Column : Reform electorates first

The right to recall elected representatives and the right to reject election candidates figured among the various issues mentioned by Anna Hazare and his group at Ramlila Maidan. Some of the important pros and cons of both suggestions are discussed below.

Right to Recall

The right to recall means that the electorate can ask for their representative to be removed and fresh elections held. Some states such as Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar have processes to recall corporators. However, these states have restrictive conditions. In Chhattisgarh, the process can be initiated only after three-fourths of fellow councillors ask for a recall election. In Bihar, two-thirds of the registered voters of a constituency have to sign a petition.

The argument for a recall system is as follows. During elections, a candidate is elected to represent the people in his constituency. There is no system for the people to hold the representative accountable during the term of office. The recall system provides an opportunity to do so.

There can be several arguments against the recall system. First, the recall system may deter policy decisions that provide positive results over a medium- to long-term horizon. Having the leeway of a longer term permits representatives to take a long-term view without the fear of being recalled. Indeed, many governments take tough decisions in their first couple of years. An analogy in the corporate sector would be the focus on quarterly results impeding long-term shareholder value.

Second, the recall can work for a person with a very specific role. For example, a corporator is a directly elected executive position, and has a defined role in ensuring delivery of services. The role of an MP or an MLA is much broader. They are part of a larger body with the primary role of making laws and holding the central and state governments accountable. It is difficult to set clear performance targets and hold them accountable.

That said, there can be some ways for the electorate to judge whether their MP or MLA represented their interests. That leads us to the third set of problems due to our current systems. Most votes in our Parliament and state assemblies are voice votes. There is no record of how an individual MP or MLA voted, or even whether he was present in the House at the time of voting. A mechanism that requires votes to be recorded can provide information to the electorate on the voting pattern of their representative. Even in that case, the MP (or MLA) may justify his vote as a response to the party whip and the anti-defection law. It is necessary to revoke the anti-defection law (except for the confidence vote) and for parties to use the whip sparingly before any MP or MLA can be held accountable for their votes in the house.

In sum, the right to recall may be workable for the directly elected executive posts, but is difficult to implement for a legislative role. Even in the former case, there has to be a sufficiently high threshold to provide stability to the representative. For example, in the Bihar case, two-thirds of the electorate has to sign a petition; this is as large as the typical turnout in an election.

Right to Reject

The right to reject proposal stems from the fact that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system allows a candidate with a minority of votes to win the election. This happens frequently in areas where there are three or four significant political parties. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, only 120 of the 543 winning candidates got more than 50% of the votes in their constituency. The FPTP system also gives a disproportionate share of seats to the larger parties. For example, in the 2009 elections, the Congress won 38% of seats with 29% share of votes, while the BJP got 21% of seats with 19% of votes and the BSP 4% of seats with 6% of votes.

It is not easy to design a ‘fairer’ system. The proportional representation system allots seats to parties based on their overall vote share. However, in the absence of geographical constituencies, this system breaks the link between the MP and the electorate. It also strengthens the power of the party leaderships with respect to their members. The legislatures of some countries such as Germany and Scotland have a combination of members elected by the FPTP system, and those by a proportional representation system. The British Parliament had recently proposed another system called the ‘alternative vote’, which ensures that the elected candidate is among the higher preferences of the majority of voters. Individual candidates contest geographically defined constituencies. Voters fill up a list of candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate gets 50% of the first preference votes, the second preference votes are counted, and so on, until a candidate has a majority. This system has the disadvantage of being complicated. Incidentally, in a referendum in May, the British voters rejected this proposal.

The simplest ‘right to reject’ system would ask for a fresh round of election if no candidate gets a majority of votes. In the absence of a limit for repeating this process, some constituencies may never get a representative.

A more practical, though expensive, method would be a run-off between the top two candidates. Other systems such as the alternative voting method and the proportional representation method are also worth public debate.