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Opinion | Time to tweak our electoral system

Birendra Prasad Mishra

Birendra Prasad Mishra

Opinion | Time to tweak our electoral system

A new hybrid system integrating the merits of the FPTP and the PR systems while minimizing their demerits is warranted

Time has come to reform the existing electoral system that encourages rampant political corruption and use of money and muscle in election campaigns.

The current electoral system promotes contractors and moneyed men, whose undue influence in politics harm devoted and honest political workers with limited money and few political connections. Those in the latter group seldom get party tickets. That is why there is an urgent need to enact vital changes in the electoral system in order to revitalize democratic institutions and revive people’s faith in democracy. 

Now, the federal House of Representatives has 275 members. Under the mixed electoral system currently in practice, 165 members are elected under the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, and the remaining 111 under the Proportional Representation (PR) system. Government formation is comparably easier under the FPTP system where candidates with the most votes are elected even without a majority. More seats are won with fewer votes.

Actually, many votes are not represented and go to waste. For example, in the 1991 election, the Nepali Congress secured 110 seats (53.66 percent) in the 205-member House of Representatives with only 36.74 percent votes, leaving 63.36 percent voters without any say in the country’s governance.

In a least developed country like Nepal where many voters are illiterate and poor, they are easily lured and intimidated by candidates. Likewise, caste, clan, ethnicity, and creed play important roles in winning elections. Money and muscle decide electoral outcomes. By the end of the 18th century, globally, the FPTP system started getting replaced by Proportional Representation (PR) system, and the trend continues.

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Nepal, for its part, adopted the FPTP system in the 1959 parliamentary election, and continued with it in 1991, 1994, and 1999 elections. It only switched to a mixed electoral system in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. The new constitution followed suit, allocating different proportions of seats under FPTP and PR segments.

Nepal’s choice of a mixed system confirms that its leaders realize the demerits of the FPTP system. Most prominently, in a participatory democracy, election is all about representations, and so the PR system was incorporated, as greater representation under PR is a more ethical choice.

In the PR system, it is the party that gets the votes. It is a less expensive system with candidates not personally involved in the electoral process. Their credibility and integrity are not at stake. Candidates need not spend unlimited money because their election is not guaranteed.

The PR system has not been allowed to function properly in Nepal. Political parties hardly choose candidates fairly. Senior political leaders nominate their kith and kin under this category. Honest political workers are pushed to the margins.  

Money also plays a role in securing party nominations: Ironically, the ‘closed PR’ priority list can be tweaked to suit the leaders.

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Representatives elected under the PR system are looked down upon as they do not represent specific geographic areas and are, it is argued, not even people’s representatives. In the PR system, the link between elected legislators and their constituents is weak. Plus, the link between voters and their representatives is also tenuous.

A new hybrid system integrating the merits of the two systems while minimizing their demerits is warranted for countries like Nepal. In this system, proportionality under the PR system will decide the number of seats the parties get as per their national vote-share.

However, every candidate will be connected to a constituency in the PR list, where, to be elected, he/she will have to receive the most votes as per the FPTP system. The preference of candidates in the PR list will not guarantee his/her victory unless they secure most votes. This provides a better link between the legislators and the constituents. But getting most votes also does not guarantee election unless the candidate falls under the PR quota.

Significantly, under FPTP, candidates with the most votes will not be elected, as the seats available to parties are limited under the PR scheme. All parties will have seats in proportion to the national votes, their numbers to be determined as per the natural threshold. To have meaningful representation, different segments of the society like women, Dalit, Janajati will be prioritized.

In the integrated system, getting the most votes in a constituency will not guarantee victory, as the seats to be secured by the parties are limited in proportion to the votes received nationally under the PR scheme. If victory is not guaranteed, no one will spend big or think of using muscle-power.

The uncertainty of winning will not only deter candidates from spending unlimited money but also reduce political corruption. Moreover, with money no longer a concern, there will be more qualified candidates in the field. This will ultimately increase people’s faith in democracy.

Mishra is a former election commissioner