The Influence of Electoral Laws
In this article I will assess the influence of electoral laws on legislative and governmental formation in emerging democracies, using the African country of Malawi as an example. I base my analysis on elections for a legislature that selects a prime minister (a parliamentary system) as opposed to the current presidential system. (I believe that mechanisms that concentrate executive power -- like a strong presidency -- could in the long run be detrimental to the stability of multi-party democracy in Malawi.)
There are many types of electoral systems, but the debate really falls into an analysis of the two predominant types of systems: 1) plurality (to which we can also bracket majoritarian systems, as they have similar properties); 2) proportional representation (PR) systems, which are predominantly of the list or preference voting (PV) variety. There are also semi-proportional systems like Japan's single non-transferable vote.
However, no electoral system is a panacea for a country's ills and our task is to find the least imperfect and potentially most accessible system for the voters of Malawi. In coming to a final decision, trade-offs have to be made between: the representativeness of Parliament and coherency of government; the complexity of the ballot and range of choice given to the elector; proportionality of Parliament and geographic linkage with MPs; and the means and level of accountability of the system.
Electoral systems are merely one cog in the intricate wheel of constitutional design mechanisms, however. If the electoral system is flawed, then this misshapen cog may cause the whole structure to grind to a halt. But for success, it requires the other constitutional mechanisms to be equally as sensitive to the divides and tensions within a particular society.
Other crucial aspects of constitutional design in a developing country include the choice of parliamentary or presidential government, whether there is unicameral or bicameral structure and the degree of separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial levels of government.
Criteria for a Stable Voting System
Divided societies and those with a weak democratic history may be particularly susceptible to instability if any of the following criteria are ignored in the electoral system design process.
1) Representative: In order to maximize legitimacy and ensure a degree of
electoral consent to any government formation, the system must fairly reflect the opinions
of the electorate -- and not just the majority, as Parliament needs to be seen as
representative of the whole country. The people must accept the results as 'just,'even if
their own party or group is not in the majority. As former Chair of the British Electoral
Reform Society Michael Meadowcraft has observed, "the value of the individual vote
should not be distorted by factors of geography, race or class."
Failure to fulfill this criteria in electoral system design, especially in developing countries with a propensity for instability can lead to devastating results. Immediately after Angola's "winner-take-all" presidential election of September 1992, the losing candidate re-instigated civil war, plunging the country into chaos, and costing the lives of at least 25,000 civilians in the following 15 months
2) Accessible: The legislature will only be representative to the extent that people do not feel alienated and excluded from the political process. If people feel their vote has some impact in elections, then they are more likely to work for change within the system rather than support anti-system parties and organizations which feed on societal instability. Accessibility does not merely mean the representation of minority groups; it also relates to the degree of choice a voter has among candidates of different parties, among candidates of the same party and among parties as a whole. Furthermore, accessibility is determined by the nature of the ballot and its ease of use by literate and illiterates alike. As Malawi's 59% illiteracy rate is one of the highest in the world, ballot paper design will be particularly crucial to the prospects for a free and fair election.
3) Reconciliatory: Throughout Southern Africa, and other divided societies, it
is important for the electoral system (as with other constitutional measures) to
facilitate an environment of compromise and reconciliation as opposed to exacerbating
tendencies toward conflict. This does not necessarily mean enforced consensus but, rather,
the mutual recognition of opposing views in the political system.
Systems that exaggerate adversarial, confrontational politics will merely perpetuate the divisions which already exist in Malawi and retard the building of a unified and stable state. The theory and practice of "consociational" power-sharing in divided societies teaches us much about how to facilitate such mutually beneficial compromises among opposition groupings.
There are a number of electoral systems which facilitate the workings of such "consociational governments." Most are methods of PR, but there are also some non-PR electoral systems -- such as Australia's majority preference voting system -- which have been proposed as answers to the problems of divisive electoral politics in already divided societies.
4) Accountable: The government and elected members of parliament must be accountable to their constituents to the highest degree possible. The level of accountable control a voter has over his or her representative depends on "geographical" constituency size considerations and the level of choice among candidates as opposed to parties. Under the most simplified forms of "list PR," there is no direct voter influence over which elected candidates are elected from any one party (such "closed list" systems operate in Namibia and Israel). However, there are ways of building personal candidate accountability into the system even if list PR is used.
5) National Vision: The prospects for stability will also improve if the
electoral system engenders parties based on national concerns and defined political values
rather than ethnic, linguistic or geographic divides. Plurality voting's defenders claim
their system performs particularly well on this criteria, but, if an ethnic group is
sufficiently geographically concentrated, then under a plurality system they may be more
advantaged by appealing to divisive ethnic loyalties rather than national political
is the case with the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party in South Africa, which has advocated
a plurality system for the South African constitution because they might be able to
dominate the seats contested in KwaZulu-Natal -- with a quarter of the South African
electorate -- with only a plurality of votes in that area.
Applying the Criteria to Malawi: The Case for PR
The fundamental reason why drafters of a new Malawian constitution should prefer PR over plurality to elect their new parliament is that PR will largely avoid the anomalies that plurality often produces (especially when used under multi-party conditions). The lack of a clear link between national votes polled and parliamentary seats can be devastating to stability in newly democratizing, politically fragile states.
Distorted results could push Malawi to a civil war of the likes seen in Angola and Mozambique. The study of election results under plurality shows that these fears are by no means groundless, as single party governments are often elected under plurality systems with less than a majority of the popular vote. In new multi-party democracies where there is distrust among groupings, losing groups in these situations may easily resort to extra-parliamentary, destabilizing tactics if they feel cheated by the electoral system.
A system of PR will be inclusive enough to bring minority interests into the legislative arena of government even if they are still excluded from the decision-making structures. Whether they are Malawians from the North, a certain type of religious group or one of the smaller linguistic groups, they will have the opportunity under PR to organize and play a role in national party politics.
An argument leveled against PR is that it gives rise to coalition governments which, in theory, are not as decisive as single party governments. In Malawi, however, multi-party governments could be a blessing. After experiencing an all-encompassing dictatorship since independence, Malawi has reasons to guard against one group taking power and excluding others.
I am optimistic about the possibilities for multi-party democracy in Malawi for the simple reason that there is a strong desire for such a system among the society as a whole -- a desire which has been articulated at substantial cost. However, I strongly believe the continuation of the plurality electoral system in the new multi-party system would seriously retard the establishment of democracy: first and foremost because of plurality's potential for anomalous results, and secondly because of its adversarial and exclusionary character. Although not the only precondition, PR is a necessary precondition for democracy to take root in Malawi.
Andrew Reynolds is author of Voting for a New South Africa (1993: Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman). This article is from a much longer analysis presented at a November 1993 conference.
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