Presidents, prime ministers…

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).

6 thoughts on “Presidents, prime ministers…

  1. I’ve noticed that American mainstream journalists are incapable of understanding the whole concept of a split executive. Foreign leaders are treated as versions of the US president, or of a state governor, with different titles.

    Usually the head of state is ignored completely, though with France it is the head of government that is ignored. The Queen of England is regarded as something completely separate from the British government, like Madame Tussaud’s.

    The movie “The Queen” may have given many Americans their first look at a democratic government operating completely differently from the one they are used to.

  2. Well, not completely different… Remember that great line from Air Force One: “Well, Ma’m, our Vice-President is kind of like your Queen of England”.

  3. It may (or may not) encourage you that Australian political reporting is as vague on the way (1) presidential systems work and (2) multiparty proportional representation systems work. Once upon a time newspapers and broadcasters had foreign correspondents who actually lived where they reported and had some slight notion of what they were talking about. One unfortunate result of the communications revolution is that you can now give the impression that you understand what you are reporting when in fact you only read a couple of articles on Google news.

    The weirdest part of all this is seeing who resorts to the ‘most complex’ meme when electing the senate comes up. it runs something like ‘Of course we will also be electing half the Senate by the most complex form of proportional representation used anywhere’ and its all too difficult to think about.

    The journo then typically utters a sentence involving minor parties and the unfairness of subjecting the alleged majority (they actually mean plurality) to negotiating with minor parties in order to pass legislation. They do not seem to understand the fairly simple idea that you need a majority of senators and if you do not hold that majority you need to talk to someone. They then go back to reporting the horse race between the prime minister and the opposition leader.

    That is really pretty sad because it’s easy to argue that the senate is the most successful part of our parliamentary machinery.

    Despite our common history and economic relationship with New Zealand, their elections are reported as though they did not use proportional representation and a prime minister could be identified on election night. They then publish random pieces during the government formation phase in New Zealand that merely confirm they do not know what they are talking about. And generally imply that the PR has failed in New Zealand because it can take some time to form a new government.

  4. A. It was amusing recently to view Canadians trying to come to terms with the concept of a coalition government, which was temporarily held as a threat over Harper’s minority government by the opposition. The idea that coalition government is undemocratic, that a party which not only did not receive anywhere near 50% of the votes but wasn’t even able to secure 50% of the seats, still had to hold government by virtue of having a plurality of the votes, was surprisingly common, even amongst supporters of opposition parties.

    B. More surprising still is how many people who LIVE in countries with PR systems, don’t necessarily understand what you said here. Israel is a good case in point. This year, for the first time ever, the party with the largest share of the Knesset did not get to form the government. Many saw this as problematic, or at least surprising, and thought that it is only right that the party with the largest share of the votes gets to form the government, even if the other bloc has a clear majority. Head of Kadima, Tzippi Livni, herself saw her plurality as reason enough to get to form the government, saying “28 is more than 27. What’s not to understand?” (referring to the number of seats Kadima and the Likud got, respectively).

  5. To be fair, the Israeli press was pretty clear from election night onward that Livni was not likely to be PM, despite her party having the plurality. It is hardly surprising that she would try to spin the plurality as giving her certain rights. That was all she had to stand on.

    Of course, the American and British media tended to treat the largest party’s going into opposition as pathological, which only reinforces the main point here.

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