Reforming the Country's Electoral System

By Osaretin Imahiyereobo
Published June 23rd 2004 in Daily Times of Nigeria

FROM time to time, every institution goes through a period of introspection or soul searching. Such is the very nature of any vibrant institution which goes through the process to reassure itself of the cogency of the institution and beyond that, setting up additional initiatives as may serve to reinforce its continuing relevance.

In the past few months, particularly, after the 2003 general elections, electoral reform has become one issue on many groups’ reform agenda. Before now, the call for reforming the electoral system received little scrutiny because politicians did not see it as important. But they have suddenly realised the role the electoral system can play in their success or failure at the polls; hence, the frantic efforts being made to ensure that the system is reformed.

Let us start by making a rather obvious point, which is sometimes forgotten. Of what relevance is the electoral system? The electoral system is one critical institution which shapes and influences the rules of political competition for state power because it determines what parties look like, who is represented in the legislature, how accountable these representatives are to the electorate and above all who governs.

More importantly, the way in which an electoral system translates votes into seats in elected assemblies may influence the degree of public support for the democratic system itself. It is the means by which elections are formally structured, and thus, a vital component in the achievements of these goals. If, for example, citizens do not perceive that their preferences are adequately reflected in the legislature, following an election, their support for the system in general is likely to decline, turnout during elections will drop off, respect for politicians and elected representatives will fall, and laws enacted by government will not be seen as fully legitimate.

The importance of the system and its influence on the degree of support for the democratic system itself may have informed President Olusegun Obasanjo’s call in his address at the Independence National Electoral Commission (INEC)-Civil Society Forum Seminar on “Agenda for Electoral Reform” for the re-examination of the very foundation of the nation’s electoral system, which he said, determined winners and losers, as well as their respective fates.

While canvassing a closer look at the advantages and drawback of the current system in the context of the nation’s experience, Obasanjo said: “With so much deployed in the pursuit of electoral victory, and often with total regard for laws and norms, winners and losers all become victims of a system that emphasises so much difference between winning and losing. Winners become cynical even in victory, because their victories were acquired at great cost to themselves and the system, and losers retreat to count their losses and arm themselves for the next battle for an elective office and its spoils”. According to him, “those who framed our constitution and electoral act must have had their reasons for adopting the first-past-the-post system, which bestows on the winner by even the narrowest margins of votes, victory, and the loser, virtually nothing”.

Ordinarily, the President said, losers in elections also have a critical role to play, and unless they play these roles through constructive opposition and constant preparation to offer alternative leadership, the winner wins more than an election, he possesses power even that which he is not intended to possess. The situation, according to him is dangerous for any democracy, not just because it reduces all political activity to the role objective of wining elections, but also because without an effective opposition, democracy becomes a farcical mimicry of its fundamental assumptions.

The electoral system and the actual practice of elections have been one of the most important factors shaping political parties. The intensely personalised character of parties derives partly from the fact that individual candidates are elected in a “first-past-the-post” system. As one political analyst put it, “during elections, it is not so much the political parties that are the real mobilisation but the candidate’s electoral machinery and network of relatives, the network of relatives, friends, political associate and allies”. Because at the base of the electoral system, the power and status of families are at stake, all means are availed of, including cheating and violence to achieve victory.

The country inherited the first-past-the post (plurality/winner-take-all) system for electing most of her public officials many years ago from the colonial masters. In their deliberations on the future of the nation, they were probably influenced by their own idealism and possibly assumed that people with similar ideals would lead the country in the years to come. Need we remind ourselves that some of the assumptions and the expectations of the founding fathers of the nation are not valid today? Although, the country has changed dramatically over the years but the electoral system has remained essentially unchanged.

The question then arises, how can we improve the performance and accountability of government by making the electoral system meaningful? How can we reform the way we elect our representatives in the state and National Assemblies? These and several other questions should bother the nation’s representatives at the state and national legislatures if they really mean well for the nation. The criteria include whether or not it ensures a functional representation, makes elections accessible and meaningful, provides incentives for reconciliation, facilitates stable and efficient government, holds the government and representatives accountable, promotes opposition in the legislature, encourages cross cutting political parties, as well as cost and administrative capacity to conduct elections.

The choice of a system can influence the way parties campaign and the way political elite behave. It determines the broader political climate, encourages, retards the forging of alliances between parties, as well as provides incentives for parties and groups to be broad-based and accommodating, rather than yield to the narrow appeals of ethnicity ties. In addition, if an electoral system is not considered “fair” and does not allow the opposition to feel that they have the chance to win next time, such a system may encourage losers to work outside the system using non-democratic, confrontationalist and even violent tactics, which is exactly what is happening in Nigeria today.

There is a school of thought which argues that the winner-take-all system is one of the causes of the problems facing the democratic project. To this school, with an alarming erosion of representative democracy occurring at local, state and federal levels, this is not the time to be stuck to the flypaper of old ideas. They further argue that elections could be vastly improved by upgrading the antiquated 18th century winner-take-all system in favour of more modern full representation systems.

It is the view of this school that a revision of the existing system and an introduction of the party list system or an outright shift of the whole system to proportional representation remains the solution to the problems. If voters choose between parties, instead of individual candidates, they argued, it would lessen the intensity of personal contests, which are the main sources of violence and money politics. Parties will then be required to strengthen the organisational and programmatic requirements for electoral victory. Minimally, parties will be forced to distinguish themselves from each other, enough for voters to make choices. The shift in the central of gravity away from individual candidates will force parties to strengthen themselves organizationally.

Whichever way the argument goes, the goal of any electoral system, it must be emphasised is good government that serves the specific needs of the body politics, and ensures accountability. The efficacy of government depends directly on the vitality of political institutions and the democratic process. The fact is that no one form can adequately address the issue of representation, especially if the various criteria of equal representation based on population are applied.

The electoral system and the actual practice of elections have been one of the most important factors shaping political parties. The intensely personalised character of parties derives partly from the fact that individual candidates are elected in a first-past-the-post system. During elections, it is not so much the political parties that are the real mobilising organisations but the candidate’s electoral machinery and network of relatives, friends, political associates and allies. Because at the base of the electoral system, the power and status of families are at stake, all means are exploited including cheating and violence to achieve victory.

The most profound reforms that will therefore make the country’s democracy work will be the replacement of her 18th century winner-takes-all election methods, one where 50.1 per cent of voters have the power to win 100 per cent of legislative representation. Fortunately, other electoral arrangements offer great promise to alleviate the conditions which the first-past-the-post system tends to create. Full representation voting system which is also known as proportional representation with items like choice voting, cumulative voting and party list voting have been designed to reform the defects of the winner-takes-all system. However, reforming the system will only succeed if the process will be peaceful and civilised and if the major actors will observe the principles of social and political justice. The country has to be thorough and original in its approach to changes and not necessarily rely only on, or copy other’s experiences. There are stable elements in the nascent democracy. A multi-party system has been a reality at least in the last few years; what is required of the political class is to ensure that the process succeeds.

What the nation desires now is the restoration of faith in the political process. Nigerians must have passion for politics. Ordinary people must believe once more, that they matter. What this means is that what they think, feel or desire, matters. That what they say is heard in the corridors and halls of power. That they are not mere pawns in the electoral games of the elite and the powerful. An energised democracy demands, at minimum, diverse representation, meaningful choices across the political spectrum, full participation before and after elections and a robust public debates. Voters must hear from a range of candidates, have a reasonable chance of electing their preferred representatives instead of the lesser of two evils, and feel that they are electing a responsive government that makes a positive difference in their lives.

The times urgently demand not only a clarion call for better democracy, but a stronger infrastructure for a durable democratic movement. We need dedicated and trusted politicians who will put aside selfish interests to lobby for a vigorous agenda of democratic reforms. As democracy advocates, they should push for a range of reforms, setting priorities based on local opportunities for change and not a fight for personal gains as most of them are doing now. The opportunity created by the current review of the 1999 Constitution by the National Assembly makes such an effort even more imperative.

The question is: can it be done? Collectively, with reformist legislators, party activists and the civil society teeming up with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), it can be done because stakeholders can only find common ground by moving on to higher plane. That is, putting in place an electoral system worthy of the people’s trust, confidence and loyalty. The Nigerian people deserve nothing less.