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  • Constitutional Engineering in Southern Africa
  • Andrew Reynolds (bio)

The flurry of democratization that the world has seen since the late 1980s has engendered a running debate—some of it conducted in the pages of this journal—about how fledgling democracies can best design constitutions that give rise to political harmony and stability. 1 In the context of this debate about “constitutional engineering,” electoral-system design is increasingly being recognized as a key lever that can be used to promote political accommodation and stability in ethnically divided societies.

Most scholars agree that the choice of an electoral system has powerful political consequences; where they differ is in their basic prescriptions for newly democratizing states. The evidence from the emerging democracies of southern Africa strongly suggests that divided societies need proportional representation (PR) rather than plurality elections, and a parliamentary rather than a presidential form of government. A simple parliamentary-PR system, however, is not enough: these fragile democracies are better served by a type of PR that maximizes the geographic representativeness of MPs, as well as their accountability to the voters. Although appropriate electoral laws are insufficient to ensure stability and good governance in divided societies, poorly designed laws can entrench societal divisions and exacerbate preexisting conflict.

The prevailing academic wind is clearly blowing in favor of PR—and against plurality elections—for ethnically divided states. As W. Arthur Lewis asserted in his seminal Whidden Lecture of 1965, “The surest [End Page 86] way to kill the idea of democracy in a plural society is to adopt the Anglo-American system of first-past-the-post.” According to Lewis, the vagaries of plurality elections would produce racially exclusive and geographically parochial governments that would exploit a “mandate” from a plurality of the electorate in order to discriminate systematically against minorities: “If you belong to a minority in a new state, and are being asked to accept parliamentary democracy, you can hardly build much faith in the system if you win 30 percent of those votes and get only 20 percent of the seats, or no seats at all. If minorities are to accept Parliament, they must be adequately represented in Parliament.” 2

Supporting this view is Arend Lijphart, who argues not only that divided societies need PR in order to protect minority interests, but that PR systems (in conjunction with parliamentarism) “almost invariably post the best records, particularly with respect to representation . . . voter participation, and control of unemployment.” 3 Timothy Sisk also identifies a “consensus on PR” in the debate over electoral-system design for South Africa, a consensus born of that country’s overwhelming need for governmental structures that facilitate political accommodation: “Threatened as they are by the centrifugal politics of extremist outbidding, divided societies like South Africa need institutions that pave the way for moderation and compromise.” 4

A number of prominent scholars, however, come down on the other side of the debate. Guy Lardeyret argues that the best way to counteract the tendency for electoral competition to follow ethnic lines is to “oblige members of each group to run against one another on (transethnic) political and ideological grounds in single-member districts,” while “the worst way is to adopt PR, which tends to reproduce ethnic cleavages in the legislature.” Lardeyret believes that South Africa’s prospects will be grim without the development of “big and moderate multiethnic parties” and posits that plurality elections would be most likely to give rise to such parties. 5 His reasoning is echoed by Donald Horowitz, who argues that “vote-pooling,” in which parties are encouraged to appeal across societal divides, “lies at the heart of intergroup compromise in severely divided societies.” 6 Vote-pooling, argues Horowitz, is best achieved through the “alternative-vote” electoral system, a modification of single-member-district plurality that involves reallocation of voters’ second and subsequent preferences until a candidate attains a majority.

Recent Developments

In the last five years, southern Africa has been the scene of constitutional changes unmatched since the end of European colonialism in the 1960s. Namibia became a multiparty democracy in 1989, with independence from South Africa formally declared in 1990; Zambia moved to a democratic system in 1991. South Africa and Malawi [End...

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pp. 86-99
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