Thursday, April 16, 2009

The world's biggest election

India, the world's biggest democracy, goes to the polls today in the first round of its five-stage parliamentary elections. Voters across 17 states will elect MPs for 124 constituencies. Other parts of India will follow every week until mid-May. The scale is staggering - all up around 400 million people (out of 714 million eligible voters) will cast a ballot, choosing between 200 parties. Unfortunately, there's a down side: they use FPP, with wildly varying constituency sizes. Looking at the 2004 results, winning a seat takes anywhere from 150,000 to 700,000 votes, depending on which state its in and how well they did in the struggle for federal representation. It's broadly democratic (and the realities of a federal system means that disproportionality is unavoidable) - but its a long, long way from modern best practice.

While the elections will take a month, all the votes will apparently be counted on May 16th, with Parliament reconvening shortly afterwards. So the people who vote today will have to wait a month to see how it went. But the alternative is the US problem of people's votes being influenced by the results of earlier elections - except lasting a whole month rather than the few hours between New York and Hawaii.

As for who will win, the answer is "no-one". In a country as large and diverse as India, no single party can win an overall majority (at least not anymore - Congress used to win majorities in the 80's, but the rise of the BJP has ended that). So inevitably there will be a coalition. The three major groupings are the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, and a "third front" of communists and regional parties. As for which will come out on top, we'll have to wait a month...