Liberia: Would open-list PR, a la Somaliland, be better?

One of my emerging academic (and real-world) interests is in institutions, and the possibility for institutional engineering, for fledgling ethnically divided democracies. I say “emerging” because, while I have been publishing on electoral systems and constitutional design (and occasionally revolution) for many years, I have not turned my academic attention specifically to ethnically divided states thus far. However, I am doing some sessions devoted to this topic in my Policy-Making Processes course in the next couple of weeks, and I will be teaching a new course specifically on this topic in the spring of 2006.

Thus I am most grateful to The Head Heeb (Jonathan Edelstein) for calling my attention to the electoral system used in Somaliland for its recent legislative elections. Edelstein describes this system in a way that makes clear that it is open-list proportional representation, and indeed it might be a better solution for a country like Liberia than the single- and dual- member districts used this year, about which I wrote previously. It is also almost certainly an improvement over closed-list PR, which Edelstein plausibly (though incorrectly) assumed is what I was advocating in my earlier post on Liberia.

In my post yesterday on Liberia’s fragmented congress, in which most legislators were elected with minimal voter support and parties will be represented with almost no connection to their electoral support in society, I noted that this outcome creates the following problem for executive-legislative relations, and thus policy-making, in the coming term of President-elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf:

Johnson-Sirleaf’s party caucus will be highly concentrated regionally, much more so than is its actual voter support. This will force her to buy support with patronage in order to form legislative coalitions to a far greater degree than if the system were proportional.

As far as what other institutional options there might have been, I left the matter hanging, other than to suggest proportionality would be beneficial. Even though I suggested that proportionality would be sensible, I concur with Edelstein that in situations of weak parties, PR has its disadvantages. As I always tell my students, any institutional choice has tradeoffs. There is no such thing as an institutional solution to all of a society’s governance problems. There are only solutions to some sets of problems that minimize the creation of other problems, for any given context.

On the idea of proportionality causing problems in contexts like that of Liberia, Edelstein notes, in the comments to my previous post:

Liberia, like many countries in similar situations, has a weak party system – there are lots of parties, but there isn’t much ideological distinction between them and most of them are personality-based. If most of the parties are vehicles for regional bosses, then party-based PR will elect the regional bosses, and will reinforce existing ethnic and feudal power structures. [my emphasis]

And he developed a very similar point at his blog later on (to which I linked above).

He is right, of course. Weak political parties are a problem, and the adoption of “party-based proportional representation” (as I called it) does not guarantee that strong parties will emerge. In fact, what it does is ensure that the various lists of candidates, however constructed, will be represented in proportion to their votes obtained over whatever territorial units the allocation is carried out. Such units must have multiple seats, but may be smaller than the entire country. In Liberia, presumably the districts would be the 15 counties, with varying magnitudes (seats per district) in the lower house, but retaining the current equality of representation for each county in the senate.

The point about which I was not clear is that one does not need to have closed lists, whereby the voter only selects the list, but has no choice over candidates. It is not one or the other (candidates or parties), as is too often assumed. And, as Edelstein notes, Somaliland uses a system that fully qualifies as proportional representation, but in which the candidates on the lists are ranked by votes received as individuals, and not by whoever draws up the list. This is an open list. (As an aside, it is fascinating that Somaliland reverted back to the type of electoral system that was used briefly in the 1960s when Somalia had a previous experience with democracy, and that the open-list concept came to Somalia from Italy, the former colonial power for the larger nation of Somalia, though not for Somaliland, which was a British colony.)

In a closed list, voters essentially delegate to some entity the decision as to which legislators will represent them. The entity might be an organized programmatically defined political party, or it might be a regional (or national) notable who has enough name recognition to draw up his own list and sweep into the legislature several cronies thereby fully dependent on him for their election.

In an open list, the specific candidates to be elected–among those nominated by the list-drafting entity–are determined by a rank based on their individual popularity.

Both forms of PR (and there are intermediate hybrids, too) ensure that the lists as a whole are represented in a way that is proportionate to their votes (in any given multi-seat district, and up to the limits imposed by the magnitude of the district). The difference is in the choices provided to voters (just a list, or a candidate within a list), and thus in how the candidates relate to the voters.

Either type of PR would address the problem of the regionalization of a party’s caucus being exaggerated relative to its distribution of popular support–i.e., one of the problems I was referring to in my original post. Either type of PR would address the severe wasted-vote problem (in the average Liberian county, a majority of the votes did not help elect anyone), by rewarding parties (of whatever form and strength) according to their actual votes, and not according to how they happen to be concentrated within unequally populated districts or how well they coordinated amongst their own candidates (in the 2-seat districts of the Senate) or with other parties (in both houses). Proportional-representation systems are not the only systems that would address these problems. SNTV (as used in Afghanistan, for example), for all its other flaws, would do so as well, and without the potential new problem that open lists would create. (PR, possibly including the open-list variety, was also seriously considered in Afghanistan, but rejected.)

A key problem with open lists is that the “party” may be no more than a collection of greater and lesser notables who share only a weak connection to one another, based only upon the convenience of maximizing one another’s legislative representation by pooling votes on a list. In fact, open lists create incentives for list-drafters to bid for candidates who are popular enough to bring votes to the list. If the list is being drafted by a party concerned with its ideological reputation, then its drafters are not going to put just any candidate with a block of voters on the list. But when there are weak parties to start with, open-list PR most certainly is not going to make them stronger, even though it does generate incentives for notables to work together to a degree that plurality voting (as in Liberia) does not do.

As Edelstein argues at his Head Heeb post on Somaliland, parties there have some degree of ideological distinctiveness–probably greater than is the case in Liberia. If so, then open lists may be less suitable in Liberia than they are for Somaliland.

Yet another possible family of systems–which are true hybrids of candidate and party-based representation–would be some form of mixed-member system. It would have the advantage of retaining single-member districts and plurality voting, but would “top up” a party’s total representation with seats allocated based on a party vote. I would advise MMP (as in Germany and New Zealand or the similar “AMS” systems of Scotland and Wales), not the more disporportional MMM (used in Japan and Thailand, among other countries), because MMM (or ‘parallel‘) systems can be quite erratic in their votes-to-seats conversion. However, once again, if one is concerned about an electoral system that priveleges allocation to lists in a context where the parties that would draft those lists are weak, them MMP might not be the solution. Alas, there is no best system, and the choice needs to be shaped to the context. The system used in Liberia, however, comes pretty close to being the worst, for the way it exaggerates the regionalism problem and wastes so many votes.

So, the bottom line is that I agree with the difficulties that PR (closed, open, or mixed-member) would entail in a situation of weakly organized, regionally concentrated and personality-based parties like in Liberia. I just don’t see how these problems would be worse than the actual result of the plurality system used.

I am most grateful to Jonathan for pushing me on this, and also for ensuring that Somaliland will be a case I will look at more closely now, and probably include as an example in my spring class.

Epilogue: Jeremy (a former student of mine, I might add) reports that the “Elections here have really been some of the most transparant and well organized that I have seen.” And he is an experienced observer of elections.

5 thoughts on “Liberia: Would open-list PR, a la Somaliland, be better?

  1. Thanks for following up, and for clarifying the nature of Somaliland’s political system. I hadn’t realized that open-list PR was a distinct category or that it had been used in Italy. Once again, fascinating stuff.

    I’d argue, though, that the distinctive factor in the Somaliland system is not so much the use of open-list PR as the limitation on the number of parties. The Somaliland constitution is hardwired to accommodate a small number of national parties rather than a profusion of ethnic and/or personality-based parties, and the 2000 electoral law provided that these parties would be selected based on the results of a national popularity contest rather than an arbitrary registration system. This forced the creation of a national party system in a country where there were effectively no political parties before (the transitional parliament was a nonpartisan one appointed by clan elders). It forced the notables to form cross-ethnic alliances, to formulate programs that had nationwide appeal, and to distinguish between themselves on grounds other than personality or clan identity.

    I think the same type of measure – a short-term, tactical limitation on political competition – could help strengthen the party system in Liberia. A restriction similar to Somaliland’s would force the 11 parties and the independent candidates to coalesce into three or four national factions. Many of the same people might be included, but at least they’d have to develop more broadly-based constituencies and organizations. That would seem to be key to breaking feudal monopolies in Liberia.

  2. Limitations on parties that can form, and a procedure to encourage them to be national in scope are interesting, and Jonathan has gotten me thinking. I am skeptical that this is a good way to go, but it will be worth watching the Somaliland situation as it evolves. My skepticism comes from the Brazilian experience where the military created what were sometimes known as the “yes” party and the “yes, sir” party. There are other cases of trying to engineer the number and regional scope of parties. My sense is this level of manipulation does not work well, but it is something I would need to think and read more about.

  3. My skepticism comes from the Brazilian experience where the military created what were sometimes known as the “yes” party and the “yes, sir” party.

    The Senegalese four-party system under Senghor didn’t work all that well either. The difference in Somaliland’s case, I think, is that the restriction on the number of parties was consensual rather than imposed. The constitution wasn’t engineered by the military, or by a “father of independence,” in order to perpetuate a particular ruler or political system. Instead, it was the product of debate and compromise and is thus regarded as more legitimate by its participants.

    One possible control is the new Bhutan constitution, which also institutionalizes a limited-party system with the national parties being chosen through primaries. The difference is that the Bhutan charter was promulgated by a royal commission with relatively little public consultation, and that many pro-democracy groups aren’t satisfied with it. It could be useful to compare political evolution in Bhutan and Somaliland, although there are so many other differences between the two countries that it would be hard to point to any one factor as causing a political divergence.

  4. Pingback: Liberia election: Africa’s first woman president will face a deeply divided legislature | Fruits and Votes

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