Proportional Representation vis-à-vis Democracy: the Case of
[would be] Ethiopian Electoral System?
On October 10, 2016, his Excellency President Dr. Mulatu Teshome while addressing a joint session of the two chambers of Parliament, the House of Peoples' Representative (HPR) and the House of Federation (HoF); noted that; “the Government is ready to reform the country's electoral law to place proportional representation and a majority system on an equal and balanced footing after detailed negotiations between political parties with a view to make the voices of the people heard in both chambers of the Parliament” (FDRE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2016). The President further reiterated that “the House plans to restructure the leadership of the Federal and State Governments in a new and comprehensive manner giving emphasis to the demands and concerns of the peoples”(Ibid).
At a joint conference with the German Chancellor Dr. Angela Markel (October 10, 2016); his Excellency Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn also pledged that; “We [his government] want to reform the electoral system so the voices of those who are not represented can also be heard in parliament” (Agence France Press (AFP), 2016). He further noted that “Our democratization process is still nascent. It’s fledgling … We want to go further in opening up political spaces and engagement with civil society groups. Because of this [current] electoral system 51 percent of votes is enough to win all the seats.” (Ibid). Chancellor Angela Markel also reminded Prime Minister Hailemaraiam Desalegn that “a vibrant democracy needs opposition, it needs free media” (Ibid).
Based on the above statements, I thought it is timely to reflect on the point if one could really envisage the enhancement of democracy through the current introduction of proportional representation (PR) in our electoral system.
Of course, when thinking about proportional representation (PR), it is easy to compare its advantages over the single-member plurality (SMP) elections due to the fact that “it wastes fewer votes, creates more accurate representation of parties, encourages higher voter turnout, and so on” (Douglas J. Amy, 2002). I believe these are valuable features of this voting system, but it is important to emphasize its relevance in transforming the electoral system in the country. Above all, in my opinion, adopting PR is not simply about making elections fairer or even about encouraging better representation—it is ultimately about creating a better democracy.
The importance of proportional representation is creating a political system which empowers as many people as possible. It aims to create a situation of greater political equality where everyone has a voice in the process of making the laws that govern our country. In this sense, “proportional representation (PR) and single-member plurality (SMP) systems represent not only different kinds of voting systems, but also different visions of politics—different visions of who should have power in a democracy and how it should be wielded” (Douglas J. Amy, 2002).
Nowadays, democracy seems to be an accepted norm in much of the world. However, with regard to democracy a different set of political questions is being raised—what kind of democracy is best? What political arrangements are best at empowering citizens and holding officials accountable? From the day to day experiences of different countries, it is being realized that democracy is an unfinished project—one that can and should be open to improvement. Citizens discontented with a variety of political problems—including corruption, abuse of power, domination by special interests, and poor policy decisions—have been demanding reforms in their political systems. And electoral systems have become part of this discussion about how to make democracy work better. As Kathleen Barber (2000) has explained: “Election systems in the United States and around the world are focal points for discussion of democracy, its meaning, and its practice in a fast-changing world.” In many countries, citizens and politicians have begun to take a critical look at their voting systems and consider how they affect the quality of democracy in those nations. In recent years, for instance, public debates about electoral systems and their political implications have taken place in Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Israel, and Italy—and all of these nations have changed or modified their voting systems as a result of these discussions (Ibid).
As literatures on electoral systems indicate, recently, most electoral scholars have examined the democratic implications of electoral systems. Accordingly, they all argue that proportional representation (PR) encourages a different and better kind of democracy (Douglas J. Amy, 2002). PR does this “by encouraging the things that make democracy work better, such as political equality, power sharing, citizen participation, vigorous political dialogue, and political bargaining and negotiation”(Ibid). In the end, “proportional representation is desirable not simply because it is better electoral system, but because it also helps to create a more pluralistic and egalitarian political system” (Ibid). As Barber (2000) has put it "If democracy in the twenty-first century is finally to mean the full and substantive participation of all groups in political life, the electoral foundations for such a change can be found in proportional systems”
Hence, in my humble opinion, the pledge from the government to move towards PR in our electoral system is a move in the right direction. Though, I understand it needs an open discourse with all stakeholders on its institutional and organizational implementation.
God Bless Ethiopia!!!
Tsegai Berhane (PhD) 10-13-16
Mekelle University, College of Law & Governance