Monday, May 16, 2005

GOVT: What the UK election means for Pakistan

The U.K. election in early May provides the strongest possible case against the parliamentary system of government. As the results indicate, the system violates democratic principles, does not ensure a stable government, does not reflect the will of the majority and discriminates against the smaller parties. Let us see what happened:
a) Labor Party got 356 seats against 197 of the Conservative Party, though it got only 3% more votes. This travesty happened because of the principle of “first past the post.” The principle allows a candidate to be the winner if he gets more votes than the others, even if he is ahead of all other candidates by only a few votes. He is not required to represent the majority of the voters in the constituency.
b) Labor Party got 35.2% of the votes that were cast, compared with 32.3% for the Conservative Party and 22.0% for the Liberal Democratic Party. If every party had been given seats in proportion to its votes, either of the two major parties must have been forced to have a coalition with the other or with Liberal Democrats. It would have just not been possible for the Labor to have “the historic third term.”
c) Labor Party got 9,556,183 votes in total. That was only about 16% of the total population of U.K. With such a small share of votes, how can the party claim to be the representative of the whole country?
d) A very small party, Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern, won a seat in Parliament with just 18,739 votes. By contrast, several bigger parties, such as UK Independence Party (618,898), Green Party (257,758) and British National Party (192,850), did not get a single seat, despite getting far more votes. This was unfair to the voters, who supported these parties.
e) The votes cast were 61.3% of the total registered voters in the country. The Labor got 32.3% of these votes. That comes to a little more than 20% of the total registered votes. Therefore, the party does not represent the majority of even the registered voters, not to speak of the whole population.
f) The day after the election, Prime Minister Tony Blair came under pressure to resign. As his party’s majority came down from 161 to 67, it was considered his defeat. The news media, the opposition and even the Labor backbenchers called for his resignation. If he refuses to oblige, he will not have authority and credibility during his entire term. Under the parliamentary system, he does not have a fixed term. Therefore, he can be asked to resign any time. If he does not, he will always remain under cloud and will not be able to govern effectively despite having won the election. Nothing can be a worse handicap for a head of the government. By contrast, nobody doubts that President Bush will complete his full term, even though his election was very doubtful both times.
g) There is a very intriguing sidelight to the election. Just before the polling day, somebody explained on CNN that the bookies were using a majority of 67 seats as the basis for accepting bets. Any seat more or less will mean a gain or loss for the bets. The Labor got precisely that number! What does it mean?
i. Did the bookies know better than the politicians and the pollsters about the results?
ii. Were the elections “engineered” to suit the bookies?
iii. Should the bookies, not the voters, decide who should come into power?
If this is the situation in “the mother of parliamentary system,” it can only be worse in our country, even if we have angels to hold elections. No wonder, the parliamentary system prevails only in the former British colonies and only because of the slave mentality of their politicians.
We have suffered tremendously under the parliamentary system. There has always been a conflict between the head of the state (Governor General or President) and the head of the government (Prime Minister), with both trying to dominate each other. The Prime Minsiter has always been subject to blackmail by the MNAs of his own party. Most of the ministers have always been unsuitable for their jobs. Horse-trading has been the normal practice. No political party that came into power since 1988 got more than 10 million votes (in a country of 150 millions). Now, no party is able to get a majority on its own, condemning us forever to unstable coalitions.
The lessons for us are obvious:
a) We must have the presidential system, under which the President gets more than 50% of the votes in a direct election and serves for a single term of seven years. (He must have majority’s mandate and enough time to implement his policies, without worrying about re-election.)
b) The seats in National and Provincial Assemblies should be given to political parties in proportion to the votes that they get. (The parties should truly represent the people.)
The future of our country and the welfare of our people are far more important than sticking to a system that is a relic of the colonial rule and does not work even in the home country.


  1. How do you address the issue of one province dominating in a single direct election vote for a President. in the US the system has a system of safeguards to ensure every state is relevant..

  2. If a presidential candidate is required to get more than 50% of votes, he will have to get support from other provinces. In addition, he may be required to get also a minimum percentage of votes from every province. As a result, he will have to make himself acceptable to all provinces. In any case, while the rule of the majority is quite legitimate in democracy, the Punjab has never been parochial. It brought Z. A. Bhutto into power and voted twice for his daughter, Benazir. In 2002, its support got a Prime Minister even from Balochistan, which has a population equal to that of just Lahore district. Therefore, any good candidate from any province can become the President in a direct election.

    The U.S. system does not provide real safeguards to smaller states. The focus is always on the states which a large number of electoral votes. In the 2004 elections, the two candidates campaigned in only about 1/3rd of the states, taking the rest for granted, for or against a candidate. Even the system introduced by Ayub Khan was better than this as the candidates had to seek the votes of 120,000 members of Basic Democracies in all parts of the country.