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Opt for proportional representation

Two sets of alternatives face all those seeking to improve representative democracy and to ensure effective economic development to benefit all Zimbabweans.

These alternatives concern the type of government -presidential or parliamentary- and the specific electoral system -majoritarian /”Westminster” or proportional representation (PR) -that the people choose to live with.

Countries using the majoritarian method usually have two-party systems, one-party governments and strong executives that dominate the legislatures (Thatcher, Reagan, PW Botha, etc). On the other hand those nations where proportional representation is practised (Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands) are generally multi-party democracies with coalition governments, more consensus, stronger legislatures and a greater balance of power between the judicial, executive and legislative arms of government.

The USA and the Philippines (and Zimbabwe) are examples of majoritarian presidential systems. Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, are examples of majoritarian parliamentary systems. Many nations of Europe practise proportional representation in a parliamentary system while the countries of Latin America have proportional representation and a presidential system.

How does each different system meet the demands for such democratic norms as representativeness, accountability, equality and participation? And how effective are the two government and electoral systems in terms of national stability, social and economic development?

In a study by Arend Lijphart, a California professor of political science, presidential PR as epitomised in Latin America is seen as “an unattractive option” in terms of political stability and economic development.

The long established western democracies have good examples of the other three options. Lijphart has gathered social and economic information from these three groups of nations in order to provide some comparisons. He shows that minority representation is much greater in countries with a PR parliamentary system. Significantly the representation of women is over four-times higher in Europe than in USA or Britain and the “old dominions” of Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

This has a very clear influence on government policies involving women and the family. Also, and of particular note to apathy-ridden Zimbabwe, the average voter turnout from 1971-1980, was much higher for the PR-Parliament option (85.5 per cent). This compares with 53 per cent for the majoritarian parliamentary option in the English-speaking nations under examination.

Political equality, another goal of democracy, is more likely to prevail, says Lijphart, in the absence of great economic inequalities.

According to World Bank figures there is a more even spread of wealth in Europe under PR parliamentary governments than either the majoritarian presidential USA or the Westminster parliamentary democracies of Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

A rating of 10 other indicators of “democratic quality”, including freedom of the press and association, competitive party systems, definitive interest groups and effective legislature also gives PR parliamentary systems a clear advantage against other systems, says Lijphart.

One argument used in favour of majoritarianism is that it provides strong, single-party governments that pursue effective public and economic policies. However, economic growth rates, unemployment and inflation rates from the mid-1960s to 1988 clearly show that the group of nations governed by parliamentary proportional representation is better off than either the USA or the Westminster nations.

The kind of broad-based coalition and consensus government required in a PR-parliamentary system prevents the economic swings evidenced in Britain and the USA when one party takes over almost exclusive control from another and proceeds to undo many policies it completely disagrees with.

The “one-party-rule” cry, still faintly heard in Southern Africa, uses the excuse of “tribal divisions” to allege civil chaos and destruction but in Europe under proportional representation the reverse is true. Minority representation through PR works to counteract potential threats to national development and political stability.

Zimbabwe is not as homogenous as the authorities would like to make out. Rough estimates of the divergent ethnic groups are 68 per cent Shona, 18 per cent Ndebele and approximately 10 per cent for the Venda, Kalanga, Tonga, Sotho and Shangaan minorities in the west and south of the country. This does not include those Zimbabweans of Malawian decent nor the 175 000 strong, coloured and Asian population.

This rich cultural and linguistic diversity could be a national strength, since it crosses over the colonially imposed national borders. This fact, together with the severe voter apathy in Zimbabwe mitigate against the continued use of the majoritarian presidential system.

According to Larry Diamond, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy: “Ethnic cleavages do not die. They cannot be extinguished through repression or assimilation. They can, however, be managed so that they do not threaten civil peace. People of different groups are able to co-exist tranquilly while maintaining their ethnic identity.”

However, proportional representation does not necessarily have ethnicity as the only criteria. Equally, strong interest groups (environmentalists, regionalists, health care specialists etc) could promote and win votes for their cause.

In the majoritarian system the votes of all those who did not vote for winning candidates are totally ignored but using the proportional system every vote is of equal value and effect.

Clearly the majority rule slogan of the 1960s and 1970s has not worked to effectively bring democracy, economic development and human rights to the majority of people in Africa.

Accountability, equality, representativeness and participation are not the hallmarks of the system of government agreed to at Lancaster House in 1979 and amended to suit ZANU-PF since then.

We must now demand and work for a better democracy -that of proportional representation in a parliamentary system. Or we must accept that we have merely traded one oppressive elite for another.

by Greg der Lingen
a human rights activist.

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