Why I Believe we should Change to A Proportional Representation Electoral System

By Dr. Julius Spencer

Some Background

I was five years old in 1961 when Sierra Leone gained its independence. Although a child, I experienced the exuberance of that period. I have lived in Sierra Leone throughout my life, except for six years while studying in Ibadan, Nigeria. Apart from that, the longest time I have spent out of Sierra Leone has been nine months spent on sabbatical leave at Boston University in 1996/97. 

I have seen my country degenerate from a peaceful country where the rule of law was respected; education was valued and of high quality; and integrity and morality were the norms, to a society where disunity is the order of the day; the law is a respecter of persons; people are prone to resort to violence at the slightest stimulus; and politics and politicking pervades all aspects of our lives to the extent that almost half the population at any given time is willing the government of the day to fail and is, in fact, actively working to ensure this happens. Elections have become a do-or-die affair because people now believe that the surest way to achieve personal success and wealth is through having access to political power. 

I have seen my country go through 11 years of internecine and fratricidal conflict due mainly to injustice and inequitable access to national resources. Fortunately, that conflict did not have religious or ethnic dimensions and we were able to eventually achieve peace and reconciliation. Unfortunately, politics in Sierra Leone has become progressively more toxic and confrontational since we moved away from two cycles of proportional representation (PR) elections in 1996 and 2002 and went back to the First-Past-the-Post or winner-take-all constituency-based electoral system. General elections and bye-elections have become increasingly violent affairs to the extent that many Sierra Leoneans are terrified of what the elections will be like in 2023. We are currently heading downhill at great speed to the edge of a precipice that can only end in another conflict, which this time will be ethnically based and more difficult to resolve. 

We need to change course.

My Campaign

I first proposed a change in our electoral system from first-past-the-post to PR at a national conference organised by ENCISS (a quasi-government organisation) in 2008 as a means of fostering peace and a focus on national development. At the time, my suggestion was dismissed with a wave of the hand by most people. I have since spoken about this at various fora and written articles in newspapers over the years, but not many people paid attention. So for me, it is gratifying that this issue has captured the attention of the nation and is now the subject of discussion and debate in many circles.

Why PR

First of all, as I alluded to above, there are two broad categories of electoral systems, namely: the single-member district, otherwise referred to as the winner takes all or first past the post system and the multi-member district or proportional representation system. These systems generally are used to determine representation in a legislature (parliament, senate, etc.) The key difference between these two systems is that in the winner take all system, a number of people contest for a seat and the person with the highest number of votes wins the seat. Consequently, the winner may not even get up to 50% of the votes, depending on the number of contestants. It is therefore possible (and this has happened many times in Sierra Leone) that the person who ends up representing that district or community was not supported by the majority of people.

In a PR system or multi-member district election, contestants (which are usually parties) get seats directly proportional to the number of votes they secure. So, if, for example, there are 100 seats being contested and five parties contest with each securing the following percentage of votes:

Party A – 40%

Party B – 25%

Party C – 20%

Party D – 10%

Party E – 5%

Party A will get 40 seats, party B 25 seats, party C 20 seats, party D 10 seats and party E 5 seats.

Consequently, each party gets seats at the table which accurately reflect the level of support it has in the community or district, thus ensuring that the various interests and views in the community are taken into account when decisions are made, resulting in a more harmonious society where everyone believes he/she has a stake in the society and is not left out.  

In Sierra Leone, we used one of the forms of PR in 1996 and 2002, which is the closed party list system. In 1996, it was a national list, while in 2002, it was a district list. Under this type of PR system, each party submits a list of people equivalent to the number of seats being contested, ranked in order of preference. Voters cast votes for the party based on its list and people on the list get elected based on the percentage of votes secured by the party. So party A in the example given above, will have the first 40 people on its list elected, party B the first 25 people and so on. Under this system, there is no need for bye-elections if a parliamentarian resigns, dies, etc. The next person on the party list simply takes his or her place. 

Over the past few weeks, I have heard many people arguing against a move to a PR system, some even claiming that it may lead to more violence, etc., arguments I consider lacking substance, full of speculation and not based on any evidence.

When I started my campaign in 2008, 80 countries in the world were practicing some form of PR. Today, there are 94, indicating that more and more countries are adopting PR as their electoral system. As we all know, there are 195 countries worldwide, but 57 of these countries are autocracies. Consequently, PR is by far the most popular electoral system in the democratic world. Many of the countries that consistently score the highest in the annual democracy and good governance index, are huge proponents and practitioners of PR. This includes all of the Scandinavian and Baltic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Austria. Even in Africa, there are several countries practicing PR, such as South Africa and Rwanda, which has the highest proportion of women in its legislature in Africa. Apart from their score on the democracy and good governance index, these are all countries where the quality of life of citizens cannot be compared to that of Sierra Leone.

Some people argue that PR on its own will not solve our numerous political problems and there is a lot that needs to be done to change the general attitude toward governance and politics in the country. This is true, but my position is that nothing will change if we continue the winner take all electoral system, which is clearly not working for us. Let us try something else since we are not insane, because as Albert Einstein says, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. A PR system will break the two-party dominance of politics in Sierra Leone and begin the process of getting all Sierra Leoneans to believe they have a stake in the governance of their country.

However, before the change, we need to decide as a nation, which form of PR to adopt.

My proposal

Unlike most of those involved in the ongoing debate for whom the closed party list system that was used in 1996 and 2002 is the only system they are averting their minds to, I believe we should go beyond that.

The only criticism of the PR system used in the past, which I believe is valid, is the fact that citizens do not directly elect their representatives because they simply vote for a list prepared by party executives. Even though I consider this to be a positive factor, in that it insulates our representatives from the kind of pressure they currently face from their constituents who have come to believe that their representative is their breadwinner, I shall concede and leave that argument for another day.

As a result of my conceding this point, I, therefore, propose that we adopt either an open party list system or a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system for parliamentary elections.

In an Open Party List system, the elector votes for individual candidates on a party’s list of candidates instead of just the list in its predetermined order. Each party then receives a share of the seats proportional to the share of votes their candidates received. And candidates are elected based on the number of votes they received. Voters, therefore, determine the list order of candidates receiving seats, not the party.

In a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system (mixed party and candidate), each elector casts two votes instead of one. On a double ballot, the elector chooses a party of choice and also his or her favourite candidate among those listed. Consequently, candidates on a party list get elected based on the proportion of votes received by the party as well as the number of votes they receive. In other words, while the party gets seats proportional to the votes it receives, the individuals on its list that get elected are those who receive the highest number of votes. This system is very similar to the open party list system.

Alternatively, parties could be required to conduct party primaries to determine who gets onto their party list from each locality. In other words, if we adopt a district-based system, which is what I would suggest, parties will conduct district primaries to determine who gets onto the list for that district. The primaries could even be broken down into regions in districts based on the number of seats available for that district.

In deciding which specific system to adopt, I don’t believe we should limit ourselves to systems that already exist. We should adapt the system to suit our situation. I, therefore, propose that we adopt PR at all levels, from the executive to local councils. 

What do I mean by this?

I am saying that we should conduct PR elections at three levels, namely: Presidency, legislature and local government.

For the Presidency, PR will be applied to the proportion of executive positions each presidential candidate is entitled to, based on the proportion of votes received. In other words, if candidate A receives 45% of the vote, he/she determines 45% of all the government executive positions (ministers, ambassadors/high commissioners, parastatal board members, etc.) There will therefore be no need for run-off elections.

For local government, we could either have a district-based open party list system or stick with the single-seat ward system with a variation in the sense that candidates get to appoint the members of ward committees based on the proportion of votes they secure.

In all of these elections, we need to agree as a nation, on the minimum threshold of votes a party or candidate should receive to be entitled to a seat at the table. In my view, for parliamentary elections, if we adopt a district-based system, the threshold should simply be 100 divided by the number of seats available. In other words, if there are ten seats, the threshold will be 10%, 20 seats will be 5% and so on. The same should apply to local government. For the presidency, I suggest it should not be more than 5%, bearing in mind that the key objective is to broaden representation at that level and bring more views and interests to the table.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I will say that while the PR electoral system is not perfect and without shortcomings, its positive attributes far outweigh its shortcomings. This is why more and more countries in the world are moving to this system. It is generally accepted to be a much more representative system than the winner takes all system and makes for a more peaceful and harmonious society.

If we want to progress and develop as a nation, we have to stop playing musical chairs where two sets of people take turns to monopolise eating the national cake while others starve and ensure that in the future, the cake is shared equitably among all citizens.

Dr Julius Spencer is a former Information Minister and is the owner of Premier News Media

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