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  • Debate: PR and Southern AfricaElections in Agrarian Societies
  • Joel D. Barkan (bio)

The recent transitions to democracy in Namibia and South Africa have prompted renewed claims by advocates of proportional representation (PR) that it is the most appropriate electoral formula for plural societies in Africa and elsewhere. Their argument, as presented by Andrew Reynolds in the April 1995 issue of this journal and earlier by Arend Lijphart, contains four essential elements. 1 First, PR is the “fairest” method of electing members of national legislatures—particularly in comparison with formulas that elect legislators from single-member districts (SMDs)—because it ensures that the percentage of seats won by a political party is virtually the same as its percentage of the popular vote. Parties receiving a plurality or a majority of the vote are therefore not overrepresented in the legislature, while parties receiving a minority of the vote gain representation equal to their voting strength. As a result, PR also protects minority interests.

Second, PR is inclusive, because it ensures that all significant players in the political system, including potential spoilers, are represented in the legislature. PR thus enhances the prospects that all players will support the constitutional order by participating in its elections and principal institutions. Such support is particularly important during the early stages of new or recently restored democratic rule, when the institutionalization of the new constitutional order is incomplete. Third, PR facilitates arrangements of power-sharing or consociational democracy, enabling most political forces to participate in governance. Fourth—and this last [End Page 106] benefit results from the first three—PR greatly enhances the prospects for democratization in plural societies, in which political cleavages run deep and mirror ethnic, racial, linguistic, or religious divisions.

Although the recent experience of southern Africa appears to support the argument for PR, the advantages of this system—particularly for the rest of the continent and other similar societies—are not as clear-cut as they seem. In agrarian societies, in which the overwhelming majority of the people derive their livelihood from the land, PR does not produce electoral results that are significantly “fairer” or more inclusive than plurality elections based on SMDs. PR is not, therefore, an essential feature of consociational government, but rather one method of facilitating power-sharing within the executive branch.

PR also has serious disadvantages, one of which should be of particular concern to any would-be constitutional engineer for an agrarian society. Because under the purest forms of PR legislative seats are allocated from party lists according to each party’s proportion of the total national vote, individual MPs do not identify with, nor can they be held accountable to, the residents of a specific geographic constituency. Yet in agrarian societies, this lack of linkage between representatives and constituents greatly reduces the prospects for the consolidation of democratic rule.

Voting Behavior Among Rural Populations

In agrarian societies, with their low levels of occupational specialization and class identity, most people define their interests and differentiate themselves from one another on the basis of where they live, rather than what they do. They have a strong attachment to the place where they reside and affection for their neighbors. When it comes to elections, they focus on the basic needs of their local community and surrounding region—whether they have adequate water, schools, and health-care facilities, whether there is a farm-to-market road, whether the producer price for the agricultural commodity grown in the area yields a fair return to local farmers, and so on. Inhabitants of a particular rural area usually have a common set of political interests, and they vote accordingly. This explains the high geographic concentration of the vote for competing parties in the recent round of multiparty elections in Africa. Except in urban areas, whose inhabitants come from many different regions and tend to have a relatively strong sense of occupational and class identity, people who live in the same place vote for the same political party. 2 In agrarian societies, people evaluate parties and candidates in terms of their potential for, or past record of, constituency service. 3

Yet PR systematically frustrates such voter expectations. Not only are MPs not responsible for...

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