The French lesson : run-off better than first-past-the-post

The French lesson : run-off better than first-past-the-post

What can India learn from the just concluded French Presidential elections?

Indian “liberals”, like their counterparts elsewhere, may view Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen by a heavy margin as the triumph of  “liberalism” over “nationalism” at long last (the nationalists have won most of the elections in recent years all over the world), but the fact remains that Macron did not exactly fight an ideological battle. His victory has been mainly due to the French electoral system rather than a huge mass support. And the uniqueness of this system is that it determines the eventual winner who, compared to his or her lone, repeat lone, rival, has better capacity to unite more people as “the French”than divide them on the basis of their different ideologies, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. And this is a system that India could well emulate now as many are talking of the imperative of electoral reforms in the country.

In fact, in many ways, Macron is like Arvind Kejriwal of 2013 (not Kejriwal of today). It is perhaps not realised that Macron does not have a political party of his own, though his political rise has been remarkable to the extent of becoming the second youngest head of the state of France at the age of 39 after Napoleon; the latter took power in 1804 at the age of 35, though strictly speaking he was not the President of France; he was the emperor of the French (as distinct from France).

A successful banker, Macron’s major political job was that of being economic advisor to socialist leader Francois Hollande, who later became the French President in 2012. From 2014 to 2016 he served as the President’s economics minister without contesting any election. He subsequently had serious differences with Hollande and was about to be dismissed, but before that he resigned and founded a movement, not a political party, which bears his initials: EM – “En Marche!” He does not stand for a clearly defined political programme, but his “movement” has more than 130,000 members, who really campaigned hard for him and now have carried him all the way to the Elyse Palace in Paris. By projecting himself as a “centrist” he built a grand coalition and took ideas from the ‘left”, as well as the “right”. In the process, he made all the old guards of the French politics – Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé and Hollande – irrelevant.

And yet, the fact remains that but for the French electoral system, Macron would not have won the battle for the Presidency. Let us face the discomforting fact that a record number of the French voters did not vote in the just concluded elections. Voter turnout for the Sunday-election at 65.3 per cent is estimated to be the lowest in almost half a century. Worse still is the fact that more people than ever (more than 4 million) showed up to the ballot box just to register their “no.”  It has been estimated that 9 per cent of the French votes cast were blank or spoiled ballots—the highest share on record for the Fifth Republic (founded in 1958).

All told, the French society, like other major western democracies, is fragmented, as Thomas Guénolé, a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, says, on two crucial issues of globalisation (whether it takes away jobs or creates them) and immigration (whether the minority immigrants make the nation strong or weak). According to Prof. Guénolé,  after Macron’s win, “France is divided in four”: pro-globalisation and pro-minorities, pro-globalisation and anti-minorities, anti-globalisation and pro-minorities, and anti-globalisation and anti-minorities.  In the second round of polls, Macron, a supporter of pro-globalisation and pro-minorities got support from all those who are either supporters of globalisation or of minorities (that is, three out of the four divisions)  against  the “far-right” Marine Le Pen who is strictly anti-globalisation and anti-minorities. He got 65.8 per cent votes cast as against Le Pen’s 34.2 per cent.

French Presidential elections are conducted via a two-round system, which ensures that the elected President always obtains a majority: the voters have to vote for either of the two candidates (unless one exercises the “No” option). In the two-round system (also known as the second ballot, runoff voting or ballotage), if no candidate receives the required number of votes (usually an absolute majority or 40–45 per cent with a winning margin of 5–15 per cent), then all but the two candidates receiving the most votes, are eliminated, and a second round of voting is held.

In my considered view, the French system is more democratic than our first-past-the-post system of elections. In fact, no government in India has ever got 50 per cent votes of the electorate; not even the one under Rajiv Gandhi, despite the extraordinary sympathy vote for his mother’s assassination in 1984. Rajiv had got about 49 per cent of votes of the 65 per cent of the electorate who exercised their voting rights. In the 2009 elections, the Congress had got only 29 per cent of the total votes polled, with the UPA getting 31.5 per cent votes overall. In the 2014 polls, the NDA as a whole that fought under Narendra Modi got little above 39 per cent of popular votes, out of which the BJP’s share was 31 per cent.

The first-past-the-post system has immensely benefitted all those believing in identity politics. Its advocates have justified all these years that the system is the best safeguard against majoritarianism. As a result, leaders and parties have done spectacularly well by mobilising their respective vote banks of Muslims, Yadavs, Dalits etc. Because, under this system, even if you get 20 to 25 per cent of votes, you can have a huge majority in the legislatures, something the likes of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav have done a number of times. If you build your vote-bank, you can safely discard the voices of the rest of the polity. Such a system will never make the victor accountable as long as he or she has the support of a particular community intact. He or she will simply not bother about what the overwhelming majority of his or her constituency demands. In fact, he or she simply does not need to care about their sensitivity.

Therefore, it is much better to have two rounds of elections as in France – the second round is between the top two candidates of the first round – so that the victor will be having more than 50 per cent of the votes. That is true democracy for me, because here a victor has to talk of taking everybody or every community along; he or she cannot afford to shed his or her crocodile tears for only one or two communities. And if this change is incorporated in India’s electoral system, then one can bet that the likes of Lalu, Mamata, Mayawati and Sharad Yadav will close their shops and talk of uniting as many Indians as possible, something Macron and most of his predecessors have done in France.

By Prakash Nanda

prakash.nanda@hotmail.com

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