The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

The Modified Swiss-PR System: Does it work for Ashokan Politics?

  • by Ananya Gupta UG’22 and Agnidh Ghosh, UG’23 

This article is the first in the Edict’s series: HoR Insights. The series takes a deep dive into discussing the House of Representatives of Ashoka University’s Student Government. Working its way forward from this article’s take on the Modified Swiss Proportional Representation system that the HoR elections follow, this series will provide a thorough analysis of the House. This article sets the tone for the series by bringing forward issues with the newly reformed electoral system. 

We have spent much of the last year talking about overhauling the structure of the SG, doing away with the old order, and establishing a new one. However, one of the strongest remnants of the old order is the Modified Swiss PR system that was introduced after a referendum on 21st November 2019 and remains firmly cemented in our election processes. This system confuses voters at best and disadvantages independents at its worst.

The Swiss PR implements a system of proportional representation. Each voter gets to cast 15 votes in total, for parties and independents. The modified Swiss PR was revolutionary in allowing voters to cast their votes across party and independent candidature lines. It broke away from the one-person-one-vote method. Now, a  voter was not compelled to choose between independents and parties. This allowed independents to have a fair chance, as there was no longer a trade-off between independent candidates and entire parties.  Based on the votes garnered, the EQ (Electoral Quotient)  is calculated. The system works on a dual-EQ format, i.e., two kinds of EQs are calculated – the EQ for independents and the EQ for parties. If an independent candidate receives votes greater than the independent EQ, they secure a seat in the house. Similarly, a party secures x number of seats in the house, if the total votes received by the party (individual votes of each candidate +list votes) crosses the party EQ x number of times. For eg, a party with a total of 2400 votes crosses a party EQ of 800 three times, then three candidates with the highest number of individual votes in the party list, are offered a seat. 

The process of Party EQ calculation is as follows: the votes each individual candidate in the electoral cycle receives are added to the list votes** garnered by all parties. This sum is then divided by 15. On the other hand, the Independent EQ is calculated by dividing the number of votes all individuals in the election cycle receive by 15. It’s clear that the difference between the two EQs is the list votes. When the number of overall list votes increases, party EQs become higher in comparison to independent EQs, and hence more difficult to surpass. A large number of list votes indicates a higher tendency to vote along party lines, as through list votes a voter is “showing their faith in a party”. This implies that for independents to succeed in the current electoral system, elections must be made more political, or partisan. 

Kshitija Chavan, an independent candidate who contested for a seat in the 7th HOR, received the second-highest number of votes in the election (526 votes). A partisan candidate in the same cycle entered the house with 189 votes, whereas, Kshitija who garnered almost thrice this number was left out. They were only offered a seat after a bout of resignations. A similar situation was observed in the elections to the 6th HoR, where independent candidates who amassed a sizeable proportion of the total votes cast, did not make it to the house. In both the elections conducted after the switch to the Modified Swiss-PR system, independents have experienced this skewed definition of success. 

While objectively, we see that the Modified Swiss PR disadvantages independents, the proponents of Swiss PR point contend otherwise. They argue that the high number of discarded votes in each election cycle is the reason for the failure of independent candidates. Had the discarded votes been list votes instead, the party EQ would increase and the independent EQ would be low enough in comparison, it would have allowed for Kshitija to become an HoR member.  Mathematically, it makes sense. However, we see that the problem isn’t the volume of discarded votes in itself, but also where they should’ve been put. This is where the Modified Swiss-PR system becomes prescriptive in nature. If every voter utilized their designated 15 votes to vote for individuals only, both independents and party candidates, and chose to cast minimal list votes– the independents would still be at a disadvantage. The vision for Swiss-PR was to create a scalable, party-driven Ashokan politics where parties “cultivate a unique identity”, and list votes are the preferred choice while voting. The Swiss-PR system is most effective and gives all contenders a fair chance when there is a large volume of list votes. This is because it has been modeled on a voting system used by actual states, where individual distinctions between politicians in the vast terrain of national politics is almost non-existent, and citizens mostly vote along party lines. But does this align with the way Ashokan’s vote? 

When we embark on making the system more partisan, there is the obvious risk of drowning out individual voices and overshadowing independent candidates in robust “identity-defining” campaigns parties undertake. However, historically, there has been almost no polarity or divergence in Ashokan politics, with most parties subscribing to similar ideological tenets. Additionally, we also see how differentiating themselves from each other isn’t beneficial to parties contesting under the current electoral system either. Why would they invest their energies in obtaining greater list votes, when this reduces their probability of success? Especially when in the calculation of the party EQ, votes received by individuals and list votes have the same weightage. 

In the previous general elections, Tarz tried to leverage the advantages of individuating their candidates – positioning themselves as “a collective of individuals”, all of whom have different priorities. By doing this, they claimed that they were “adapting to a new electoral circumstance under the modified Swiss PR”.  The reasoning behind this line of thought has been – if all the candidates from a party have the exact same stance, how can a voter choose one over the other in the party list? The voter is no longer just hitting the ASS button during ballots, as one does in national/state elections, but now also deciding who from ASS deserves to be in the house. And that’s a substantive decision to make. Paradoxically then, the Swiss-PR seems most conducive to individualization while it aspires for partisanship. 

Even as Tarz overtly emphasized creating distinctions between its candidates, other parties in the past have done it in subtler ways (think about individual posts on the Prakrit page describing and championing each candidate). The reason for this strategy is that Ashokans have little tendency to vote along party lines. In the elections to the 7th HoR, the volume of NOTA votes was so high (1920), it sanctioned two NOTA seats in the house. This was a show of no confidence against parties even before things began to go drastically south. In the 7th HoR by-elections, no parties contested leaving the field open to independent candidates solely. The Ashokan student body is relatively small, and looking at the statistics, voting choices are often made based on a sense of personal connection with each candidate. In the debates, voters evaluate candidates based on their passion, articulation, and their knowledge of the workings of the Student Government. In election-related events, like Gully events, candidates often represent themselves strongly, and it bolsters the general perception that candidates make the party and not vice versa. The pull is the candidate. A candidate’s choice to join a certain party is almost treated as arbitrary. While party affiliations cause some sway, they aren’t the most vital factor when it comes to deciding whether someone deserves your vote. 

The conundrum faced with respect to independent candidates is that, ironically, the Ashokan elections are too individuated for an independent candidate to succeed. This means that there are no contrasts drawn between independents and party candidates, who are being judged on the same parameters. However, a party candidate has some guaranteed votes from within the party, more resources, and technical advantage in the Swiss-PR system making their success rate much higher. 

We see then, that the Modified Swiss-PR system (no matter how well-intentioned) is extremely incongruent with the Ashokan electorate. The system emphasizes parties in an environment where parties are dissolving like fizzy tablets. It was implemented in an electoral culture that values individuality – a fact that came to the fore post-analysis of the election data of the previous two cycles. Perhaps the alarming number of discarded votes in the last two general elections (33% in 2020, increasing to 36.9% in 2021)  should not be seen as a failure of parties or the electorate to adapt and evolve, but rather as an indication of the system’s unsuitability for Ashokan politics. It seems to be superimposed onto the Ashokan student body, in the hopes that we will slowly adjust along its contours. Perhaps the kind of politics suited to Swiss-PR was the vision House Members who proposed it had for Ashokan politics in the long run, but that’s highly patronizing. The system right now is serving an imaginary Ashoka, while on the ground, independents have been systematically sidelined. 

** list votes are the votes each given to a party as a whole, and not to an individual candidate from the party list. The name is derived from the term party-list, and so in essence, a list vote means voting for the entire party list. 

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