Democracy, First-Past-The-Post, Voting Systems

First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) disarms Matabeleland

As is now the norm after elections in Zimbabwe, the 31 July 2013 election outcome was immediately followed by complaints from the main opposition, the MDC-T, who felt the process had been littered by numerous abnormalities, including in the counting of votes.

ZANU PF has a well established history of doing all it takes to retain power, so we cannot rule out the presence of a dirty hand influencing outcome once again. The opposition may have had a point, the result may well have been partially an outcome of ZANU PF’s manipulation efforts but, as I argued soon after the election, I still have no reason to believe the MDC-T was good for a win; ZANU PF won that one.

While debate on the conduct of elections is vital for a democracy, we also need to evaluate how fair the whole voting system is; we will focus on the suitability of the first-past-the-post (FPTP or FPP) voting system in the allocation of parliamentary seats in Zimbabwe.

A close scrutiny of the results, in particular (but not exclusively) in Bulawayo and Matabeleland casts a cloud on any suggestion that the outcome of the 31/7 election was a true reflection of the electorate’s wishes and a highlight of representative democracy. There is nothing representative about a winner with more votes but not the majority of the support as permitted by the FPTP voting system.

The FPTP is preferred by many developing countries for its apparent simplicity: it is perceived as simple to understand, cheaper to administer, quicker to count votes and quicker to find winners compared to other systems as the candidate with the most votes wins irrespective of the percentage or margin of the advantage granted by votes received.

In Bulawayo East a winning MDC-T candidate led by a narrow majority of 10 votes after receiving 4,550 votes against a total of 4,540 votes received by an MDC candidate. It sounds neither right nor fair that 10 votes are allowed to determine the fate for thousands of people.

Perhaps the most significant advantage of the FPTP system is that it tends to produce single-party governments thereby reducing reliance on other parties for support to pass legislation. However, at its worst, the system puts to question the whole notion of ‘democratic elections’. Candidates simply have to gain the most votes to win but the most votes do not always translate to majority support for a candidate or a party as the results in Bulawayo, Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South illustrate (Tables 1 – 3).

Tables 1 – 3 show that there were many ‘winners’ who in fact had more votes against than for them. There is a clear question of legitimacy where winners draw their mandate from the minority; this is surely an affront to democracy.

Let us picture the scenario where almost twice as many voters did not vote for the winning MDC-T candidate in the Bulawayo East constituency (Table, 1, below). We ask the question where is the fairness in that?

LocationWinnerVotes forVotes to other
Bulawayo EastMDC-T     4,550     7,602
LuveveMDC-T     5,586     6,369
Table 1 Region: Bulawayo

The undemocratic effect of the FPTP system is particularly evident in Matabeleland North and South (Tables 2 and 3) where in a total of fifteen parliamentary seats MDC-T (2) and ZANU PF (13), candidates ‘won’ although the majority of voters cast their votes to other candidates. We cannot blame the ‘winners’ but this makes a mockery of the concept of majority rule and representative democracy.

Location  WinnerVotes forVotes to other
Hwange East  MDC-T     5,392     6,990
Hwange West  ZANU PF     6,864     8,108
Lupane East  ZANU PF     5,537     7,376
Lupane West  ZANU PF     4,827     5,912
Nkayi North   ZANU PF     5,184     6,448
Tsholotsho North  MDC-T     4,870     6,054
Tsholotsho South  ZANU PF     4,736     6,388
Table 2 Region: Matabeleland North
LocationWinnerVotes forVotes to other
Bulilima EastZANU PF5,8286,240
Bulilima West ZANU PF4,7225,722
Gwanda NorthZANU PF4,2466,179
Insiza SouthZANU PF4,6605,166
MangweZANU PF4,9886,860
Matobo NorthZANU PF5,3006,488
Matobo SouthZANU PF4,6925,838
UmzingwaneZANU PF7,6898,397
Table 3 Region: Matabeleland South

Another major weakness of the FPTP is that it is not a proportional representation; the number of seats won by a party is not proportionate to the number of votes won as winner takes all. This rewards large political parties with lumpy support and may lead to the proliferation of safe seats. This is particularly problematic for democracy as smaller parties, minority groups and women are more likely to be pushed to the margins of society as bigger parties opt for safe though unsuitable candidates.

In a rather disturbing position for democracy, opposition members may end up being disillusioned due to lack of prospects of winning seats in certain safe seats. The situation also gives rise to tactical voting that may see individuals voting against particular candidates instead of voting for their preferred candidates.

Zimbabwe should seriously consider adopting some form of preferential voting and/ or proportional representation to improve the democratic credentials of election outcomes. Tables 4 and 5 illustrate the actual number of seats won versus those that would have been won had the proportion of votes received been the measure for allocating seats. Instead of a clean sweep in Matabeleland South, ZANU PF would have had a share of seven seats with the MDC-T being allocated four as opposed to zero.

Bulawayo %   Mat North % Mat South %
MDC       16        9      12
MDC-T       56       43      31
ZANU PF       24       41      52
Others        4        4       4
Table 4 Approximate total percentage vote received by political parties in each region
BulawayoMat NorthMat South
Total Seats121313
MDC 0 (2) 0 (1) 0 (2)
MDC-T12 (7) 6 (6) 0 (4)
ZANU PF 0 (3) 7 (6)13 (7)
Others 0 0 0
Table 5 Figures outside brackets show seats won in each region by each candidate while figures in brackets illustrate how the distribution would have been had the proportion of votes received been the only measure for allocation.

The misrepresentation of voter choices through disproportionate seat allocation which has greatly affected the original MDC is quite apparent in tables 4 and 5. Proportionately the party would have received at least five seats across Bulawayo and Matabeleland. Arguably, proportional representation encourages political participation by smaller parties while increasing the challenge for accountability on the larger parties as they know they stand to lose seats to smaller parties, if not their direct rivalries.

Elections are a good facet for democracy but only if they are fair. The need to build confidence into elections and the adaptation and/ or adoption of systems that closely reflect people’s choices cannot be overstated. Reviewing democratic processes is essential if Zimbabwean politics is to remain relevant to ordinary citizens. No election system is foolproof but there are a variety of options available to improve the representative nature of election outcomes. At its most basic level, the FPTP system is cheap to administer and easier to understand yet it presents with in-built errors that compromise political representation.


2 thoughts on “First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) disarms Matabeleland

  1. Pingback: Should Mthwakazi citizens participate in Zimbabwean elections? | The Observer

  2. Pingback: Sanity required in the Matabeleland vote (non) participation debate | The Observer


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