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Proportional Representation Electoral System: Pathway to participatory democracy in Tigrai

By Asayehgn Desta, Sarlo Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development
Tigrai Online July 21, 2020

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Defying Ethiopia’s federal verdict and disregarding the decision passed by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) that the election date for the country’s  parliamentary and regional elections be postponed due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Council members of the Tigray Regional State-citing the Ethiopian Constitution- have passed unanimously a fateful decision to safeguard the rights of its citizens and hold regional elections before the term of the existing Council members comes to an end in the first week of  October 2020 (Fortune, June 12, 2020, Sambo, May 6, 2020).

Given that the Tigray State Council has already formed an Election Board to execute and administer elections in the Administrative Regional State of Tigray (hereafter referred as Tigray), the most relevant issue that needs to be addressed is what type of electoral process Tigray is going to pursue in September 2020. In other words, is Tigray going to follow; business as usual and apply the “first-past-the post” system- where the winning candidate is the one who receives a plurality or relative majority of the vote or is it going to reform itself and pursue a proportional representation type of electoral system?   

As explained in my book “Re-Thinking Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism” (Desta, 2017), some democratic countries follow majoritarian electoral process during their election process, whereby a candidate is duly elected as a member of the federal or regional parliament based on 50 + 1 percent of votes. However, in the condition that no one gets over 50 per cent of the votes, the two highest-voted candidates in the first round are required to compete in the a second-round runoff vote to ensure that the winner is selected by a true majority.

 Under the plurality or first-past-the-post system, unlike the majoritarian electoral system; a candidate does not need to pass a minimum threshold of votes or does not require an absolute majority to be elected. Instead, a candidate with one more vote than the closest rival candidate is elected as a member of the parliament or the regional state council. In short, under the first-past-the post system, the candidate with the most votes is regarded as the winner whereas the other candidates irrespective of their polls are declared losers (see Norris, 1998).  

Unlike the two electoral systems mentioned above, proportional representation (PR) ritualizes the principle of equal representation of all members of society in the election processes.  For example, Lijphart (1977) notes that the most typical features of proportional representation electoral systems are a belief in equal partnership and carrying the multi-member constituencies on equal footing.   Stated differently, proportional representation as an electoral process recognizes power-sharing, allows the representation of minority groups, avoids violence, and promises harmonious relationships among ethnic, religious, and linguistic factions. For example, the number of seats that a party wins in an election is made to be proportional (based on quota system) to the amount of support it gets among voters.  Being inclusive, proportional representation allows smaller political parties to compete on an equal, level playing field in the electoral system.

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During Ethiopia’s five elections from 1995-2015, it has been predominantly using a first-past-the-post system electoral system or winner -take- all electoral votes. However, for the current election process, that Tigray will be carrying out, we strongly recommend that Tigray experiment with using proportional representation, because it would allow the multi-parties to compete on an equal level rather than prolonging the existing mono-party. Furthermore, by enlarging the democratic space through vigorous competition, Tigray would achieve tranquility and resonance as a model for Ethiopia’s other regional states.

To start with the proportional representation electoral system as a pathway to participatory democracy in Tigray which has about 35-40 woredas or districts, let us presume that from the currently registered parties and the others that are expecting to  be recognized as legitimate political parties (that is, Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Arena Tigray, Bato Tigray, Wedeb Nesanat Tigray, Salsawi Wyane, Tigray Democratic Party, Tigray’s Prosperity Party, etc.); only three parties from each woreda or district are electable to attain seats in the Tigray State Council. For example, if the first-place party wins 65% of the vote they will be entitled to receive two seats on the regional council. If the second party has won more than 10%) of the minimum threshold) of votes, let us say 30 percent, it will   be entitled to get one seat.  Finally, since the rest of the parties won less than 10% of the overall votes, they would be regarded as losers and would not have representation on the Tigray State Council.

When we compare the plurality electoral system that Tigray had for more than two decades with the proportional representation system, we overwhelmingly argue that Tigray should use proportional representation as the vehicle for its electoral process in 2020. As described above, the two electoral systems (i.e., the plurality and proportional representation) are amazingly simple for the voters to understand and the election outcomes are quantifiable. However, the proportional representation system is better than the plurality electoral process because it: 1) renders empowerment to larger groups of voters, 2) is effective and gives an equal chance to every citizen, 3) increases voters turnout, 4) represents a system that has adequate checks and balances, and 5) minimizes unrest and galvanizes social harmony (Desta, 2017).  

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Reference:

Desta, A. ( 2017). Rethinking Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism. BahnhofstraBe: Lamert Academic Publishing, Deutschland, Germany.

Fortune (June 12, 2020). Tigray Regional Council Decides Regional Elections Due no later than September 2020.

IDEA (2005). International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design, Sweden, Stockholm.  

Lijphart, A. (1977). Democracy in Plural Societies. A Comparative Explanation. New Haven, CT. Yale University Press.

Norris, P. (1998). “Testing Consociational Theories of Ethnic Conflict,  Electoral Systems and Democratization.” Harvard University: John Kennedy School of Government.

Sambo, S. S. (May 6, 2020).   “Tigray region plans election despite Ethiopian government’s disapproval.” Accessed at https://newscentral,africa/tigray-region-plans-election-despite-ethiopian-governments-disapproval/ Retrieved July 12, 2020.