Tag Archives: electoral systems

What Difference Do Electoral Systems Make?

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

The Canadian elections concluded this week, with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada soundly defeating Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party to take control of the country’s parliament. Most observers cast the election as a stinging rebuke to the Harper’s nine year tenure.  Indeed, the center-left Liberals gained 148 seats in parliament, stealing 60 from the center-right Conservatives and 51 from the leftist New Democratic Party, marking the swing in seats in parliament for any Canadian political party since 1984. The final results give the Liberals a ruling majority in parliament, with control of 184 seats (54% of the total number of seats). The Conservatives move in to the role of official opposition, with 99 seats (29%). The New Democrats fell to third party status, with 44 seats (13%). The Bloc Québécois will control 10 seats (3%) and the Green Party has one seat (0%).

Canada’s single-member district electoral system (sometimes called a first-past-the-post system) functions in a manner similar to that of Congressional electoral districts in the United States. The candidate that receives the most votes in any district wins that seat, and the party that controls the most seats in parliament chooses the country’s Prime Minister. But Canada’s multiparty system means that the party that secures a majority of seats in the parliament does not necessary win a majority of the votes in the electorate. Indeed, the single-member district electoral system tends to amplify the support of large parties and marginalize the role of smaller parties, leading many political commentators to call for electoral reform and a shift to a more representative electoral model that allocates seats in parliament in a manner proportional to the share of the popular vote received.

If the most recent election in Canada had been held under a proportional representation system, the Liberals would have held approximately 133 seats (39.5% of the seats in parliament, based on securing 39.5% of the popular vote. This would be more seats than any other party, but not the strong majority they currently hold. Conversely, all other parties would have received more seats in parliament than they received under the current model, with the Conservatives holding 107 seats (31.9%), the New Democrats holding 67 seats (19.7%), the Bloc holding 16 seats (4.7%), and the Greens holding 11 seats (3.4%).

What do you think? Should countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States—which all currently use a first-past-the-post electoral system—shift to a proportional representation system? Why? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each system? And which is more democratic?

The Changing Face of Indian Politics


Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister elect.

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister elect.

Nation-wide elections concluded last week in India, the world’s largest democracy. In total, more than 530 million votes were cast, and while the final votes are still being tabulated, it is clear that voters gave Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a majority in the country’s parliament.

The results representing a sharp defeat for the ruling Congress Party, which has been a central force in Indian politics since independence from Britain in 1947. The results also suggest that the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which dominated Indian politics since 1947, may have reached its end.

The elections were remarkable for a number of reasons. First, last week’s elections boasted the highest turnout in Indian history. More than 130 million new voters cast their ballot this year, meaning that the number of new voters in India was about the same as the total number of voters in the 2008 US presidential elections.  Voter turnout in India was also quite high, with more than two-thirds of eligible voters casting ballots.

But the results were also fascinating. The election represents the first time in Indian history that a single party—other than the Congress Party—has captured an outright majority in the national parliament. This majority will make it much easier for the BJP to push through policies, as it will not need to rely on coalition partners for their support.

The election results were also interesting insofar as the head of the BJP and India’s newest Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be the first Indian Prime Minister born after the country achieved independence. For his supporters, this suggests that Modi will bring a new vision to India’s government. As a center-right Hindu nationalist party, the BJP has supported opening the Indian economy and pursuing a neoliberal program of economic development. This message resonated with many young voters, who view economic development as a key political objective and who had grown tired of the Congress Party’s inability to deliver on promises of jobs.

It’s important to remember, though, that while capturing an outright majority of the seats in parliament, the BJP received only about one-third of the popular vote. This is because India’s single-member district system—a system similar to the one used in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States—tends to exacerbate the margin of victory. As an editorial in the Washington Post points out, the BJP will capture a majority of the seats in the parliament despite winning just 31 percent of the popular vote.  Unlike a proportional representation system which allocates seats in the parliament based on the proportion of the vote received, a single-member district election sends one representative to parliament for each district, with no requirement that that candidate receive a majority of the vote. When multiple parties contest the seat, it makes it increasingly possible (indeed, increasingly likely) that the winging party will capture the seat with a plurality rather than a majority of the vote.

So with an outright majority in parliament, the BJP appears well positioned to enact its agenda. At the same time, the unique nature of this year’s elections—particularly dependent on the strong showing of various regional parties which helped to fracture the vote in individual states—raise the question of whether or not the BJP will be able to hold on to its gains in the next national election.