To Count A Vote

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 10 August, 2017.

With the news being dominated by politics over the last few weeks, the time has come again that we must delve into the subject at hand. In a democracy, politics is intimately tied with voting, so it seems logical to start there, and examine Namibia’s dual-system of voting – after all, it is from there that our republic derives its legitimacy. 

In our national assembly, Namibia uses a proportional representation system of voting. The basic idea of proportional representation is to reduce the disparity between a party’s share of the vote, and the number of seats it has in parliament. In some nations, this means a country is divided up into several electoral constituency, which each elect several members to parliament. In Namibia, however, the entire country is designated as a single constituency.

Proportional representation have several advantages above other forms, such as the first-past-the-post system used in the United Kingdom and the United States. Firstly, it is the most accurate way to translate the national vote percentage into seats available at the assembly. It also encourages parties to campaign nationwide, instead of only in regions where the party is weak, as all votes go towards seats in parliament. This indirectly stop regional parties from overpowering minority parties in a region, like the Scottish National Party does in Scotland in the UK.

The access proportional representation provides to minority parties is especially important, as even with just a few votes, they can gain access to representation. This promotes inclusion, which provides stability to society, builds more socially representative decision making bodies and provides role models (elected representatives) to otherwise marginalized groups. With better representation in the public sphere, this results in a more transparent power-sharing system between different interest groups, as parliament is usually a public forum, and reduces corruption inherent in power-sharing behind the scenes. 

Namibia, however, is not purely proportional representation – we use Party-List proportional representation system. This by necessity is even better for minorities, as people vote for parties, and with public party lists, the parties have to ensure everyone is represented. This means for a party to appeal to all, the party list has to include a wide variety of members, including those of minorities. 

In particular, this is advantageous to get women represented, as lingering sexism in the underlying population is countered when a party doesn’t have to put a male representative forward to court sexist voters to ensure a win. This has allowed Swapo to institute the Zebra policy during the last election, meaning that for the first time, women in Namibia could have the same 50% representation in the National Assembly. This means the gender balance in parliament resembled that of the general population for the first time in the country’s history. 

Proportional representation also means there are very few wasted votes, as most votes go toward a seat in the National Assembly. During our last election, this means only 10 427 votes were wasted, or 1.3% of the total votes cast did not result in a party having a seat in parliament. But as always, it’s not all sunshine and roses with this system.

In particular, proportional representation also gives a platform for ‘extremist’ parties, as they can now have the floor in parliament disrupt proceedings. We’ve seen the effect this can have in our neighbour South Africa, and even in the embarrassment of the UK when their United Kingdom Independence Party got seats in the European parliament. 

It is also difficult for voters to enforce accountability by throwing a particular person out of office. With the list based system, this usually means that the party itself can continue to place an unpopular person in a position of power, even if this is not what the voters desire. For them to effect change, they have to throw an entire party under the bus – sacrificing all those who they actually like. 

It also results in a weak link between elected representatives and the voters – after all, there’s no specific representative that is voted for by their specific region – and even if someone is assigned, it will be by the party, not the voters themselves. As a result, voters find it much more difficult to approach government. It also means that it is difficult for independent candidates to make themselves available for election, as voters vote for a party, not a particular person. Some type of party structure is always required. 

Finally, a disadvantage of the list-based system is that is causes the entrenchment of power within the party. Since position is determined by a person’s rank on a party list, they have to remain in favour with party leaders if they want to retain their position. As a result, party members with different policies than that favoured by leadership will often be marginalized, while those most skilled in brown-nosing tend to rise to the top. Perhaps even more concerning, is the fact that in a list system, when number 5 on the list, for example, unexpectedly dies, or for any other reason, it is number 75 on the list that moves up – and rarely is number 75 an adequate replacement for number 5. 

The rest of the disadvantages of proportional representation has been neatly avoided by Namibia – coalition governments, disproportionate power to minor parties due to their kingmaker status, etc. – simply because be use proportional representation to elect the legislature, but a plurality first-past-the-post system for government – the presidency. Our semi-presidential system thus allows us to avoid the pitfalls we’ve seen South Africa fall into. Yet, this system is not itself without its problems – that, however, is a discussion for another time.

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