Interpreting Election Results in America, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

Muhammad Najm Akbar

November 11, 2018

Elections in America, November 6, in Pakistan late July this year or in Sri Lanka in 2015, or whenever, can pose a continuing problem of interpreting the results. What do the voters, the participant sovereigns want? Should their votes be disregarded if they were part of the 49.99 percent that failed to join the electoral victors?  Shouldn’t a democratic system define and account for the “losers” as well?

United States is the most complex electoral system when it comes to determine winner and losers.  This paradox has resurfaced following the mid-term elections as well.  Looking at the statewide presidential vote, the winner takes all approach disregards all the voters in a state who do not count towards the victor. Once a winner gets advantage of the popular majority vote, this does not ensure a victory at the national level as the minority vote can still prevail in the Electoral College, totally upsetting the purpose of one person one vote or the majority that ensues from it or the overall percentage of popular vote in all states. Mid-term elections, such as of November 6 in America, complicate the picture even further. While mid-term, more than any opinion poll, represents the current state of the aspirations of the electorate, the existing power structure can chose to totally ignore it. The overwhelming majority of electorate in America, for example, cannot get a single member of the middle or higher levels of judiciary into office or a fair share of weightage in policies towards healthcare and immigration. The minority vote, through the Electoral College and the composition of the Senate, gets it all. The popular majority voters are losers, in most respects.

In Pakistan and India, the federal states with parliamentary systems based on first-past- the-post system, interpreting the will of the electorate is even more of an uphill task. In the United States, dominant two-party system precludes fragmentation of votes among multiple parties or candidates which is the hallmark of elections in the subcontinent. The outcome is, therefore, multi-directional. According to PILDAT, Pakistan, report on the elections 2018, “The percentage of votes computed after the Election Day is 43.0% for PTI; 23.16% for PML-N; 15.8% for PPP and 17% for all other parties.” In terms of vote count, according to the same report, “PTI has received 16860675 votes nationwide followed by PML-N with 12907190 votes and PPP at number 3 received 6899830 votes.” In this three-way split, two closest rivals of the ruling party put together polled approximately 3 million votes than her. Counting all the votes, some fifty-three percent “losers” did not join the victory parade. True, the ruling party later expanded its lead by winning allies but the question remains that in a federal structure, can winners afford to ignore main blocks of these “losers” particularly when in several pockets of the electoral map, they also constitute clear majorities? What is the best way to meaningfully acknowledge the sentiments of these ‘losers”?  Certainly, the federation launching a housing program in a federating unit through a federation-appointed governor, ignoring the government of the federating unit, is not a democratic way of governance at all. A federal minister threatening a federating unit of “governor Raj” is equally objectionable.

Sri Lanka offers a deeper layer of complexity. The country elects a Parliament through a more thoughtful representational system.  The current Parliament was elected in 2015 for five years and yet the President chose late last month to appoint a former rival as prime minister and then this week opted to dissolve the legislature, refusing to give it a chance to vote for the leader of the house.

Democracy would be a more imperfect system of governance if the winners failed to interpret the electoral verdicts equitably. A majority vote, based on relative popular electoral majority or on the Electoral College minority-majority, gives a person or a party the right to govern, democratically. There is no fixed political formula about what it means but we can easily figure out what it must not mean. It does not allow a ruler to become “undemocratic” or authoritarian. Ruling persons or parties must always figure out ways to accommodate legitimate concerns and aspirations of the losing minority or popular majority vote,  whether in U.S., Pakistan or Sri Lanka.

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Najm Akbar

I have remained focused on the interface of history and policymaking while pursuing graduate studies in history at Fresno State, developing on three years of my education at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (MA 1995, MALD 2011). While teaching Urdu between 2005-2018, or holding diplomatic assignments between 1981-2002, the intersection between these two processes has been the mainspring of my personal, professional and intellectual pursuits. This platform would continue that endeavor.

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