Economic Times, September 25, 2013

By Pradeep S Mehta

This week’s “Poke Me”, invites your comments on why we need a National Sarpanch. The feature will be reproduced on the edit page of the Saturday edition of the newspaper with a pick of readers’ best comments.So be poked and fire in your comments to us right away. Comments reproduced in the paper will be the ones that support or oppose the views expressed here intelligently. Feel free to add reference links etc., in support of your comments

A recent poll among over 5,000 young people on who would make a good prime minister, more than half suggested a presidential form of government. Surely, this must have emanated from the sad experiences of horse trading in Parliament over policy debates, including whimsical partners walking out and walking in. This reinforces the point that the Westminster model of democracy is unsuitable for a stable government in India.

It is not only the coalition system but the concomitant pork barrel politics, when the ruling alliance is in minority, that increases uncertainty and impacts national interest and growth. Faced with a similar situation,Sri Lanka moved from a Westminster model to a French-style semi-presidential system in 1978. Our village sarpanches (headmen) are elected directly by the whole village and not by the elected ward panches (councillors). Not only that, in many cities, even mayors are now being directly elected by the whole electorate and not the elected ward councillors. Both sarpanches and mayors are accountable to the council and do not have unfettered powers, but they are stable and not dependent upon a ragtag coalition to function effectively. This system has been brought in after much experience. If we can bring about the change at the local level, why not at the national and sub-national levels?

Many have argued that we need to think of replacing the Westminster model with an alternate system. In the German system, the parliament has a fixed term of four years and a ‘no confidence’ motion has to be accompanied by a ‘for confidence’ motion. This means that even strange bedfellows have to run the government together. During 2005-09, the conservative Christian Democrats ruled in a coalition with their opponents: Social Democrats and Greens.

Our own polity is not so mature that one can imagine a coalition government of Congress and BJP, who together could easily command a majority without any help from minor parties with their own parochial agenda. Other than the stable parliamentary system, the German electoral system too is unique. Half the seats in the parliament are directly elected and another half is indirectly elected on the basis of votes garnered by the parties contesting elections. For all such nominated seats, parties usually select competent people. For any party to get indirect seats in parliament, it needs at least 5% of the total votes cast in a national election. This then prevents smaller parties from coming into the parliament.
Sri Lanka has also introduced the List system on proportional representation, with a cut-off point of 5%, to replace the first-past-the-post system of India. This ensures an accurate reflection of overall voter preference in parliament and assures a stable government. The objective was to eliminate smaller parties from parliament so that a few major parties could populate the house.

The change also limited the term of the president to two terms of six years each, as prevailing in many countries. Alas, in 2010, this was amended to allow a person to be elected president as long as s/he could muster the votes. This was a retrogressive measure. The Sri Lankan system, like the French one, has a directly elected President and a Prime Minister elected by the parliament, who then appoints a cabinet. The Sri Lankan president is quite powerful and is able to function without the support of parliament. The US presidential system is different: the President is directly elected, while both the lower and upper houses are also elected by the people.

While the US president has most powers, including appointing his own cabinet from outside parliament, the US Congress has powers to keep a check on the president through budget controls and a parliamentary committee system. This not only approves all political appointments, but debates policy issues publicly. The semi-presidential form of government in France also enjoys great democratic stability mainly because of the inherent powerful check against the president’s power through an accountability mechanism, namely the inability of the president to dismiss the prime minister. This forces the president to rely on democratic processes, such as compromise and coalition building, to resolve political conflicts and reach a consensus.

To avoid any incidence of autocratic rule by the president a limit on the tenure can also be adopted. South Korea shifted from a presidential form of government to a semi-presidential form of government in 1987 with a directly elected president as the executive head of the government, in order to keep a check on a very strong president. It allows only a single five year term for a president. Thus it brings in fresh blood every five years, rather than limiting it to a person who could become an autocrat. Hence, it appears that the semi-presidential form of government instead of a pure form of presidential government maintains a fine balance between a strong president and a strong legislature, both keeping checks on each other.

Following the French system of government, a directly elected president with well-defined powers is the need of the hour. The elected person will not be easily influenced by the legislature, headed by a prime minister. This resembles our system in India, except for reversing the balance of power between the president and the council of ministers. A directly elected and strong president will not be vulnerable to coalitions. It will have stability of tenure, and will be able to concentrate on governance, than just on staying in government.

The author is Secretary General, CUTS International. Tanushree Bhatnagar of CUTS contributed to this article

This news can also be viewed at: