The first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system misrepresents Matabeleland voters

As is now standard practice in Zimbabwean elections, the 31/7/13 election outcome was immediately followed by rumblings from the main opposition, the MDC-T, who felt there were numerous elements not quite fair about it.

They may have had a point, the result may well have been partially an outcome of ZANU PF’s cosmetic 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. Debate on the conduct of elections is vital for a democracy but we need to evaluate how fair they are; this blog will focus on the suitability of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) 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 however, nothing representative about a winner with more votes but not the majority of the support as the FPTP voting system allows for such situations.

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. For instance in Bulawayo East (Table, 1) an MDC-T candidate won by a narrow margin of 10 votes after receiving 4,550 votes against 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 actually had more votes against than for them. There is a clear question of legitimacy; winners draw their mandate from the minority, which is surely an affront to democracy.

Almost twice as many voters did not vote for the winning MDC-T candidate in the Bulawayo East constituency (Table, 1).

Table 1 below, Bulawayo

Constituency Winner Votes for Votes to other
Bulawayo East MDC-T 4,550 7,602
Luveve MDC-T 5,586 6,369

The undemocratic effect of the FPTP system is particularly evident in Matabeleland North and South (Tables 2 and 3) where in fifteen parliamentary seats MDC-T (two) and ZANU PF (thirteen) prevailed despite not attaining majority votes. This makes a mockery of the concept of majority rule and representative democracy.

Table 2 below, Region: Matabeleland North

Constituency Winner Votes for Votes 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 N MDC-T 4,870 6,054
Tsholotsho S ZANU PF 4,736 6,388

Table 3 below, Region: Matabeleland South

Constituency Winner Votes for Votes to other
Bulilima East ZANU PF 5,828 6,240
Bulilima West ZANU PF 4,722 5,722
Gwanda North ZANU PF 4,246 6,179
Insiza South ZANU PF 4,660 5,166
Mangwe ZANU PF 4,988 6,860
Matobo North ZANU PF 5,300 6,488
Matobo South ZANU PF 4,692 5,838
Umzingwane ZANU PF 7,689 8,397

Another significant 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 as bigger parties opt for safe candidates. 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.

Even more revealing is the fact that MDC’s impact, albeit relatively small, is quite evident; 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.

Table 4 below, Approximate total percentage vote received by political parties in each region

Bulawayo % Matabeleland North % Matabeleland South %
MDC 16 9 12
MDC-T 56 43 31
ZANU PF 24 41 52
Other votes 4 4 4

Table 5 below, Seats won in each region by each candidate are shown in bold figures while figures in brackets illustrate how the distribution would have been had the proportion of votes received been the only measure for allocation.

Bulawayo Matabeleland North Matabeleland South
Total seats   12  13  13
MDC   0 (2)   0 (1)   0 (2)
MDC-T   12 (7)   6 (6)   0 (4)
ZANU PF   0 (3)   7 (6)   13 (7)
Other   0   0   0

Reviewing democratic processes is essential if politics is to remain relevant to ordinary citizens. Elections are good for democracy but only if they are fair. There is a need to build confidence back into elections and the adaptation and/ or adoption of systems that will reflect people’s choices as closely as is reasonably possible is essential. No election system is foolproof but there are a variety of possibilities 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 likely to skew outcomes. The misrepresentation of voter choices through disproportionate seat allocation which has greatly affected the smaller MDC is quite apparent.

Source for data used to produce Tables 1 – 5: Sokwanele

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2 thoughts on “The first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system misrepresents Matabeleland voters

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

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

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