World Parliaments – Constituencies versus Proportional Representation

Of late there have been many elections taking place around the world. This year we have seen the elections in Malawi, in South Africa, and in India. We have also recently witnessed a UK general election as well as a USA Presidential election. The next USA election is set to take place next November. Considering these elections brings to the fore the matter of the legislature. While the USA has a separate vote for the legislature, it is still one worth considering.

In any case, there are two main systems for the elections of legislatures. Some legislatures are called Parliaments. Others are called Houses or Sabhas. Whatever the nomenclature, most countries have a system of a bicameral Parliament. That is, there are two houses of Parliament – an upper and a lower one. Often, the executive is constituted of members of the lower house of Parliament. Such is the case in the United Kingdom, India, and the Republic of South Africa.

Of course there are far more differences in a nation’s system of government. However, in this post, I wish only to discuss the means by which a legislature is elected.

Constituency Based Election

This is where the nation is divided into constituents or areas. Each constituency sends a member of Parliament. This member is determined by an election in that constituency. Called the first past the post system, the member who attains a majority of the vote in the constituency becomes that constituency’s member of Parliament. This means that a party may gain a majority if enough constituencies are won. This also means that the majority party may not necessarily get a popular vote equivalent to their percentage of seats. For example, if a member wins the constituency with only 51%, and if every member of that party won in every constituency with that majority, they will be represented 100% in Parliament even though 51% of people voted for them. This presents a clear disadvantage of the system. Effectively, even if a party got a major popular vote, they may never win a seat.

This aspect is contentious as it means that people like Donald Trump can come into power even though they do not win the popular vote. Similarly, populists like Narendra Modi may also win, even though their popular vote might have been lower than the seats in Parliament that they receive.

But this system does have its benefits. Notably, members of Parliament, elected by ordinary people in their area, remain accountable to the people of that area. Accountability is a crucial aspect of government.

Proportional Based Election

In terms of democracy, this is a clear winner. Citizens vote for their desired party. The votes are tallied. The percentage that the party wins of the popular vote determines the same percentage that they will receive in Parliament. This means that the people’s choice is clearly represented. This has proved to be a good system in South Africa where it ensures adequate representation of women in Parliament due to the ruling party’s policy. Obviously, this may change if the ruling party changes.

A disadvantage of this system is that members are deployed by the party and not the people. Thus, they are accountable to the party and not the country. This is to the detriment of accountability.

A compromise?

Both systems have their flaws and benefits. As a result, it is seen in some countries that half of Parliament is appointed by popular vote while the other half is constituency based. This is definitely a winner, maintaining both accountability and the people’s choice.

Considering election styles is definitely something worth worldwide attention. To be complacent with any style is to be unable to see its flaws. To question it is to potentially bring about a government that is true to democracy; serving the people. Thus, awareness regarding politics and government is a crucial aspect to civil society.

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