Your Platform: Must the Winner Always Take All?

By Peter Mulira
Published February 4th 2004 in All

Ever since the 1961 general elections which ushered in the internal self-government of Ben Kiwanuka, election results in Uganda have been controversial.

The 1961 elections which were won by DP had been effectively boycotted by Buganda leaving the winner with the slightest of plurality votes in the region. This left the region psychologically isolated in the national fold.

The subsequent independence elections in 1962 were again won by the DP in the rest of the country but through an ingenious scheme devised to hold indirect elections in Buganda. At the expense of DP, UPC was able to acquire all the 21 seats from the region, this enabled it to gain the majority of seats in the national assembly and thus form the first independence government. DP was left out in the cold and felt cheated through an undemocratic process.

For 18 years the country did not hold elections until the post-Amin elections which ushered in the second UPC administration in 1980. However, popular belief held that the military Commission under Paulo Muwanga stole the elections in favour of UPC and this led to the six-year bush-war.

Some interesting stories abound about the 1980 elections but perhaps the most poignant one is the one about the urbane Wilson Okwenje (UPC) who is said to have graciously conceded defeat to his DP rival in Tororo only to find on reaching Kampala that the votes had been reversed in his favour and he was the winner.

In the subsequent two general elections held under NRM/Movement administration in 1996 and 2001, the losers claimed that they were cheated out of their victory by the incumbent group. On this ground the multipartysts boycotted the elections of 2001.

It is against such a background of unsatisfactory election results, at least to a significant segment of our society, that one finds it strange that, given that press reports are correct, the Constitutional Review Commission recommended the continuance of the system of elections of winner-take-all which has been practiced in all the previous elections. This is many people, the cause of some of the country's problems.

The winner-take-all system of election which evolved in Britain and was bequeathed to all its former colonies, including the United States but excluding South Africa, has a number of short-comings among which is the fact that it produces winners with minority votes and leaves in many cases the majority "unrepresented."

For example in a constituency with 30,000 voters and five candidates it is not unusual for a winner to scrape through with 12,000 votes -less than 50% of the votes. Assuming that all the registered voters turned out and voted, the winner will have had 18,000 votes against him and this group of people will always feel unrepresented. This leads to lack of interest and low turn-out in subsequent elections, especially where incumbent party candidates are deemed to have an unfair advantage over others.

It is interesting to note that Britain, the US and France are the only countries in the western democracies which use the winner-take-all system of elections. But even so in Britain and the United States there is a change to proportional representation taking place in local and municipal elections. Semi-autonomous Scotland uses the Proportional Representation (PR )system.

Under the PR system representatives are elected from multi-seat districts in proportion to the number of votes received. This system ensures that parties or candidates will have the percentage of legislative seats that reflect their public support.

There are various types of the PR system but we find the "list system" would be more manageable in Uganda's context if adopted. Under this system the voters select one party and its slate of candidates to represent them. If the party receives 50% of the votes it receives 50% of the seats.

Translated into practical terms, if the law provides for one representative per population of 20,000 people and a district is made up of 100,000 people that district will have five representatives in the legislature. If party "A" wins 50% of the votes it will take three seats, necessary adjustment being made in its favour to avoid the absurdity of a "fractional representation."

As the country moves towards the multi-party democracy era it is incumbent on us to ensure that each party will have better opportunities of sending representatives to Parliament than has been the case with winner-take-all type of elections. We should study the suitability of multi-seat districts as the basis for electing our MPs. This calls for: -

lA shift from the concept of a constituency based on counties. There is no apparent immortal logic in having constituencies based on counties. We should move to new levels of aggregates of interests based on larger geographical areas, in this case our administrative districts.

lThe party and its programmes should replace the individuals as the criterion for election although personal charisma and ability cannot be completely ruled out.

lThe MP's role should change from that of a jack-of-all -trades to one of the representative of people's views as well as a specialised legislator. Being freed from the affairs of county politics and administration will enable our MPs more time to focus on specialised areas of national interest and endeavour.

lElectors should move away from the idea of owning their representatives. After all in a winner-take-all situation not everybody votes for the successful candidate. Voters should belong to a party of their choice and not to "our man."

At the end of the day the percentages won by each party in the district will reflect the composition of Parliament.

For example if party "A" wins 70% of the seats in a Parliament of 210 members it will have a total of 147 members.

Should the president invite the leader of that party to be prime minister and form a government as in France?

The PR system has merit. It encourages greater turn-out because there are more choices for voters. It fosters a greater number of minorities to be elected. In the US where winner-take-all is practiced only 11% women were elected to legislative office in 1994. On the other hand in countries with the PR system the percentage of women elected in the same year was much higher as in, Sweden (41%), Finland (39%) and Norway (36%). this system is worth introducing in Uganda if we are to get rid of the perennial short-comings inherent in the winner-take-all system. But most pertinent is the fact that introducing the PR system will not be a constitutional issue. It only requires Parliament to amend the Election Law.

Bearing the above in mind I wish to recommend the following changes in our electoral system: -

The idea of constituencies should be abolished and be replaced by the district as the unit for electing representatives of Parliament.

Each MP should represent (or as the case may be) a minimum number of people set down in the electoral law say 10,000 and this will determine the total number of representatives per district. Thus if the district has a population of 30,000 people it will be entitled to three MPs.

Candidature will be through political parties but independent candidates will also be allowed.

A voter will have as many votes as the number of representatives from the district.

A voter will be entitled to spread his votes among the candidates standing or give them to one candidate/party

The first three, or as the case may be, candidates with the highest votes will represent the district in parliament.

The writer is a lawyer and a minister in the Buganda government