India’s general election is underway. It goes in stages–not all of the country votes on the same day–and it will be about a month before the process is completed, but once the vote-counting begins, it will be a matter of hours before results are known. Most of India’s polling places use electronic voting machines.
But none of this is what this planting is about. No, it is more a ranting: Why can’t the media understand even basic comparative politics?
On Tuesday afternoon, I heard a report on National Public Radio that asserted that, following this election, the party with the most votes in parliament would choose India’s next president.
What’s wrong with that statement? Let’s see, where should we begin? Perhaps with the recognition that India is a parliamentary democracy with a rather extreme multiparty system. These elections will determine the make-up of the first chamber of parliament, the Lok Sabha. And the next prime minister will depend on the outcome of not only the election itself, but the post-electoral bargaining situation. There is no guarantee that the prime minister will be from the party with the most seats in the Lok Sabha, because no party will win a majority on its own, and perhaps no pre-electoral alliance will have a majority, either. Even if one of the pre-electoral alliances has a majority of seats, there may very well be a bigger party (in terms of seats in the Lok Sabha and/or popular votes), but without the alliance partners needed for its leader to become the prime minister.
This election is not likely to result in a majority for any of the main pre-electoral alliances, leaving several possibilities to result after the election, including a small chance of a reunion of the current governing Congress Party-led alliance and its erstwhile partners on the left.
As for the president of India, she has been in office (we can’t say “in power,” but that’s getting ahead of ourselves) since 2007. She has a fixed term, which will extend until 2012. These elections have no bearing on the tenure in office of the president, who is in any case elected not by parliament nor the voters, but by an electoral college (of which parliament–both houses–is a part, along with representatives of states).
Fairly cursory glances at the websites of both the presidency and the current prime minister will give one a clue as to who is the more powerful actor in Indian politics. (Hint: the more powerful one is the one that has policy featured prominently on the front page, and not the one that shows ceremonies, has links to views of residences, and banquet speeches.)
So, to sum up today’s crash course in comparative politics, in India, as in other parliamentary systems, general elections determine who will be prime minister. Sometimes the process of determining who will be the prime minister–and the rest of the cabinet–is rather indirect, based on the bargaining strengths in parliament that the election has directly determined. And the prime minister may not be from the party with the most seats (unless that party has a majority on its own).