Tuesday, May 11, 2021

We should keep the current electoral system ÔÇô for stability, but also for the sake of the voter

Increasingly, there are calls across the political divide for Botswana to change its current First-Past-the-Post electoral system.

It is curious that while the opposition and the ruling party are united on the need for such a change, the two are divergently divided on the reasons behind their arguments.

At the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, for example, those calling for the introduction of Proportional Representation have been crude enough to point out that such a system would provide an insurance that the party would survive the hostile terrain of being in opposition after losing power, which in increasing numbers they now concede is a near inevitable possibility.

This is of course brazenly self serving. It is a clear study at self interest and self preservation and not in any way an attempt at identifying what is in the best interests of the country much less of the voter.

From the opposition side those calling for introduction of Proportional Representation have been arguing quite feverishly that the current system is inherently unfair in that it does not adequately reflect the strength of political parties vis-à-vis the number of ballot cast at the polls.

The opposition is on this instance correct, but only up to a point.

Both sides are however not convincing enough.

First-Past-The-Post is by its nature a winner-takes-all kind of arrangement.

What opposition parties are conveniently not pointing out is that this kind of system, favours the incumbent thus making it harder for an outsider to break through the ceiling. In other words, opposition arguments are loaded with unmentioned complaints that the current system delays their dream of taking over the levers of power. This is an argument that haunts far-sighted ruling strategists who are clear-sighted enough to see that their days in power are fast coming to an end. 

It is however important to point out that even in the face of such delays occasioned by this system, it is still possible for a person or political party to come from outside and beat an incumbent.

History can bear us out on this point.

At face value, the argument by opposition parties that First-Past-the-Post is defective has received a strong armour from the results of last year’s General Elections.

While the ruling Botswana Democratic party received less than 50% of the ballots cast, the party still went ahead to keep over 75% of the seats in Parliament.

To many, especially opposition activists who are impatient to get their hands on the levers of power this is as unacceptable as it is abominable.

But it is important to put everything into context.

No electoral system is by any stretch of imagination perfect.

Yet still it is important that in choosing what system to adopt, we always have the interest of the voter in mind.

While the distribution of seats in parliament conceals the number of votes cast, it would be wrong to underestimate the superior representative credentials of FPTP when put against Proportional representation.

A system that takes away the power of voter and give it to party bosses as is the case with Proportional Representation can hardly be an ideal one.

Democracy is by definition participation of the voter in the greater scheme of decision making.

And FPTP brings the voter closest to this arena than any system so far known to mankind ÔÇô including what some choose to vaguely call a hybrid.

Under the PR system, voters go to the polls to vote no particular candidates but a whole list that has been prepared by unaccountable party bosses at party head offices.

Under our constituency based arrangement such a system would create an unwelcome space between the voter and the voted, thereby eroding the much needed accountability and attachment.

What is good about the current system is that even as it delays the opposition take over, the voter retains a lot of power vis-à-vis the political bosses.

Already our political system is overly contaminated by money and patronage, both of which take away the power of the voter. As such a system that further diminishes the power of the voter is one that we can ill afford.

For all the negative things that political parties attribute to First-Past-the-Post, it is important to accept that the system is the one that delivers the most power to the voter.

The trouble that we have is that too often calls for a change of electoral system are subsumed under a strong cacophony of calls for a Constitutional review.

As a country we can undertake a Constitutional review but still keep our electoral system intact.

The two while related are also very much mutually exclusive.

And thus they can very easily be separated.

During the week, in one of the radio stations I heard the BDP chief, Botsalo Ntuane arguing forcefully that not too much should be read into the opposition’s growing share of the popular vote.

Ntuane should be reminded that in the 2009 General Elections, President Ian Khama had set himself and his BDP a target of 70% share of the popular vote. The party went on to get 53%, down from about 57%.

Khama was right to aim for a high share of the popular vote because quite rightly the president appreciated that under FPTP, a party in power loses first its share of the vote, followed by the number of constituencies, then power ÔÇô in that order.

For now the BDP seems to be well on track.

Complications of doubtful legitimacy aside, this should be of concern to a Secretary General of a party in power. In here we should give President Khama full marks for his perceptive grasp of our electoral dynamics. One is not sure if the same can be said about Ntuane. 

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