Is 50+1 the answer to problems in current electoral system?


It is some months now since the elections were conducted on May 21 2019. The declaration of candidate Arthur Peter Mutharika as winner by the Malawi Electoral Commission sparked a wide range of protests and the court case filed by the Malawi Congress Party (MCP)  leader Lazarus Chakwera and UTM’s Saulos Chilima challenging the results, currently awaits a decision by judges of the Constitutional Court.

APM being sworn-in after the May 21 elections

While the country is waiting with bated breath for the court outcome, debate on whether the country should adopt the 50+1 electoral system has been reignited. Hardly a day passes by without hearing or reading discussions on the need for the country to adopt the 50+1 system through various media outlets, social gatherings and even at workplaces. Recently, the Malawi Law Society also put its weight behind the 50+1 system.

While the 50+1 electoral system is being justified and touted as a better alternative to the current First-Past-the-Post (FPtP) system, it is necessary to look at the system more critically to avoid repeating the mistakes we made when we adopted the FPtP system in the first place.

Judging from the current problems the country is facing, it is clear that we did not think deeply about the systems and instruments that were supposed to accompany the running of the new type of government. We were so obsessed with removing the one party system that we cared less about the possible shortfalls that were to come with the FPtP. 

We are now learning the hard way. Although we are in a multi-party style of governance, most of the problems we had during the one party era are still haunting us. We still have presidents that wield too much power, more than the people that put them into office. Even the parties that sponsored them into power are powerless to control their own presidents when they go wayward as is the case in other countries. Democratic institutions like the Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Accountant and Auditor Generals’ offices, Parliament and other governance institutions perform their functions at the whims of the presidents.  All this is happening because we never thought deeply about the systems and instruments that we were supposed to put in place as we were transiting to multiparty type of government. I am afraid we are repeating the same mistake by only focusing on the 50+1 electoral system than the many alternatives that are there.

What we need is an electoral system that addresses our challenges, those which have beset us in all past elections since 1994. We need a system that is fair, that unites Malawians, that is acceptable to the majority of Malawians. The question is, does the 50+1 electoral system pass this test? I don’t think the answer is yes. We may be doing away with the monster we know only to invite another and probably a worse one. 

Based on past elections, I don’t think the 50+1 system is the solution. The 50+1 system is not very different from the FPtP. The only major difference is that when no candidate has amassed more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a rerun between the two candidates that scored more votes than the rest of the candidates. It will not address the “big man syndrome”. In fact, it will enhance this considering that the one who wins will have the illusion that the majority of people (more than 50 percent) voted for him or her.

This may be an illusion because most of the people whose candidates may not have qualified for the second round may not vote in the rerun out of frustration. Remember Malawi’s problem in elections centres around issues of tribalism and regionalism, among others. This, therefore, has a chance of ushering in a candidate with fewer votes than was the case during the first elections. It also has the potential of voting in a candidate who is not accepted by the majority of Malawians in spite of the rerun. Apart from all this, the 50+1 system is also expensive. After spending in the first round of elections, tax payers must also cough more funds for the rerun.  

What, therefore, is the best system that can address these problems? Unfortunately, there is no perfect system that can address all our problems. What the country needs is to research on various systems and come up with one that maximises advantages and minimises disadvantages by carefully studying our electoral environment and behaviour based on past elections and people’s perceptions. Malawi needs an electoral system that will facilitate a culture of checks and balances; a system that will always keep the president and the party in government on their toes knowing that any slips will be met with consequences; a system that will be fair; a system that will accommodate all sections and sectors of society; a system that can give powers to parliament and/or the party that sponsored that president to recall him/her whenever they find the president wanting. We must have an electoral system that ensures that a party in government respects other institutions like the opposition, parliament, judiciary and other governance institutions.  

For example, there are electoral systems like that of South Africa, Great Britain, Israel and other well-established democracies where voting does not necessarily go into a rerun when no candidate has amassed more than 50 per cent of the votes. What happens is the party or candidate with the most votes is asked to form a coalition with other parties that will give them the required 50+1 votes. If the one with most votes fails to form a coalition then the candidate with the second most votes is asked to form a government. Another election can only be held if this process fails. But in most cases it succeeds.

This system has a number of advantages and below are just a few examples of attempts at the method based on our voting pattern here in Malawi: 

The United Democratic Front (UDF) and Alliance for Democracy (Aford) already experimented with this kind of arrangement in an unorthodox manner in 1994. When UDF ascended to power in that year, it had problems governing due to its small numbers of MPs in Parliament. UDF and President Bakili Muluzi moved swiftly and roped in Aford and its president Chakufwa Chihana into a coalition government. They never had problems governing thereafter.  Here, UDF improvised a coalition system although not provided for in the Constitution and it worked.  This type of system costs less than the 50+1 system because it does not necessarily rely on reruns.  There are always negotiations on what should be implemented while in a coalition government. There is always give and take. This is to the advantage of the general populace because the coalition partners will also want to show Malawians that their policies work and if given a chance they can do better.

If the leading party in the coalition abandons its promises to the people then the coalition partners can withdraw their membership of the coalition and government collapses. This is an incentive for governing parties to adhere to their promises with both the voting public and coalition partners. 

In the May 2019 elections, over one million people voted for UTM and its president. Unfortunately, this one million-plus is scattered among areas where other parties were popular and, as a result, the party only got four MPs. This is very unfair because over one million people are left in the cold with only four representatives in Parliament.

A system like that of South Africa takes care of this problem. Under that system, UTM would have been given 20 percent of the MPs in Parliament and this would have translated to over 38 MPs.  This would have made sense considering the support that the party and its president received. The other advantage with this system is that even small parties are counted. A party that gets two percent of the vote would have translated to four MPs in Parliament. It means two percent of the people that voted for that particular party would have had a voice in Parliament.

In addition to the above advantages, people would not have been abandoning their parties to join ruling parties at the rate we are witnessing now if this were the case. 

This is not to say this is the best system; all systems have their own challenges. What is important is to find one that gives fewer problems and instills hope in Malawians. We should not rush for an electoral system just because the one we have now is found wanting. We have to ensure that the system we adopt will stand the test of time.

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