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Date: Fri, 20 Jan 1995 22:23:44 -0600
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Subject: Eritrea Profile #45
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From: IN%Abubaker_Beshir@adal.gn.apc.org 20-JAN-1995 14:19:00.77
Subject: Eritrea Profile ...#45

Translating votes into seats

By Daniel Mebrahtu, Etritrean Profile, Vol. 1, no. 45, 21 January 1995

’Electoral Systems’ was one of the issues discussed in the International Symposium on the Making of the Eritrean Constitution held in Asmara from January 7-12. Dr. Gebrehiwot Tesfagiorgis, a member of the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea and a professor at the University of Nebraska, USA, presented the issue paper and participants debated on the pros and cons of different forms of representation from various countries.

Democracy means representation. In a representative democracy, elected officials make decisions on behalf of the people. Electoral systems are the methods by which citizens’ votes are translated into representatives’ seats. There are many types of electoral system reflecting different national constitutional and political contexts. They can be categorized into two broad types: majority systems (MS) and proportional representation (PR). Under MS one person at a time is elected by majority vote. This results in a legislature (parliament) which does not fairly represent the electors, and in which minorities are often under-represented. The PR system is one in which the number of seats in a constituency is divided amongst the total votes cast so that each opinion is reflected by the votes it wins. The purpose of elections is to reflect the main opinions within the electorate, ensure majority rule, elect suitable representatives and guarantee the establishment of strong and stable governments. Dr. Gebrehiwot stressed that it is possible to devise an electoral system that fulfills these aims. But which one? Former British and French colonies in Africa inherited the majority system. But in the last five years there has been a massive shift towards PR. According to Professor Goran Hyden of the University of Florida this is because, there is a genuine feeling that the majority system is too divisive. It’s based on the assumption of winner-take-all or a zero-sum game. As a result of this there is a fear that that kind of system, in Africa in particular, given its cultural pluralism and ethnic diversity, is going to tear the country apart. Prof. Shadrack Gutto of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa cited an illustration to support Professor Hyden. In the recent multi-party elections in Kenya, the ruling party won the elections with 35% of the popular vote. The opposition, which had 65% of the vote, did not win because of the way constituencies were drawn. The popular vote was not taken into account.

Prof. Gutto described African countries as multicultural or multi-ethnic entities, whereby some groups are too small to be fairly represented in majority systems of elections. PR, he said, gives a greater voice to the minorities who would otherwise be marginalized through the majority system. Prof. Hyden mentioned Namibia and South Africa—two countries which have recently changed to PR—to strengthen his argument that PR can guarantee representative national unity in a way that MS does not. Although the above arguments favour PR over MS, it doesn’t mean that the former is predictable. Assuming that the voter is primarily concerned with support for a party, said the issue paper. Parties should be given representation in proportion to their support. Under PR, then, quotas are established to ensure a party a seat. Ato Dawit Yohannes, a member of the Council of Representatives in Ethiopia, questioned the soundness of this system. Parties do not represent the majority if the masses are not directly involved in political life. The PR system is a complex process that presumes that the majority of voters belong to a political party. In our case, we found that 90% of Ethiopians do not belong to political parties. Only 10% belong to over 120 parties that have come into existence in the last three years. To divide seats among these political parties is to pay lip service to reality. So we have insisted that our electoral system should reflect the participation of the majority, who participate in elections without being allied to a political party. We discovered that this was the only way that the constituency/representative relationship could be maintained. A representative of the Arab Lawyers Union from Cairo, Dr. Yehia El Gamel, agreed that PR leads to fuller representation. But he warned that certain preconditions had to be met. There must be genuine political freedom, he said. Secondly, a real system of political parties should exist. If you have political parties without democracy inside them, Dr. Yehia argued PR will lead to catastrophe. Party leaders will prepare a list of candidates which do not reflect the power of the wings in political parties. The consequence of such abuse—the premature dissolution of legislatures -will result in a lack of effective government. Mr. Bona Malwal of St. Anthony’s College in Britain who is also the editor and publisher of the Sudan Democratic Gazette, pointed out the economic impact of such instability. It is important to develop a system whereby parties or the parliament have to stay the course of the period that has been given, otherwise the instability that follows is something that a developing country like Eritrea can ill afford. The scandals that have surfaced in Italy, France, Belgium and to a certain extent in the United States, South Korea and Japan, according to Dr. Zaki Mustapha, are probably related to the way representatives have been elected. Dr. Zaki, a Sudanese lawyer working at the Law Office of Ahmed Z.Yemani in Saudi Arabia, recommended that Africans coin a system that matches their reality.

Mr. Crawford Young, a professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, reconciled the debate on representation by saying, A significant aspect of an electoral system is that it can be adjusted over time. As a basis for his proposal the professor noted that the consequences of electoral systems are not always readily predictable. One fundamental purpose in designing electoral systems, he continued, is not just to reflect the cultural diversity of the country. It is also to broker differences between segments of a society and provide incentives for those competing for office to seek support from more than one group. He suggested incentives for cooperation in the electoral process and not just in coalition formation after the elections have taken place. Mr. Abdul Rahman Babu, from Birkbeck College, London, also noted the merits and demerits of both systems. The most important thing for a constitution, however, is to sustain the trust of the people. We have already seen in the mature democracies of the United States and Britain how voters become cynical. Only last month, in the elections in America , less than a sixth of the electorate bothered to vote. That is a threat to democracy.