Alternative Electoral Systems: The Possibilities and Implications for Nigeria

By Dr Jibrin Ibrahim
Published December 28th 2007 in Nigeria Vanguard Online
We believe that the time has come to replace the system with a more representative and fairer alternative. We cannot  continue to accept that a candidate needs to secure only one vote over his rival(s) to win an election and represent the  constituency in the legislature. This is unfair and inequitable and such “victory” tends to breed dissatisfaction and tension  amongst the electorates and candidates alike. It also tends to generate charges of rigging.

We therefore propose that Nigeria adopts a proportional representation system for parliamentary elections. To tie in  geographical representation to the proportional representation system, party lists should be on a state or local government  basis so that elected representatives are still tied to their people, not just to their political parties. Parliamentary  seats will be determined in proportion to percentages scored by political parties in the states or local governments.

A threshold of 5% should be placed to guarantee seats for parties so that extremely small parties do not clog the national  and state parliament. This type of proportional representation is easy to implement and fair. Our neighbours in Niger  Republic have a similar system proportional representation system based on party lists that are based in the eight states in  the country. Indeed, the new tendency in Africa is the move away from majoritarian systems and towards different forms of  proportional representation systems since South Africa and Namibia introduced the trend a decade ago.

Why We Need a Proportional System: Proportional representation is an electoral system that has a high correlation between  amount of votes a political party wins in an election and the number of seats they win in the legislature. There are two main  systems for proportional representation: party list proportional representation (List PR) and the single transferable vote  (STV).

Most nations that use a proportional representation system use a list proportional representation system. Only two countries,  Ireland and Malta, use the STV system. Countries that use a List PR system include South Africa, Benin, Namibia, Turkey, the  Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Sweden, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Brazil among others. Advantages: Proportional representation  has a number of clear advantages: 1)    The main advantage of a PR system over other systems is that it produces a  legislature that closely reflects how the population voted in an election. Unlike in a First Past the Post (FPTP) system,  which is often described as a “winner takes all” system, PR allows minority parties a chance to participate in the  legislature, thereby giving rise to a more diverse legislature. In order for the victorious party to govern effectively, they  need to work with a wide array of parties to ensure the success of their policies. PR therefore encourages consensus building  between different political groups.

Often parties are required to form coalitions to build a majority in the legislature and this also ensures that no one party  dominates the national agenda. Most countries that adopt a PR system have legislatures in which a large number of parties are  represented, rather than two (or three) parties _ which is the case in most FPTP systems. 2) The PR system also results in  very few “wasted votes”. When thresholds for a seat in the legislature are low, almost all votes cast in a PR system go  translate into seats for a political party. For example, in a FPTP system, if a candidate wins 45% of the vote while his/her  opponent wins 55% of the votes _ there is a tendency to believe that 45% of the votes were “wasted”.  In a PR system, 45% of  the seats would still go to the losing party _ thereby ensuring that district’s voting preferences are reflected in the  legislature. 3) Because parties gain seats depending on the total percentage of votes they win, a PR system encourages  political parties to campaign throughout the country.

In many FPTP systems, political parties only campaign in their strongholds, or as in the US, in closely contested areas _  preferring not to campaign where they do not enjoy broad support. In a PR system, parties have a real incentive to campaign  in areas where they are not strong. If a party wins 15% of the vote in an area where they are weak, they will still win 15%  of the seats in that electoral district, thereby increasing their representation in the legislature. 4) Similarly, PR also  restricts the development of regions where one party is dominant. In a FPTP system, a given party might win all the seats in  a particular region of the country. This often leaves supporters of other parties in that region feel unrepresented.

However, under a PR system, no single party is likely to win all the seats in an electoral district or region of the country.  Another benefit of this is for small parties without a regional concentration to gain representation in the legislature. 5)  Finally, PR systems encourage power sharing between parties. This is because it is very difficult for any political party to  gain an outright majority in the legislature because of the large number of political parties represented. In many countries,  political parties often have to form coalitions to form a government. This encourages dialogue and consensus building in  order for a government to implement policies. Disadvantages: A PR system has a number of disadvantages that should form part  of the debate:

1) In many countries, PR has given rise to weak coalition governments that are unable to achieve anything. Countries such as  Belgium have had dozens of failed governments with elections being called at an average of nearly once a year since 1945. The  presence of coalition governments often leads to legislative gridlock, without the government being able to form coherent  policies because of the plurality of competing agendas. 2) PR systems can also result in smaller parties having a  disproportionate amount of power.

This applies especially to smaller parties that are part of a coalition government. Often, these small parties can hijack  government policy and dominate the national agenda _ even if they only won a small percentage of the total number of national  votes. 3) Because PR systems benefit smaller parties, they often provide parties with extremist ideologies an opportunity to  gain representation in the national legislature.

In many European countries that use a PR system, far_right parties have been given a national platform despite being  relatively unpopular. 4) Under a PR system, it is often very difficult to hold a government accountable for its policies in a  coalition government. If voters are not pleased with their government’s performance, they often find it difficult to hold a  given party accountable and vote for a new government. This is why many countries that adopt PR systems often replace one  weak government with another after an election.