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  • Debate: PR and Southern AfricaThe Case for Proportionality
  • Andrew Reynolds (bio)

In “Elections in Agrarian Societies” (pp. 106–16 above), Joel Barkan offers a strong challenge to the newly emerging conventional wisdom that proportional representation (PR) is the best electoral formula for the fledgling—and often highly divided—democracies of Africa. First, he criticizes PR for weakening (or even severing) the link between individual MPs and constituents. This hinders the development of the “vertical” dimension of democracy (that is, the representative relationship between elites and nonelites with a common political interest), “greatly reduc[ing] the prospects for the consolidation of democratic rule” (p. 107). For Barkan, the relationship between representative and voter that obtains within a single-member district (SMD) best reflects the nature of agrarian societies in Africa, in which the strongest ties are those of kinship, neighborhood, and land, and people “define their [political] interests . . . on the basis of where they live” (p. 107). While accepting that some degree of proportionality (indicating the protection of minority interests) is a normative good, he argues that the patterns of geographically polarized voting seen in agrarian societies enable SMD plurality systems to produce parliaments that are reasonably reflective of the distribution of the nationwide popular vote. Thus one can retain one of the underpinnings of consociational government (a proportionally constituted parliament) while avoiding the main drawback of PR: the detachment and lack of accountability of representatives elected from party lists. [End Page 117]

It is true that when voting patterns closely follow cleavages among groups defined by ascriptive traits (such as race, ethnicity, language, or religion), and when different groups cluster in different areas, elections held under SMD plurality can produce highly proportional results. As Barkan notes, the 1994 general election in Malawi gave rise to a parliament that closely mirrored the distribution of the national vote among the three main parties. An election’s Index of Disproportionality (ID) measures the degree to which the distribution of parliamentary seats among parties diverges from the distribution of votes, with zero representing a perfectly proportional outcome. The score on that index for the Malawian election (2.1) was lower than the figures for plurality elections in all but three of the established democracies for which data are presented in Arend Lijphart’s comprehensive Electoral Systems and Party Systems, which covers the period from 1945 to 1990. 1 Similarly, the regionally polarized parliamentary election of 1985 in Zimbabwe produced an ID of 2.5, and my own “re-running” of the 1994 parliamentary elections in South Africa and Namibia (which were held under PR systems) indicated that SMD plurality would have produced relatively proportional results, with IDs of 6.7 and 4.0, respectively. 2

The ID for a given election tells us much about parliamentary composition. High IDs indicate a high likelihood that: 1) minority parties are receiving little or no representation; 2) larger parties are gaining “seat bonuses” over and above their share of the popular vote; 3) governments with 100 percent of the executive power are being catapulted into office with less than 50 percent of the popular vote; and 4) governments based on a simple majority of the popular vote are being awarded supermajority powers (as in South Africa, where the use of a plurality system would have provided the African National Congress [ANC], which received 62 percent of the vote, with two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly—enough to write the new constitution unfettered).

Atypical Cases

The evidence from Malawi in 1994 and Zimbabwe in 1985 (and the hypothetical evidence from South Africa and Namibia) seems to indicate that, in southern Africa, SMD plurality can provide “the best of both worlds”—a proportionally constituted parliament, along with the representational advantages of a district-based system. Barkan claims that “in agrarian societies . . . PR does not produce electoral results that are significantly ‘fairer’ or more inclusive than plurality elections based on SMDs” (p. 107). Yet the results from Malawi and Zimbabwe have not been mirrored in established democracies, in Africa as a whole, or within southern Africa itself. At the end of the day, these are atypical cases, and we must take care not to be blinded...

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