First to the finish line: Electoral outcomes

While it provides cohesiveness, first-past-the-post voting comes from a colonial legacy and could systematically deny representation to some voter groups.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 21:59 IST

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It is hardly surprising that a first-past-the-post (FPTP) election would yield a skewed outcome, but the latest election stands out as the epitome of statistical anomalies and outcomes within the framework.

Traditionally, FPTP tends to grant disproportionate advantages to the single-largest party in a bipolar contest, where even a marginal lead in vote share can translate into a significantly higher allocation of seats. Moreover, it can heavily favour the leading party to the extent that a double-digit lead in vote share could effectively eliminate the second-largest contender from the legislative body, thereby wiping out the entire Opposition during seat allocation.

An illustrative example of this phenomenon is evident in the 2015 Delhi Assembly election, where the BJP secured only three seats (constituting 4.2 per cent of the total) despite commanding a 32.2 per cent vote share. Similarly, in the 2020 Delhi Assembly elections, the BJP managed to secure a mere eight seats (11 per cent of the total) despite garnering 38.5 per cent of the vote share. 

The FPTP system often presents various surprising scenarios, as exemplified by the recently concluded elections.

Numerous possibilities

The first scenario involves the defeat of the party with the largest vote share and the absolute majority of the party with the second-largest vote share.

In the Odisha Assembly elections, for instance, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) garnered the largest vote share at 40.22 per cent, but ended up second in terms of the number of seats won, securing 51 seats out of a total of 147. Conversely, the BJP secured a slightly lower vote share of 40.07 per cent but managed to win 78 seats. 

Notably, the BJD emerged as the runner-up in 90 seats, making it a formidable player (in the top two positions) in 141 seats, while the BJP trailed in 44 seats, establishing itself as a formidable player in only 122 seats. Consequently, the BJP's concentrated vote share in 122 seats contrasted with the BJD's evenly distributed vote share across 141 seats. 

The skewed and asymmetrical support base of the BJP resulted in its victory in 78 seats, while the symmetrically distributed vote share of the BJD constrained it to 51 seats within the FPTP system. Additionally, it is worth noting that the BJP finished third in 25 seats, whereas the BJD finished third in only 6 seats.

Despite securing an absolute majority, the BJP failed to clinch a single seat in Deogarh, Gajapati, Nuapada, and Rayagada districts. In 19 constituencies, there was a direct contest between the BJD and the Congress. Congress enjoyed a superior vote share-to-seat conversion ratio, attributed to its concentrated voter base in the undivided Koraput region, predominantly inhabited by the Kondh tribe in southern Odisha.

Notably, Congress swept all three seats in Rayagada district and secured three out of five seats in Koraput district.

This outcome bears resemblance to the 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections, where the BJP, despite securing 36.35 per cent of the vote share, secured 104 seats, while the Congress, with a marginally higher vote share of 38.14 per cent, won 80 seats. In Karnataka, the Congress’s vote share was more evenly distributed, whereas the BJP’s was skewed, primarily due to a direct electoral battle between the Congress and JDS in the Old Mysore region. Interestingly, the JDS, with an 18.3 per cent vote share, secured 37 seats owing to its concentrated vote bank in the Old Mysore region.

This pattern echoed in the 2024 general elections in Odisha, wherein Congress clinched the Koraput Lok Sabha seat with a mere 12.52 per cent vote share, while the BJD drew a blank despite securing 37.53 per cent of the vote share. In contrast, the BJP emerged victorious in 20 out of 21 seats with a 45.34 per cent vote share.

Unique electoral dynamics

The second scenario involves nearly equal vote shares yielding drastically different seat counts in a multiangular contest. In the Punjab Lok Sabha election, Congress and AAP secured nearly identical vote shares — 26.30 per cent and 26.02 per cent, respectively. Despite this parity, Congress won seven seats, while AAP managed to win only three. Both parties contested all seats independently, without forming any alliances. The electoral dynamics of each constituency were unique, influenced by the presence of multiple parties and formidable independent candidates. This resulted in Punjab becoming a heterogeneous political entity in terms of electoral outcomes. The vote shares of Independents and the Shiromani Akali Dal were concentrated in the three seats they won. Meanwhile, the BJP, despite significantly increasing its vote share to 18.56 per cent, failed to secure any seats and only finished as the runner-up in three constituencies.

Bipolar dynamics

The third scenario involves a 5 per cent vote lead yielding equal results in a bipolar contest. In the Telangana Lok Sabha election, Congress secured 40.10 per cent of the vote share and won 8 seats, while BJP, with 35.08 per cent vote share, also obtained an equal number of seats. This result is surprising, considering the 5 per cent difference in vote share in what was largely a bipolar contest. 

The Congress and the BJP finished as runners-up on eight and seven seats respectively, indicating a relatively uniform distribution of their vote shares across the state. 

In a contest devoid of triangular or multiangular dynamics, the average victory margin may elucidate this unexpected outcome. The Congress’ average victory margin (2,61,424) was nearly double that of BJP (1,35,382), suggesting that the party’s 5 per cent lead in vote share largely stemmed from its disproportionately higher victory margins in individual constituencies. Moreover, in Khammam and Mahabubabad, Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) emerged as the runner-up, while BJP lost its deposit with a vote share below 10 per cent. These factors contribute to the statistical explanation of the final seat tally.

Seat allocation contrast

The fourth scenario involves a sharp contrast in seat allocation, despite nearly equal vote shares in a bipolar contest. 

In Assam, BJP and Congress nearly tied in vote share at 37.43 per cent and 37.48 per cent respectively. Yet, BJP secured nine seats, compared to Congress’ three. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had almost identical vote shares of 9.46 per cent and 9.39 per cent respectively, but Congress won six seats, while BSP did not win any. This discrepancy can be attributed to pre-poll alliances. 

In Assam, BJP and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) formed a pre-poll alliance with an 11-2 seat distribution formula, limiting BJP’s vote share impact to the 11 seats it contested. With AGP holding a 6.46 per cent vote share, the alliance had a combined advantage of 6 to 7 per cent over Congress, resulting in the natural outcome under the first-past-the-post system. A similar scenario occurred in Uttar Pradesh, where BSP contested 79 seats independently while Congress benefited from alliances, explaining why Congress secured more seats while BSP failed to win any.

Impact of the system

It would be an illicit generalisation to say that the final vote share of any party in the FPTP is the party’s actual popular vote share at all. This depends on many factors such as candidate preference, perceived winnability and tactical voting to prevent wasted votes, intersection of strategic voting in different ways, local electoral dynamics, psychological factors and wave-perception during campaigning, and caste identities etc.

Although how many voters actually vote for parties other than their favourite one is still an open question in the FPTP, the propensity of voters to desert their favourite party appears true in terms of strategic considerations.

This nuanced observation of electoral outcomes underscores the complexity of effective vote distribution, the index of Opposition unity, the concept of “majority-minority areas”, and statistical possibilities inherent in the distinct nature of the FPTP system. While it provides stability and cohesiveness in tallying results, simplicity to voters and close bonding between voters and their local representatives, being a legacy inherited from British colonialism, it also has the potential to systematically deny representation to voter groups based on where they live and whether their base is concentrated or scattered. 

In the recent UK election result, for instance, the right-wing party Reform UK suffered the effects of the FPTP. Despite having secured the third-highest vote share of 14 per cent, it just got a mere 1 per cent of seats.

The victorious Labour Party won 63 per cent of total seats with a vote share of just 34 per cent, whereas the runner-up conservative party won 19 per cent of seats with a 24 per cent vote share.


On the other hand, the proportional representation system in a parliamentary democracy seems to be a fair translation of democratic will expressed through popular votes translating into seats in Parliament. But it also has the drawback of lacking local accountability of MPs.

The mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, being practised in Germany, New Zealand and Scotland is a mix of the two aforementioned systems, maintaining direct local representation while ensuring overall proportionality. It provides a mix of local and list MPs, addressing both geographic and proportional concerns. It offers voters the option to vote for more localised accountability of MPs without diluting the impact of their vote on their preferred political party’s final tally in Parliament.

While no system can be 100 per cent perfect, and each has its trade-offs, MMP seems to be a fair balance between simplicity, proportionality, and representational fairness.  

(The writer is Deputy Commissioner of Police with Delhi Police. Views expressed in this article are personal and not those of the government. This column is for academic purposes only.)

Published 06 July 2024, 21:59 IST

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