Ineffectuality of first-past-the-post system of doing elections

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Kenyan voters queue at a polling station

By Kadima Cedric

As known and defined by Larry Diamond, electoral democracy is a civilian constitutional system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular, competitive and multiparty elections based on universal suffrage.

Democracy, having wide-ranging and different facets, is often misused – by people who pick a plane and consider it as unabridged. However, for an electoral democracy to exist and thrive in a society, all members must have an interest affected by a shared decision. A one vote-one man system, and an “of equal value” principle must be established to mirror the concept of the equal worth of people. Where a deliberation falls short of peoples’ expectations, a vote of equal value will then be billed to persons partaking of a process to justify their undertaking.

Let’s narrow it down to the Kenyan State where, since independence, we have unenthusiastically made attempts to fit within the limits of electoral democracy by engaging Kenyans in periodic general elections. The process of seeking the legislative and chief executive offices through a vigorous manner has mutated from the times of the Mlolongo system to the current secret ballot system. The two avenues, in an attempt to realise free and fair elections, are based on an electoral system commonly known as First Past the Post (FPTP).

FPTP is practical to the extent that after an election, the candidate who gets the majority of the votes cast is declared the winner.  This system was first used to elect members of the United Kingdom parliament – House of Commons. Under it, voting takes place in constituencies that elect a single MP each. The system was then implanted on most British colonies, hence its widespread use globally. At the same time, many countries have since taken more enlightened approaches and departed from it.

The FPTP system has its merits, including that voters understand easily who to vote for as they only have to place one mark against the name they prefer; this encourages greater participation in an election. The downside is that where voters have not had a chance to meet the candidates, most vote for the first name they see. FPTP gives a straightforward task during counting of the votes, and is thus relatively inexpensive.

Parties are now tasked to appeal to the centre ground of the electorate to win elections, so it encourages centrist policies. The voter can clearly express a view on which party they think should form the next government, linking it to produce a two-distinct party system, which in turn tends to produce single-party governments that don’t have to rely on support from other parties to pass legislation. This is majorly observed in the Kenyan National Assembly where the ruling coalition (currently branded a party) shuts down or passes Bills overwhelmingly without considering input from the opposition coalition.

FPTP also gives a chance for popular independent candidates to be elected. This may be particularly important in developing party systems, where politics still revolves more around extended ties of family, clan, or kinship as opposed to strong party political organisations. I also agree with defenders who argue that the system contains majority of governments by one party and are more accountable to the electorate for their actions, and thus treat voters with fairness in the execution of their duties.

But the FPTP system comes to doubt when its shortcomings and criticisms rise above the bar than do its returns. Since it does not matter by what margin a candidate wins, it excludes smaller parties from “fair” representation – from the logic that a party, which claims, say 10 per cent of the vote, should win approximately 10 per cent of the legislative seats. This “unfairness” was witnessed in Canada in the 1993 Federal election, where the Progressive Conservatives won 16 per cent of the votes but only 0.7 per cent of the seats.

Lesotho also fell victim in the 1998 General Election that resulted in the Basotho National Party winning 24 per cent of the vote but only 1 per cent of the seats. The pattern is repeatedly observed in countries that employ the FPTP approach, which, may I suggest, is injurious to electoral democracy. In my opinion, FPTP does not represent proper proportions of the votes, since the actual numbers of votes are not the actual number of seats needed.

FPTP therefore hurts the development of political parties grounded on clan, ethnicity or region, which may base their campaigns and policy on conceptions that are attractive to the majority of people in their district or region but antagonistic to the rest. This has been an on-going problem in African countries, including Kenya, where large communal groups tend to be regionally strenuous. The country is thus divided into geographically separate party strongholds, with little incentive for parties to make appeals outside their home region and cultural–political bases.

As well, FPTP leaves a large number of wasted votes that do not go in the direction of the election of any candidate. This can be treacherous if combined with regional interests. For instance, when the total number of valid votes cast is 100, where Candidate G gets 29 votes, H 20, J 35 and K 16, using the FPTP system, candidate J has the largest number of votes and thus the winner. But simple arithmetic demonstrates that out of the 100 votes, 65 do not want Candidate J.

We must also not forget the current struggles to archive gender equality in elective seats, where women are the most victimized group when it comes electoral systems that use FPTP. Generally, there’s a “phobia” for entrusting women with leadership. The system therefore encourages the exclusion of women from elective politics, and affects the odds of women being elected to legislative office.

A comparative study carried out in 2004 in established democracies showed that the average proportion of women in the legislatures of participating countries that use the FPTP system was 14.4%; this increased to 27.6% in countries with proportional systems – this is almost double! A similar study done in 2012 showed the gap had decreased to 14% for FPTP systems, and 25% in proportional systems. In part, this may be explained by the implementation of policies that have regulated or promoted gender equity within countries, such as having a certain number of seats reserved for women.

To conclude, the FPTP electoral system, despite its widespread use, is inferior to the system of proportional representation – also referred to as party systems. This alternative method provides for a political party to get a proportionate number of seats in parliament rationed to the percentage attained in the elections –thus contemplations of geography, race, sex, gender, and other forms of marginalisation are mitigated, so that legislative assemblies actually echo the range of interests of all who voted for it. Its efficacy has been benchmarked in South Africa, where the system works in unrestricted geographical constituencies.

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