The received wisdom is that countries with proportional representation (PR) will have coalition governments while first past the post (FPTP) generally produces single party rule.
However, there are some glaring exceptions to this model. For example, South Africa may use PR bit when the ANC routinely gets 60-70% of the vote that doesn’t matter a great deal. Even more striking is India which despite having imported a Westminster system including FPTP has more than fourty parties represented in its parliament.
This may seem like a contradiction but it’s not. FPTP does indeed tend to narrow competition down to parties but that can happen at a constituency level rather than a national one. We see this in the UK in certain places: there’s not much point voting Labour in Cornwall or Tory in Glasgow after all.
Most of India now consists of areas like these. Here are some example:
- Kerala where the governing Congress party competes not with the opposition BJP but with the Communists.
- In Jkarland the BJP competes with a regional party.
- Perhaps the most extreme example is Tamil Nadu where the national parties have been excluded to such an extent that electoral battles are actually between two regional parties
The upshot of this is that FPTP actually makes it harder for any single party to accumulate seats. The BJP may be on the rise at the moment but it will still be locked out of vaste swathes of Southern and North-Western India. Therefore to govern it will have to rely on alliances with regional or caste based parties.
In many regards, the winner of 2014 general election is a forgone conclusion. Recent history suggests that neither the BJP or Congress will amass a vote total anywhere near those of the regional parties.
However, these parties do not form a coherent bloc. So what India will get is a prime minister drawn from one of the two main national parties constantly haggling with regional bigwigs to stop them withdrawing their parties from the governing coalition. In short, in India at least FPTP delivers precisely the instability that is often seen as a symptom of PR.