Majoritarian and proportional

The National,Tuesday June 14th, 2016

There are three broad categories of electoral systems, depending on how they are designed.
First, there are the ‘plurality/majority systems’.
The most recognisable feature of this system is that victory is won through the highest number of votes vis-à-vis other candidates in an electoral race – though not necessarily an absolute majority.
The first-past-the-post electoral system is a well-known example.  The plurality/majority systems are often share a feature that they use single-member districts (SMDs).
The Alternate Vote (aka the Preferential system) comes under the plurality/majority systems.  With specific reference to PNG, the Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) and Limited Preferential Voting (LPV) system are part of family of the plurality/majority category.
The hallmark of the preferential system is the redistribution of candidate preferences when the first count does not reach the 50+1 threshold.
The second electoral family are the ‘proportional representation systems’.
These systems, often abbreviated as PR, are often designed in a way that a party’s share of votes would approximate the number of seats in Parliament.
Thus, if a party collects 45 percent of the votes in a country, it should secure 45 legislative seats in the national, regional or whatever levels of government.
The PR systems are often regarded as the appropriate model for diverse or fragmented countries.
The third electoral family are the‘mixed systems’.
These are hybrid combinations that are often drawn from the first two categories of systems.
For instance, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) systems often adopt a combination of the plurality/majority systems but with the use of PR to reduce any significant disparities.
For all such combinations, the single aim is to reduce the disparity between votes and seats in Parliament as well as to assure as best as possible proportional representation.
Given the specificities of each of the above categories, it is comparatively easier to understand the use of the plurality/majority systems, and that is why we have used three electoral processes from this category.
In the 1960s, Papua New Guinea had a sizeable illiterate population and therefore it became a foregone conclusion that a variant had to be chosen from the plurality/majority category that was easier to grasp.

A policy choice 
One has to wonder whether the majoritarian systems have outlived their usefulness in the country.
Even more electoral victories are coming through by fraudulent activities and other undemocratic practices.
These are done through the influence of money (vote buying through cash and goods) or threats of violence and so on.
Even when such activities are getting entrenched and permeating the country through each round of elections.
Yet the government continues to favour the plurality/majority systems with the hope that things will improve for the better in the future.
After 11 national elections since the 1960s and four decades of statehood, we have to ask ourselves whether the country should value greater majority victories over other more important considerations such greater representation of as many demographic segments as possible.
In other words, would it be nice to have some political representation for isolated communities such as the Homa Paua of Moran, the Hewa/Mount Bosavi of Hela, Foi/Fasu of Kutubu, Kambiu of South Waghi, Kukukuku of Gulf/Morobe and the Hagahai of Madang/Western Highlands?
What is the policy choice?  
Two options that the Government can consider are as follow.
First, it can further modify the LPV and increase the candidate choices from ‘3’ to ‘5’ – or whatever number that would be deemed suitable.
Such a step no doubt could further complicate the counting process, but it might spread the support base of the winning candidates.
The second option is to look for a voting process within the proportional representation systems, or even in the mixed systems.
Looking at Melanesian countries in the region, Vanuatu has used what is called single non-transferable vote (SNTV) system.  Fiji, for its part, has opted for what is called the Opened List PR system that it first used in the 2014 national elections, eight years after the fourth coup.  Both the SNTV and Opened List PR system are part of the proportional representation category.
Vanuatu has experienced imbedded challenges with the use of the SNTV, stemming mainly from its history, but otherwise it is getting by.
After gaining independence in 1970, Fiji began with the FPTP system before switching to the Alternate Vote after the two coups under Sitiveni Rabuka in the late 1980s.
Current Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama hopes that the Opened List PR system will quell the ethnic tensions that had held the country to ransom for over for decades.
Interestingly, the latest reform has allowed Fiji to become a multi-member single district for the 50-seat Parliament.
In other words, the whole country makes up a single district with multiple members.
The point driven is that, if necessary, PNG should consider other electoral systems to suit the changing circumstances of our time.
If need be, we must modify any existing (or borrowed) electoral system that we intend to use, or custom-make our own system, in order to account for the peculiar local conditions.  To reiterate what I have said previously, a reformed LPV, or a new electoral system, must be introduced in tandem with other changes that need to be done to strengthen the wider national polity.
These include fortifying political parties, articulating yet again the constitutional responsibilities of our elected Members, educating the populace of the government/state system, revisiting the electoral boundaries and reforming the present Parliament.

  • Dr Henry Okole is from ENB and does consultancy work for the PNG Government as well as other regional governments and international organizations.  He is a former Chief of Staff of the ACP Group of States.  He is also a former senior researcher at the National Research Institute and a former academic from UPNG.