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Winner-takes-all poll system the root cause of Kenya’s problems

By Suleiman Shahbal | August 6th 2019
President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga. [Courtesy]

Last week, I wrote an article calling for proportional representation as an alternative to the winner-takes-all electoral system that we currently have. As soon as I posted the article on my Facebook page, I received 97 written responses; 90 of them extremely negative.

Friends urged me to drop this idea, saying it was unpopular. Then Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, “leadership is not a popularity contest” came to mind. Sometimes one has to take a stand when he/she believes time for change has come, whether the ideas are popular or not. It is in the nature of human beings to resist change at first.

Many people have argued that Americans accepted the election of Donald Trump despite Hillary Clinton winning with more than three million popular votes. Can you see that happening in Africa and the losing candidate conceding?

More important, can supporters of the candidate with more votes pacify his supporters to accept “defeat” in this scenario? We are still far from the political maturity that the Americans, with their over 200 years of democracy, have.

We have adopted the American system but it does work for us. We have too many seriously divergent interests that the winner-takes-all does not address. The US has the lowest number of elected women leaders because of the winner-take-all system. So what did we do? We tinkered with the system and created new positions called ‘Woman Representative’ and nominated candidates to balance the gender inequality.

This country

Others have argued that politicians who lose should be gracious enough to accept they lost. Politics is about interests, and often, the politician does not have the luxury or the right to surrender the interests of his constituents.

Fortunately, we have come to accept the courts as mediators in election disputes. But where did the courts take us in 2007 and in 2017 when this country hung between anarchy and despair?

The 2007 election led to the “Nusu Mkate” government and 2017 led to the “handshake”. What will Kenyans do when they get intransigent leaders who won’t agree to a handshake? Must we wait for the apocalypse again? We have to accept that this country can no longer accept the disenfranchisement of large and significant minorities. Remember Martin Luther King’s warning that “we must live together as brothers or perish together as fools”.

Minorities have to be heard and represented. Minority views are important and often change societies for the better. In Germany, the Greens campaigned for stronger environmental protection policies. This fringe group now represents 10 per cent of the German Bundestag and have moved environmental policies to the centrestage in the whole of Europe.

In South Africa, the Freedom Economic Party of Julius Malema, with its noisy presence in parliament, threw out Zuma and brought the issue of corruption to centrestage in the politics of South Africa. Had proportional representation not been the case, neither of these two groups would ever have seen the inside of parliament.

Tribal numbers

In Kenya, we have seen how constituencies’ borders have been deliberately manipulated to tinker with ethnic numbers in those constituencies and thus allow the weaker candidate to win. How long will minorities have to beg for political positions in Kenya?

Proportionate representation is practiced in Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Greece, Israel, Spain and Russia. Recently, certain Canadian states chose to use proportionate representation as their voting method.

The European Union follows the D’Hondt method which is also proportionate representation and allocates seats according to total number of votes each party receives.

It is not a coincidence that most of these countries are very stable democracies. In Russia Putin wins with a majority of over 80 per cent, so, if the country retains its totalitarian environment, then it is done with the will of its people.

Proportional representation means that every vote counts – not just the votes of the winners. This is even more critical when the losing votes are significantly large. Parties with huge majorities will still rule and their leader will still become president.

Those without significant majorities will have to align themselves with others. Power is shared even if it means giving away a small slice to the losers.

Decision makers will have to incorporate the views of the minority and our leaders will be forced to work together. What’s wrong with that?

These views may still be unpopular. I strongly believe that we must change our system. This is not a campaign appeal; that will come in 2022. While we are still sober, let us reflect on what is good for our country in the long run.

Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of [email protected]

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