We have raised concerns about the unfairness of Zimbabwean political systems to Mthwakazi and questioned the conduct of election processes in Zimbabwe but there has yet to be an in-depth and sustained debate on the electoral system itself.
An election based on an unfair system can only arrive at fair outcomes by chance which is exactly what the current first-past-the post (FPTP) system has been doing in Zimbabwean elections since independence.
Now, more than ever before, it is important that our focus on Zimbabwean elections is not limited to interrogating the extant processes and systems but alternatives are also given serious consideration. The deficiencies of the FPTP voting system can no longer be ignored; there is reason to consider alternative systems such as the proportional representation (PR).
Assuming that politicians will act in the wider public’s interest and voluntarily adhere to the laws meant to constrain their conduct is trust gone too far. Without visible and sustained challenge from the electorate, the Zimbabwean government will not review the FPTP voting system; there is indeed no incentive for ZANU PF to change a system that perpetuates its rule.
Now, why the PR system? The PR system is widely regarded as the fairest and most representative of the electorate’s wishes. In PR, the distribution of seats closely corresponds with the proportion of votes received by each party. A greater proportion of the vote is utilised in real terms hence, there is significantly less vote wastage. PR also reduces the likelihood of tactical voting, instead most of the electorate vote for organisations or individuals they prefer as opposed to voting against candidates they do not like.
There are many different forms of the PR system practised at varying degrees across the world. For this discussion, the party list system, a system widely used in the West and some new democracies will be used while Matabeleland South’s 2013 election results will be used for illustration purposes.
There are two types of party list system: the closed list system (Fig. 1) and the open list system (Fig. 2). In the party list voting system, each party puts up a list of candidates equal to the number of available seats in the district, thirteen (13) in the case of Matabeleland South. Independent candidates are listed separately as shown in figs. 1 and 2. The electorate indicate their choices on the ballot paper and seats are allocated according to the proportion of votes each party receives.
The Closed party list system is self-explanatory, it involves the party fixing the listing order of the candidates presented to the electorate; the electorate only votes for the party and have no influence on the position of candidates in the list. Assuming MDC-T won four seats in Matabeleland South, candidates V1 to V4 would be elected; say the MDC won two votes, candidates U1 and U2 would be elected and so on.
On the contrary, the Open party list system (Fig. 2) allows the electorate to express their preference for candidates instead of the party; the candidates’ votes also count for their parties. Candidates are chosen in party primaries and presented on the electoral ballot in an unordered list; the final order is determined by the number of votes that each candidate receives in an election. The most popular candidates (according to votes received) rise to the top of the list and stand a good chance of being elected into parliament thus in our Matabeleland South example (Table 1), the final top 7 ZANU PF candidates, top 4 MDC-T and top 2 MDC would be elected.
There are various formulae used to allocate seats; one such formula is the ‘largest remainder formula’ also called the ‘Hamilton method’. The first step is determining the quota or threshold of votes; this is done by dividing the total number of valid votes cast by the number of seats. A total of 152,326 votes were cast in Matabeleland and there were 13 seats to be filled hence our quota will be 152,326/13, giving 11,700. To allocate the seats, each party’s votes are divided by 11,700; if after the first allocation there are seats remaining, these will be allocated to the parties of candidates with the largest remainders (see Table 1) in the second allocation process.
The party list is a dynamic system that encourages inclusiveness by broadening political parties’ scope to optimise a full range of their human resources; traditionally marginalised constituencies such as women, upcoming politicians and politicians from ethnic minority background are given a lot more consideration.
No system is fool-proof; the party list system is not immune to criticism. Critics of the system argue that there is a greater chance of a constituency being represented by an individual from outside it. The party list, like most PR systems, increases chances for unstable multi-party governments as evidenced in Italy in the last few years.
To conclude, it is worth mentioning that using the FPTP voting system in the 2013 election, ZANU PF won all the thirteen seats in Matabeleland South instead of the seven seats their proportion of votes deserved under the PR system. The discrepancy is too large to ignore and there is no way of justifying the continued use of the FPTP system when it takes no account of the proportion of the votes received. A situation in which most votes and not necessarily majority support guarantees victory is counter democracy; surely any system that seeks to break such an anomaly cannot be wrong for democracy and Zimbabwe.