Why elections, electoral systems matter

A new round of elections inevitably promises an opportunity to further strengthen civil and political freedoms, ensure greater accountability of powerholders based on performance and promises, and increased responsiveness of the State in delivering public services.

There is growing interest among scholars, policymakers and citizens on understanding how, when and why elections are “successful”. The academic literature provides several explanations on the mixed quality of elections in Africa in recent decades.

Scholars claim that the quality of elections is highly dependent on the type of electoral system adopted (first past the post, proportional representation, mixed systems), organisational strength and reach of political parties, national economic well-being, the extent to which power is decentralised, the ethnic composition of the country and the likelihood of political violence.

Others point to the quality, credibility, independence of election management bodies and the role, capacity and influence of legislatures, courts and the media to inform and shape public opinion.

The benefits and challenges associated with the First Past the Post (FPP) system in place in Malawi has received some attention in recent years.

There are several benefits associated with FPP—in addition to being easy to understand (winner-takes-all), it aims to produce majority rule, which gives ruling parties the opportunity to implement potentially unpopular but necessary long-term policies in the national interest.

But FPP is also criticised for facilitating tactical voting—when voters avoid choosing candidates who are considered unlikely to win. By safeguarding against a major shift in voting behaviour, FPP also typically allows politicians to benefit from so-called “safe seats”.

Moreover, critics argue that FPP relies excessively on the power of charisma (“politics of personality”) rather than ideas, political ideology and concrete solutions (“politics of policy”).

How appropriate is FPP for Malawi? When elections result in narrow mandates for the winning candidate, it may be relevant to consider what an alternative system of proportional representation would look like—an electoral system where political parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.

In contrast to the all-or-nothing feature of FPP, citizens within a specified geographical area get to elect more than one representative. Thus, the country is able to elect a group of representatives that reflect a wide variety of political opinions and ideologies.

However, even proportional representation has its critics as some believe it allows smaller parties to exercise undue influence and leverage over government affairs.

Notwithstanding the outcome of the imminent tripartite elections, it may be worthwhile for Malawians to continue engaging in a vibrant national conversation on the merits and relevance of the current electoral system and the legitimacy it bestows on elected individuals and their parties.  n

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