I recently had a discussion with some of my friends about the electoral system in Egypt. During that discussion, the merits and demerits of the party-list proportional representation system as compared to the individual candidate system came up. In this post, I will try to explain why I prefer the party-list system. However, for the sake of being impartial, I also enumerate some of the disadvantages of the party-list system at the end of the post.
In the individual candidate system, each seat in parliament is contested on an individual basis. All candidates running for that particular seat present their program and the voters choose one of them. On the face of it, this seems like a completely fair system. However, upon closer examination, you will see that it is inherently unfair.
For example, assume that there are two candidates running for a certain seat. Assume that one of these candidates wins 51% of the vote and the other wins 49% of the vote. Despite this extremely close margin, the candidate who gets 51% of the vote wins and the other loses. This means that the choice of 49% of the population has been ignored. Forty nine percent is not a small number; a large percentage of the population of this electoral district like the policies of the losing candidate, but the nature of the individual candidate system means that their opinions will be completely ignored.
Another problem with the individual candidate system is that it places disproportionate emphasis on politicians’ personalities. A candidate running in an individual candidate system can use his/her charm and charisma to influence the vote. This shifts emphasis from policies to personalities. Instead of voting for ideas that can help the country, people vote for candidates they “like”. The flip-side of this is that a candidate with good ideas can lose an election if he/she is subjected to a smear campaign.
Finally, it is very difficult for minorities (racial, religious, etc) to win elections in the individual candidate system. This is especially true in countries with a low level of education.
So, how can we address these shortcomings? It is this question that led to the creation of the party-list system. In the party-list system, a group of parliamentary seats are contested as one block. For example, an electoral district can be assigned 20 parliamentary seats. Political parties then form lists of candidates to run for these seats. Each party forms a list of 20 candidates sorted according to priority. The parties then campaign on a certain platform; they present a set of policies that they think will work in the best interest of the country and try to convince people to vote for their vision.
At election time, people vote for the policies presented. So, for example, if we have two parties running for the 20 seats mentioned above, each party will present its program and people will vote for the program they like best. Now assume that the first party gets 51% of the vote and the second gets 49% of the vote. Instead of ignoring the opinion of 49% of voters, the party-list system divides the 20 seats between the two parties in proportion to the number of votes they get.
So, the party that gets 51% of the vote gets 11 seats (51% of 20 rounded up), while the party that gets 49% of the vote gets 9 seats (49% of 20 rounded down). Thus, the first 11 people on the list of the first party get to enter parliament as do the first 9 people on the list of the second party. This way, nobody’s opinion is ignored. Both parties get into parliament. This eliminates the first problem — that the opinion of large proportions of voters can be ignored in the individual candidate system.
Also, by giving the electoral program a front seat in the process, emphasis is shifted from the personalities of the candidates to the program. While charisma and charm are still important, people know that they will be voting for several people and the only thing these people share is the program they publicize. In a party-list system, people vote for a program, rather than for a person.
Finally, since there is now more emphasis on the program rather than personalities, parties can include a suitable number of minorities in their list, ensuring that everybody is represented in the legislature.
There is, however, one problem with this system. Since it divides seats in proportion to votes, it can sometime be very difficult for a certain party to win a clear majority. This leads to coalition governments — i.e, several parties joining together to form a government. Coalitions made up of many parties with disparate political views tend to be extremely unstable. They can easily break up when differences arise, leading to either new elections or the formation of a different coalition. However, given the many advantages of the system, I prefer the party-list system to the individual candidate system.