For a recently-elected politician whose party has just triumphed in national and regional polls, you might expect to find electoral reform quite far down the agenda.
For Nigeria’s vice president-elect Yemi Osinbajo – whose government will be expected to tackle corruption, an Islamist insurgency and an infrastructure gap amidst low oil prices – the temptation to kick the subject into the long grass must be even more acute.
But in one of his first major foreign speeches since the All Progressive Congress’ (APC) victory in presidential and gubernatorial elections, Osinbajo told the LSE Africa summit, held in London on April 17-18th , that the country’s political system would have to change.
“Perhaps one of the most fundamental questions is whether our country should continue with a winner-takes-all electoral system. We should be thinking along the lines of some proportional representation and the parties that win should be given some kind of position in the national and local assemblies. We think that might reduce the general desperation for power that comes with the winner-takes-all system,” he argued.
Osinbajo knows much about the vagaries of the Nigerian political system. Since Nigeria’s democratic transition in 1999, the former law professor has seen contest after contest at the federal level swing in favour of the People’s Democratic Party until this year’s dramatic reverse.
Nigeria inherited an electoral system partly based on the ‘Westminster model’ from former colonial power Great Britain. That was later adapted to a US-style presidential system with a direct vote for the nation’s leader, and both houses of the National Assembly continue to be elected on a first-past-the-post system.
Regardless of the margin of victory, ‘first-past-the-post’ delivers the spoils to the party that acquires a simple majority – and denies second-placed candidates a share of power.
Nkosana Moyo, founder of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies and a former Zimbabwean government minister, believes that this model can lead to unnecessary conflict in African elections.
“In young democracies where you don’t have robust institutions, first past the post is very divisive. You can get to the point where literally 49% of the population has chosen a different way. First past the post says ignore them – the 51% runs the country”
For Moyo, African countries’ reliance on a first-past-the-post systems shows that the continent has yet to move on from inherited colonial forms of governance.
“The question most have not asked is why we are continuing to run a Westminster model. We know that there are other models,” he argues.
One such popular alternative to Westminster’s first-past-the-post – highlighted in Mr Osinbajo’s speech – is that of proportional representation (PR). Under PR, the percentage of a vote earned by a party translates to a roughly equal share in the legislature.
On paper, proportional representation gives a greater say to opposition parties, but the system has been criticised for delivering indecisive coalition governments riven by factional disputes.
There are several forms of proportional representation, including the ‘party list’ system, under which political parties shape lists of candidates to present to the electorate. Since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa’s electoral system has relied on a ‘closed-list’ in which parties alone decide on their candidates. That contrasts to ‘open-list’ systems which allow for a degree of public consultation. Critics contend that closed-lists allow a powerful cadre of political operators to manipulate the electoral system.
Mamphela Ramphele, former head of South Africa’s opposition Agang party, believes that this system has robbed the South African electorate of a fair choice at the ballot box.
“I come from a country which only has PR…so there is no clear-cut choice that this system will work better. What we need in South Africa is a bit more of the direct choices that citizens make. Right now, citizens haven’t got the opportunity to choose the leaders they want, they only choose parties. That is not sufficient, because it makes people captive to parties.”
Ramphele argues that African countries need electoral systems to be flexible if they are to deliver fairer democratic choices.
“What we need is a mixed system that will take the best out of Westminster, the best out of PR, and the best out of traditional African democracies,” she concludes.
For Nigeria’s Osinbajo, bringing an end to the “win at all costs” mentality of first-past-the-post could bring an end to the regular accusations of election-rigging and herald a new era of orderly transition.
But the key to developing a new system will be one that ends a traditional facet of the Nigerian political system – allowing an unaccountable political elite to shape the country’s future. After an optimistic election cycle and an orderly transition of power, Nigerians will be hoping that those days are drawing to a close.