seats. In the 1993 federal election in Canada, the Progressive Conservatives won 16% of the votes but only 0.7% of the seats and in the 1998 general election in Lesotho, the Basotho National Party won 24% of the votes but only 1% of the seats. This is a pattern observed repeatedly under FPTP.
- It excludes minorities from fair representation. As a rule, under FPTP, parties put up the most broadly acceptable candidate in a particular district to avoid alienating the majority of electors. Thus, it is rare, for example, for a black candidate to be a major party’s nomination in a majority white district in the UK or the USA.
- It excludes women from the legislature. The ‘most broadly acceptable candidate’ syndrome also affects the ability of women to be elected to legislative office because they are often less likely to be selected as candidates by male-dominated party structures.
- It can encourage the development of political parties based on clan, ethnicity or region, which may base their campaigns and policy platforms on conceptions that are attractive to the majority of people in their district or region but exclude or are hostile to others.
- It exaggerates the phenomenon of ‘regional fiefdoms’ where one party wins all the seats in a province or area. If a party has strong support in a particular part of a country, winning a plurality of votes, it will win all, or nearly all, of the seats in the legislature for that area.
- It leaves a large number of wasted votes that do not go towards the election of any candidate. This can be particularly dangerous if combined with regional fiefdoms, because minority party supporters in the region may begin to feel that they have no realistic hope of ever electing a candidate of their choice. It can also be dangerous where alienation from the political system increases the likelihood that extremists will be able to mobilize anti-system movements.
- It can cause vote-splitting. Where two similar parties or candidates compete under FPTP, the vote of their potential supporters often get split between them, thus allowing a less popular party or candidate to win the seat.
- It may be unresponsive to changes in public opinion. A pattern of geographically concentrated electoral support in a country means that one party can maintain exclusive executive control in the face of a substantial drop in overall popular support.
- Finally, FPTP systems are dependent on the drawing of electoral boundaries. All electoral boundaries have political consequences: there is no technical process to produce a single ‘correct answer’ independently of political or other considerations. Boundary delimitation may require substantial time and resources if the results are to be accepted as legitimate. There may also be pressure to manipulate boundaries by gerrymandering or bad apportionment. This was particularly apparent in the Kenyan elections of 1993 when huge disparities between the sizes of electoral districts—the largest had 23 times the number of voters the smallest had—contributed to the ruling Kenyan African National Union party’s winning a large majority in the legislature with only 30 per cent of the popular vote.
FPTP in Pakistan Context
Every election for National and Provincial assemblies since 1970 has been under FPTP system. Low turnout has marred elections in Pakistan. Only three elections under FPTP system produced voter turnout above 50%, i.e. 1970, 1977 and 2013 whereas the voter turnout in other years has varied from 35% to 45%.
The consistent pattern of low turnover indicates that vast majority of voters are apathetic or alienated from casting their votes, as they believe that their votes will not make a difference on the results. Besides the need for major procedural and operational reforms in conducting elections by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the electoral system requires substantial overhaul.
It is highly disturbing that the winning parties have only gained 15% to 20% of the total registered voters. Another 20% to 25% of voters voted for other parties while 55% to 65% did not bother to vote. A party winning only 15% to 20% of the total votes gets to rule the entire 100% of the population is ridiculous. The electoral system should reflect the true mandate of the people and only those with genuine majority support should rule the country.
Under FPTP system in Pakistan, it appears to have promoted regionalism and tribalism at the expense of nationalism. The results of 2013 general elections clearly show the regional, ethnic and linguistic fault lines existing in Pakistan today. Sadly, there are no true national parties serving as a catalyst for national unity and integration.
Recommendations for changing Electoral System-Moving towards Proportional Representation
The current First-Past-The-Post system needs to be scrapped and Pakistan should move towards some form of Proportional Representation (PR) system. With any electoral system, PR has advantages and disadvantages. The main advantages of PR are that it produces legislatures that are a truer reflection of voters than a plurality/majority system like FPTP and it encourages parties to campaign outside their home turf. However, the major downsides of PR are that it leads to coalition governments that can result in legislative gridlock and instability. In addition, the parties’ leaderships may become too strong, as they would determine the candidates who appear on the lists.
- Pakistan should adopt a mixed electoral system similar to Germany. In Germany, half the seats are determined on constituency basis using FPTP while remaining half are allocated based on PR as per parties’ lists. The general seats in the National Assembly and provincial assemblies in Pakistan should be determined the same way.
- Just like in Germany and Turkey, to attain seats on PR basis, there should be a minimum threshold. For Pakistan, achieving a minimum of 5% of the total popular vote in order to be awarded seats in National Assembly and likewise for provincial assemblies. This measure is to exclude fringe groups and to discourage regionalism.
- Half the general seats in the National Assembly and provincial assemblies are determined by existing FPTP system. The size of the constituencies would logically increase and thus the ECP would need to redefine the geographic boundaries.
- The remaining 50% of the general seats in the National Assembly (NA) and provincial assembles would be determined by PR system. Each party would submit candidates’ lists for both NA and provincial assemblies. The voter will have two choices to make for NA and provincial assemblies, one ballot to choose preferred candidate of their constituency and second ballot to choose their preferred party list of candidates for PR seats.
- Allocation of both women and minority-reserved seats should also be done on PR basis.
- Bye-elections for any vacancies, occurring after the elections and during the tenure of the elected Government, in the members elected through the FPTP system should be held as per the present system i.e. through inviting new nominations for the vacant seat and holding elections under the same First-past-the-post system.
- Any vacancy occurring in the National Assembly or provincial seats elected under PR system should be filled through nomination by the political party, which happens to lose that member.