Listening to Dr. Julius Spencer on the eve of our nation’s 60th Independence anniversary elucidating the need for electoral reform and proposing proportional representation as an alternative to our present ‘first past the post’ electoral system; was both refreshing and thought provoking. That singular act has once again ignited a debate that is both necessary and salient at this juncture of our nation’s democratic evolution.
Violence, ethnic and tribal sentiments and exclusive politics has dominated and negatively distracted our politics and democracy since the reintroduction of the ‘winner takes all’ electoral system of choosing the candidate with the highest number of votes to represent us in Local Councils and Parliament in 2004 and 2007 respectively.
Our brief experiment with both the proportional representation national list system in 1996 and the district list system in 2002 did not only facilitate the conduct of national elections during the most challenging times in our country’s history, but it sought to and successfully unified this nation by including most of the diverse political units in the governance structure which helped us to achieve peace, reconciliation and relative stability at our most volatile era.
During that period, our nation’s politics attracted people from all walks of life with divergent backgrounds who collectively made our Parliament most vibrant and effective in the discharge of its legislative and over-sight functions with political violence at its most minimal since independence.
The advantages of the proportional represesntation electoral and governance initiative are numerous with immense benefits for our fledgling and challenging democracy which I will endeavour to argue thus:
Proportional representation (PR) is a term often used to describe a range of electoral systems whereby the distribution of seats closely corresponds with the proportion of the total votes cast for each party or individual candidate. The PR system offers positive alternatives to the ‘first past the post’ and other majoritarian voting systems that tend to produce disproportionate conclusions that fail to represent the will of some voters with a bias in favour of larger political parties. PR system on the other hand encourages inclusivity by offering smaller political parties and groupings a better chance to be represented in both the legislature and local councils.
There are various forms of proportional representation. Some are solely focused on achieving proportional representation of different political parties such as the
list PR that we practiced during and immediately after the civil war while others permit the voters to choose between individual candidates. The degree of
proportionality also varies; and is usually determined by factors such as the precise formula adopted in the allocation of seats in each constituency, district or nationally and the level of any minimum threshold for election.
Political violence is slowly becoming endemic in our body politic especially with our intermittent return to the polls for local council and parliamentary bye elections. The PR list system will all but minimize this growing threat as there will be no need for bye elections under that dispensation, as the next man on the list will automatically enter Parliament or Council with the death, resignation or incapacity of an incumbent. Also, the PR system is far less expensive to maintain as the financial challenges of funding bye elections by Government and the campaign rallies and getting out the vote tours by political parties are completely dispensed with. The PR system is also far more likely to achieve the 30% female quota in Parliament and local councils across the nation than the extant majoritarian ‘first past the post’ system. This is made possible because it is easily practicable and far more likely to ensure the 30% quota under the list system than it is for our women folk to win primaries and parliamentary or local council elections under the ‘first past the post’ electoral system we currently practice.
Moving to proportional representation (PR) System in Sierra Leone would bode well for cohesion and inclusivity as it would once again give minority parties and independent candidates a better chance of winning seats in parliament and local councils. Also, the current ‘first past the post’ electoral system is most unrepresentative of the votes cast as candidates can be elected with a very small share of the votes while all other votes cast in the constituency or ward are wasted and unrepresented. Under the PR system on the other hand fewer votes are wasted as more people’s preference are taken into account and PR potentially offers greater and more representative choice for voters.
The PR system also reduce election apathy and encourages greater voter turnout. The system rarely produces an absolute majority for one party while it ensures greater continuity of Government requiring greater consensus in policy-making.
Proportional Representation encourages political parties to campaign beyond districts and provinces where they are strong or where the results are expected to be close. The incentive under PR systems is to maximize the overall vote regardless of where those votes might come from. Every vote, even from areas where a party is electorally weak, goes towards gaining another seat. The system restricts the growth of what is often termed ‘regional fiefdom’. With the PR systems rewarding minority parties with minority of the seats, the scenario is less likely to lead to situations where a single party holds all the seats in a given province or district. This is most important to minorities in a province which may not have significant regional concentrations or alternative points of access to power.
The criticisms most often levied against PR systems is generally centred around the tendency of the system to give rise to the formation of coalition governments and a fragmented party system.
The arguments most often put forward are that it leads to:
- Coalition governments which in turn will likely lead to gridlock and the consequent inability of government to implement coherent policies.
- A destabilizing fragmentation of the party system. It is often argued that the PR reflects and facilitate a fragmentation of the party system as extreme pluralism allows smaller minority parties to hold larger parties to ransom in coalition negotiations
- An easily available platform for extreme parties to thrive as it gives space in the legislature and in local councils of both the extreme left and right.
- Governing coalitions of convenience with insufficient common ground in terms of policies or their support base.
- Smaller parties gaining disproportionately larger amount of power that eventually compel larger parties to form coalitions with smaller parties giving parties with a smaller percentage of votes the power to veto proposals proposed by larger parties.
- An inability of the voter to enforce accountability by voting a party out of power or a particular candidate out of office. Because governments are usually coalitions under the PR system, it is easier for some political parties to be ever present in government despite intermittent weak electoral performances and finally
- Huge challenges for the electorate to understand or for the election management bodies to implement the sometime complex rules of the system which may require more voter education and training of the election management staff.
Our nation is scaringly divided along ethno-regional lines and the electoral and political system at play hardly discourages this ugly trend. A recent case in point is the different and opposite approach to our nation’s 60th Independence anniversary celebrations by the ruling government and the main opposition party.
While government was busy acknowledging the great contributions of its citizens and visiting Heads of State to the development of the motherland; supporters of the opposition party in their major stronghold of Makeni were in black demonstrating against Government’s policy and calling for the resignation or otherwise of the elected President. How unfortunate and disheartening for a nation at 60.
We therefore desperately need a political system that will mandate us to build bridges rather than political fences fueled by ethno-centric sentiments and the sheer desire to rule to dominate.
We can only revert to the shared values of nationalism, unity, freedom and justice crafted by the founding fathers, when we look at Sierra Leone from the lenses of patriotism and nationhood without harbouring dangerous sentiments that are only beneficial to self rather than the nation.
Appreciating the advantages of the PR system is not new to our political culture and its disadvantages are well known and appreciated. These attributes will put us in a better stead to successfully navigate through a system that can unite us more than it can divide us. A system that facilitates the building of consensus, the promotion of political tolerance and the inclusion of minority views and their participation in the governance process.
Let the debate begin and let us guide our people in reviewing our present electoral system and choose the right pathway to unity, peace and prosperity during this period of unlimited challenges.