KATIBA: The pros and cons of proportional representation

Last Saturday in the Siasa pullout, Martin Ogindo assumed that proportional representation (PR) is necessarily better than our current election system.

But first, what is PR?

Its point is to ensure that the number of seats in a legislative body reflects very closely the percentage of votes each party wins.

The US, Canada, Australia, India and the UK are among countries that have a system of single member constituencies, like ours. Much of Europe has PR.

The simplest PR system involves people voting for parties, not individual candidates. Each party publishes a list of candidates that voters can study before the election to decide whether they like the list, as well as thinking about other reasons for voting for or against each party. Each list is in order of preference. When the result of voting is known, and, for example, the largest party wins 40 per cent of the votes, enough candidates are taken from the party’s list, starting at the top, to fill 40 per cent of the seats.

In some countries, including the Netherlands, the whole country is one constituency. Everyone has to choose between the same lists. In others there are many constituencies each with many seats.

Some countries, including in Scandinavia, have “open list” systems:  Voters can also vote to move individual candidates up or down the list, or even say they want to strike some off the list.

In Ireland, among other countries, voters vote for candidates (not lists) in order of preference. If there are three seats in the constituency, say, a voter may mark three names, ranking them 1 to 3. So voters do not have to restrict their choice to one party, or even to party candidates at all. A voter’s second and third choices will be used if their first choice is elected with more than enough votes. This system is a bit more complicated for voters, and a lot more complicated to understand.

In some countries, including Germany and Lesotho, there are two types of member. Each voter votes for a constituency candidate and a party list. At least one third of the members will usually be list members in this system — called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). Enough candidates are taken from each list to ensure the final make-up of the elected body reflects the overall voter support for the party. This is different from Kenya, where list members are assigned depending on how many seats each party won in constituencies, so do not make the whole body proportional to votes.

I have sometimes thought that if all MPs were members for large constituencies (or even for the whole country) and were elected through party lists, this might cut down corruption. At present, a candidate can try to bribe enough voters to affect the result. If a constituency was very large, bribing voters would be that much harder. Is this naive?



The first argument in favour is that it seems fairer: Winning votes means winning seats to the same extent.

With a PR system, the Mombasa county assembly, to take one example, would probably not be so overwhelmingly ODM. In the presidential election, Mombasa voters supported Raila Odinga to the extent of almost 70 per cent and Uhuru Kenyatta to almost 29 per cent. If they supported ODM to the same extent in the county assembly elections, of the 30 ward seats, ODM would have won 21. Jubilee supporters would feel less excluded. And maybe there would have been a stronger opposition voice in the assembly. Similarly, Uasin Gishu assembly might not have 90 per cent Jubilee members when 78 per cent voted for UhuRuto.

Votes are not “wasted”. Now, in Mombasa, Jubilee voters probably feel, “What is the point of voting; we can never have any impact?” And ODM voters may feel, “Why bother to vote; the result is a foregone conclusion”. In a PR system, every vote counts.

In our current system, parties may hardly bother to campaign in their opponents “strongholds”. But in a PR system, it is worth campaigning everywhere, giving voters more of a choice.

In a PR system it is common for there to be more parties winning seats. Smaller (and newer) parties get a better chance. Often none has a majority. So governments are very often coalitions. Parties must work together and extreme views are moderated to achieve compromise. Politics becomes more cooperative and less confrontational.

More groups and communities are often involved in government. There is more inclusion – a national value under our constitution.

Party lists themselves are often inclusive. Every party wants to broaden its appeal to all voters. They can see the benefit of including among their candidates persons with disability, women, and minorities (because these people also vote and their votes count).

It is easier to require parties to ensure women are elected. Parties may be required by law (or they may choose) to alternate men and women on the list, or have a woman at least every third name on each party list. Some countries even require party lists to begin with women. Rules such as this much increase the chances of having a good percentage of women elected.

In PR systems (except MMP), all MPs are elected on the same basis, unlike Kenya now, where some MPs, senators or MCAs represent a clear geographical constituency, while others have a less clear role, which is often misunderstood.

Ogindo argues that PR countries score higher on human development indexes. Whether this is true is unclear.


Some are unenthusiastic about having many small parties. “Way-out” ideas may find their way into legislatures. Coalitions may comprise many parties and be unstable. Parties involved may cease to agree, and may vote out the head of government. In some countries this may happen quite frequently. Some countries limit the number of small parties by saying no party gets any seats unless it gets, for example, five per cent of the overall votes.

A party with a clear programme may find it hard to carry it out if it has to compromise in order to get into government at all.

In some ways, PR may be less democratic. In negotiations to form a government a small, even extreme, party may insist on its policies being adopted as a price for entering government. These policies may have very little public support.

Sometimes independent candidates cannot stand in list systems. (Sometimes the law does allow groups of non-party people to form a list to offer to the voters. A very popular individual might even be able to stand alone.)

Voters have less connection with those elected, who have no roots in particular places. People can’t identify “our MP”. Parties have a lot of power in choosing candidates. Accountability to voters may be weaker. However, sometimes in PR countries parties allocate their elected members to certain areas to strengthen links with voters. Presumably our MPs would insist on this – otherwise how could they have CDF?


How a system works in a particular country depends on many factors, including parties. Ours are usually ethnic parties, though not by name, or they group people from several communities. Their members are not united by political philosophy or policy concerns. There is little continuity of party membership, or indeed of parties. But a new system might change politics.

Parliamentary elections here do not decide who forms government: That depends on the presidential election. PR systems have more impact in a parliamentary system (like most of Europe and New Zealand).

In our current system, the President must get more than half the votes. Another party might get more than half the seats, even with under half the votes. PR might make this less likely — if the same percentage support the President’s party as support the President.

To change to PR would need a constitutional amendment. It is unclear whether it requires a referendum. If PR is a serious possibility, we need a thorough debate on the subject, though there is no way to do justice to it in 1, 300 words.



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