By Yusuf Bangura
The argument that the APC has more seats than the SLPP in parliament because it created extra seats in its strongholds is totally wrong.
The parliamentary seat distribution tracks fairly well the distribution of registered voters and even the distribution of actual voters in the 2018 elections. The parliamentary seat distribution is: North and North-West: 35.6%; Western Area: 21.2%; and South and East: 43.2%. The distribution of registered voters is: North and North-West: 32.5%; Western Area: 28%; and South and East: 39.5%. The distribution of actual voters is: North and North-West: 31%; Western Area: 29%; and South and East: 40%.
If anything, it is the Western Area that is disadvantaged in the distribution of seats: it has a higher percentage of registered and actual voters than parliamentary seats; the North--North-West and South-East have a higher percentage of parliamentary seats than registered and actual voters.
So, the idea that the SLPP has fewer parliamentary seats than the APC because of gerrymandering or creation of more seats in its strongholds is completely false.
There are two reasons why the APC has more seats than the SLPP. The first is that there are more registered and actual voters in the APC's strongholds in the North and Western Area than the SLPP's strongholds in the East and South. Second, and more importantly, given that the SLPP won the presidential election despite the lopsided regional distribution of voters, the electoral system of first-past-the-post is not proportional.
This means that even if the SLPP gains 49% of the votes in a constituency, the seat will go to the APC with only 51% of the votes. In other words, it is a winner-takes-all system.
In the Western Area, for instance, the SLPP obtained 33.5% of the votes in the first round of elections. Under an electoral system of proportional representation, it should have had 33.5% of the seats or 9 out of the 28 seats. However, it received only 3 seats. In 2012, it failed to win a single seat in the Western Area despite the fact that it had 25% of the votes.
Even though the SLPP improved its performance in the Western Area from 25% in 2012 to 33.5% in the first round of elections in 2018, its voters are highly dispersed across, rather than concentrated in a few, constituencies. Aligning vote share to seat share would, for instance, require SLPP voters to reside in only 9 constituencies—not all 28 constituencies.
Since resettlement of SLPP voters in a few constituencies is not practical, the SLPP will always be disadvantaged in the distribution of parliamentary seats, unless the voting system of first-past-the-post single member constituency is changed.
Incidentally, it was an SLPP government that changed the List-system of proportional representation (PR) used in 1996 to the first-past-the-post system in subsequent elections. Reverting back to PR will be difficult, since the SLPP does not have the numbers in parliament to effect such change.
The debate on proportionality versus winner-takes-all systems is alive in many democracies that use the first-past-the-post single member constituency electoral rule. In the UK, for instance, this electoral rule disadvantages small parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, whose voters tend to be highly dispersed across the UK. It is not surprising that the Liberal Democrats are the most vocal advocates of electoral reform in the UK.
The National Grand Coalition was also disadvantaged by the electoral rule of first-past-the-post. Since the NGC secured about 7% of the national votes, it should have had nine, not four, seats under a PR system. In fact, if 27% of its voters were not concentrated in a single district—Kambia--it would not have won any constituency even with 7% of the national votes.
The Coalition for Change (C4C), however, benefited immensely from a high concentration of its voters in one district—Kono. 85% of C4C’s voters are concentrated in Kono, where it took eight out of the nine parliamentary seats. Incidentally, the C4C’s win represents the classic case of winner-takes-all that electoral reform advocates often complain about. The party secured only 50.5% of the votes in Kono but took 8 out of nine (89%) of the seats. This is hugely disproportional.
In this case, although the C4C is a small party, it was a big beneficiary of the first-past-the-post single member constituency electoral system. Since its national vote share is only 3.5%, it could have obtained only four seats under PR rules. This suggests that C4C is likely always to support the first-past-the-post system out of self-preservation.
This analysis suggests that the four parties in parliament—the SLPP, the APC, the C4C and the NGC—are likely to hold different views on electoral reform making it highly unlikely to change the current system. The SLPP and the NGC are disadvantaged by the current first-past-the-post system and may prefer a PR system to boost their seat shares. However, the APC and the C4C benefit immensely from the first-past-the-post system and are likely to resist calls for electoral reform. The votes of the SLPP and the NGC may not be enough to effect a change in the current system.